Making it on public TV

Dear Doc Doctor:

How can I get my work onto public television?

There are many doors into the labyrinthine world of public television. Some are open to you as a producer sans project, others are open to your project. Gustavo Sagastume, vice president of programming at PBS, explains: “PBS is not a network. Even though it looks like a single entity, it’s, in reality, a confederation of like-minded institutions working together as a group. It’s similar to a school of fish. At a distance, it looks like one big fish, but on closer look you can see that it’s a lot of fish swimming together.”

Sagastume suggests a few blueprints for a good catch. One is to get hired by a PBS station to produce local programming. Check out www.pbs.org for a list of stations and job openings in your city. You might not get to work on your own film, but producing can pave the way, while earning you money and experience.

Another option is to work for one of the series that makes up national programming, such as “Nature,” “Nova,” or “Great Performances.” These series are either produced by independent production companies that cater to PBS or PBS stations that act as production studios, such as WNET, WGBH, etc. In both cases, check the credits of the series and contact the executive producer or senior producer. You can start as an associate producer and eventually become the producer of your own project—as long as your idea fits within the premise of the series.

Yet another option is to develop your own project with or without funding from public broadcasting associates, such as ITVS and/or the National Minority Consortia. Then you can send your project to series that welcome independent producers and their films, such as “P.O.V.” and “Independent Lens.” If you received funding from ITVS and/or the National Minority Consortia, your contract automatically gives PBS the right of first refusal. A successful run on either of those series can lead to future work on other PBS series.

It might seem a gruesomely long undertaking, but look at it this way: you’ll get to work, get paid, and do what you love along the way.

Dear Doc Doctor:
I hear a lot about hard and soft feeds in PBS programming. What are they, and what do they mean?

Don’t let the jargon intimidate you. Hard and soft feeds refer to the type of membership service by which PBS—which has headquarters in Virginia—provides programming to its affiliates across the country.

The hard feed with common carriage is the service that includes all children’s programs and prime time shows, i.e. “News Hour,” “Frontline,” “Nova,” “American Experience.” These programs are broadcast by all stations in a time slot assigned by PBS headquarters, plus or minus two hours to adjust for time zone. Failure to do so carries a penalty for the station. For you as a producer, this means your work will be seen by almost 90 percent of the PBS audience.

The hard feed programming without common carriage, for example “Independent Lens,” allows local stations to choose whether or not they broadcast a certain programas well as in which time slot. In that case, your project will be seen by approximately 80 percent of the PBS audience.

Then there are two type of soft feeds: PBS Plus comprises 700 hours of programming that stations can use at their discretion and include shows like “The Charlie Rose Show” and “This Old House.” The fundraising program services include all the pledges that raise funds for PBS and afford producers exposure to 65 to 70 percent of the PBS audience.

Clearly the hard feed carries more prestige because it translates into larger audience numbers, but there is a labor-intensive alternative: If you budget for “station relations,” you can market your program to each local station. If successful, you could end up with the same amount of viewers as you would with a single hard feed.

Regardless of percentages and numbers, the ultimate question is: Where does your film reach the right audience? Considering the amount of viewers PBS has, a small percentage of its audience still means a few million people.

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