March 23, 2015
SXSW 2015

How to Get Your Documentary on Public Television

Getting a broadcast premiere for a documentary is still a much-coveted channel of distribution for documentaries — and with a little help navigating the public television infrastructure — PBS can be a great place to do it.

With some 498 hours of documentary programming airing every year on public television, PBS is a viable and financially competitive (depending on the strand your film plays in) place to have a broadcast premiere. Another aspect of a PBS broadcast that appeals to filmmakers is the potential for a larger reach as public television is always free. On the SXSW 2015 session Doc Distribution: Get Up to Speed with PBS Indies, the VP of Programming Donald Thoms and WORLD Channel GM Liz Cheng sat down with Marshall Curry, Yance Ford, and Byron Hurt to explain the basics of making it in to the PBS pipeline. No Film School was on the scene to pass off the following main points to you.

Familiarize Yourself with PBS Programming

“A lot of people don’t know system,” says Donald Thoms. “When I see something pitched to us that clearly doesn’t fit, I have to ask, have you ever watched PBS?”

There were some 300 local television stations floating around prior to the founding of PBS. In a nutshell, Congress passed the 1968 Public Broadcasting Act so that these local stations would have an entity to conduct business for them and acquire content to air. Today, your film gets a broadcast on PBS and individual stations have the option to run it again on their own. In order to understand if your film might fit into PBS programming, you’ll want to watch some of their content if you haven't already, and do a little research on PBS programs like POV or Independent Lens.

Pick up the Phone or Send an Email

“You can talk to people. Don’t forget you can ask about if it’s the right time to submit and so on,” says Liz Cheng. “We encourage you to call and email and be in touch about your work.”

Once you’ve figured out which PBS strand you think you might fit in, you can pick up the phone or send an email to someone from that program. Or, if you’re not sure about it, try calling up PBS and starting a conversation. With a little digging, anyone’s contact info can be found on the PBS site.

Get to Know Your Local PBS Affiliate

“Don’t forget about your local stations – they are looking for great work,” says Thoms. “They can also do paperwork for you. You can get bogged down by details.”

Each public television station is generally required to air 500 hours of what PBS terms “common carriage.” After that, what they air is up to them. If you are accepted into a strand such as POV or Independent Lens, your film will be a part of common carriage. Getting in touch with your local station (and you can find yours with the PBS Station Finder tool) can help you put together your submission through the PBS pipeline, or alternately, if your film is not selected by one of the PBS strands, they can choose to air your film on their own.

Be Prepared to Offer Your Film in Alternate Lengths

“Make your film the length it needs to be for the story,” says Yance Ford. “But if it’s going to be on Independent Lens, it needs to be 56:46,” adds Byron Hurt.

While very occasionally PBS will greenlight a film to fit into a 90-minute slot, most often PBS will require your film to fit into a 60-minute slot. This translates into exactly 56 minutes and 46 seconds of your film. Your festival cut may be anywhere from 70 – 100 minutes, and so for some films, this will be quite a challenge. Think about your film. Does it lend itself to multiple lengths? As filmmakers, we may think our film would be great as a four part series, but if you’re going to air on PBS it will most likely need to fit 56:46.

Make Sure You Meet Editorial Standards

While many documentaries are pushing the boundaries of what constitutes non-fiction, to air on PBS your documentary must fit with certain editorial standards. A great place to look on PBS about filmmaking Dos and Don’ts can be found in the Frontline Journalistic Guidelines, as well as the complete PBS Producers Guidelines.

Check Your Funding Sources

From a funding standpoint, PBS is forbidden to produce anything. (Funding can be conducted through the funding arm of ITVS, for example.) Similarly, if your film has been funded by an entity that has creative control over the finished film, PBS is not allowed to air it. Even some films that do keep creative control, but are funded by one corporate entity may unfortunately get a pass, like 2014 SXSW doc DamNation that was commissioned by Patagonia. Keep in mind, this funding only refers to production funds, not distribution funds. The full scoop can be found in the PBS Funding and Editorial Standards.

Have Someone on Your Team Dedicated to Deliverables

Especially for first time filmmakers, PBS suggests you have somebody on your team committed to meeting what’s required for PBS delivery. “It’s an important part of what we’re required to do,” says Thoms. You can find out how to meet PBS deliverables in the Packaging and Delivery Policies for PBS.

Have you considered PBS as an outlet for broadcast distribution of your documentary? If you have experiences or tips to share, please let us know!     

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