Questions of impact are front-and-center at this week’s Media That Matters conference, where public broadcasting network and station leaders, community organizers, independent documentary makers and researchers gathered to discuss scheduling options for independent doc series Independent Lens and POV.
This was one in a series of related conversations prompted by the December decision by New York’s premier PBS station WNET to shift the two series out of primetime and to a less popular station. The next stop in a national “listening tour” on the topic will take place in New York on Monday at 2 pm, at Manhattan’s SVA Theatre.
As a follow-on to the release of our report, Funder Perspectives: Assessing Media Investments, we’ve been talking with foundation leaders about how they think about the mix of ratings, outreach and outcomes when it comes to independent docs and scheduling choices. Here are key points of view that we’re hearing:

  1. National broadcasts of independent docs serve as anchors and catalysts for impact campaigns around issues central to our democracy.
  2. Local funders are invested in the ways that stations use these documentaries for civic engagement with communities.
  3. Independent documentaries bring diversity to the airwaves in a way that’s central to the mission of public broadcasting.
  4. The country is facing major issues of inequality and these films often address those questions head-on.
  5. With an election year coming up, it’s especially important to make sure the full range of perspectives and voices are heard.
  6. Not everyone can afford to subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime, and these documentaries reach those viewers who can’t.
  7. POV and Independent Lens serve as important incubators for talent — they’re a key part of the documentary production pipeline.

At the same time, there are real questions for programmers about how audiences respond to these often subjective and complex productions. Funders note that more research and experimentation is needed to make a better business case for independent documentary, and to shore up marketing and evaluation.
Curious to think further about these questions? Our Assessing Impact of Media (AIM) section offers numerous case studies and reports that explore how social issue documentaries connect with communities and tell unheard stories.
We look forward to tracking this dialogue here as it continues to evolve.
Homepage image: Marie Nelson of PBS.
Photo credit: Adrienne Rae,

About the Author
Jessica Clark

Jessica Clark

Research Consultant

Jessica is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders, and the founder and director of media production/strategy firm Dot Connector Studio. She is also currently a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. Previously, she served as the media strategist for AIR’s groundbreaking Localore project, the director of the Future of Public Media project at American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, and a Knight Media Policy Fellow at D.C.-based think tank the New America Foundation. Over the past decade, she has led research and convenings with high-profile universities and national media networks, including NPR, PBS, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, MIT, and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (The New Press, 2010), and a longtime independent journalist.