PBS is enjoying great success with shows such as Downtown Abbey and the new Wolf Hall. But one TV icon thinks the service is so focused on ratings for "costume dramas" that it's forgetting about documentaries, "the core of its public mission and mandate." The criticism comes from none other than Norman Lear, the force behind such shows as All in the Family, the Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son. As evidence, he cites a proposal by PBS flagship WNET of New York to shift the independent documentary series POV and Independent Lens to smaller sister station WLIW and to run the programs on WNET later as reruns. If WNET downgrades documentaries, other PBS stations around the country will likely follow suit.
"This is much more than a scheduling change," writes Lear. "It could devastate independent documentary filmmaking." Smaller audiences mean less funding, less chance for important works such as Food Inc. or those exploring the military's handling of sex assaults or the harsh prison sentences handed out to minors, to name just a few. "PBS, for almost a half-century, has been one place on the spectrum in which decisions were based on something far more fundamental and timeless than ratings and earnings: the public interest," writes Lear. It needs to remember that and keep these documentaries in prime time. Click for his full column.