As the longest-running showcase for independent nonfiction films, POV is both institution and innovator.
Tonight marks the start of POV’s 30th season on PBS. For 16 of those, Eliza Licht, now Vice President of Content Strategy and Engagement, has worked to bring each distinctive documentary in the series to audiences across the country. We asked Eliza which traditions are remaining intact, and what filmmakers and viewers can expect from future seasons.
Cinereach: Your time at POV has spanned major changes to how documentary films are made and delivered to audiences. What’s changed for POV and what’s the same?
Eliza Licht: The core of what we do remains the same: we present powerful, character driven stories made by passionate filmmakers from around the world, for free, through public media. And we provide tools to the American public to use these documentaries in communities and classrooms across the country. But there have been so many changes! When I really think about it, it blows my mind a bit and makes me feel old.
In 2001, when I started at POV, there were no smartphones, no Netflix streaming, wifi was far from prevalent, so the platforms and the way people consumed media was completely different. I just saw my former boss, Cara Mertes, at AFI Docs and we were talking about POV‘s Borders, our “online only web-series,” that we launched in 2002. We were way ahead of our time. Youtube was not founded until 2005 so people weren’t used to watching media on their computers, let alone on their phones.
Also, for many years we were one of only a few organizations championing and showcasing independent documentary. As people consume media differently, POV faces more competition from the countless platforms and channels eager to acquire quality nonfiction content.
Another big change has been the rise of the impact and engagement field. When I started at POV, we were one of the only organizations working in this space, and most filmmakers did not have a firm grasp of what we did. The field has grown tremendously in exciting ways, and now filmmakers sometimes come to us with campaigns and impact producers already in place. In those situations, our job is to figure out how POV fits into that puzzle. We are constantly thinking about how to best help filmmakers use their films to start conversations and reach people across the country, whether that’s starting from scratch for filmmakers who come without resources, or complementing an existing engagement strategy. As public media, we cannot support advocacy campaigns, and our focus is largely on helping people think through complex issues and inspiring engagement without being prescriptive.
C: Do you see more change on the horizon?
EL: Yes, and no. I don’t see long form docs going away. There seems to be ongoing hunger for watching feature documentaries in theaters and at home. Our biggest audience by far still comes from people watching our broadcast on Monday nights. As a series on the national PBS schedule, POV can be seen by over 97% of the American viewing public. Last season, on average, POV reached almost 1 million viewers per episode. But our streaming numbers are growing and we plan to do more in this area in the years ahead. This year, for the first time, our premieres will begin streaming at the same time as the broadcast. We want to make sure that people have access to these films, on-air and on-line, anywhere in the US. We’re always working with filmmakers to adjust windows and allow them to reach their full distribution goals and maximize all of their rights as much as possible.
In addition to increasing our efforts to bring audiences to our long-form docs online, we are also building on our years of experience pushing the form and working with media makers on digital originals. This year our digital team partnered with NowThis to launch two Snapchat documentaries—exploring what docs would look like on that platform. This was the first time our documentaries were on Snapchat, but the project was still in line with our mission to present contemporary stories that express perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media and promote dialogue around critical social issues. It also allowed us to work with filmmakers to explore this new digital space. What is really exciting is that these films did exceptionally well. NowThis reported that the first story, released on October 23, 2016, received 2.2 million views. The second film, a week later, topped out at 2.5 million views. For comparison, this was more views than an “edition” about Elizabeth Warren later in October and more unique views than one that featured Obama later that month. That level of engagement demonstrates that there is an appetite for original storytelling created specifically for mobile devices.
C: What are some of the concerns or challenges you’ll be thinking about as things evolve?
EL: With the changing marketplace and the increasing interest that commercial distribution platforms have in documentary, we need to be creative and consistent in talking with filmmakers about what sets POV apart, and about distribution options that allow films to earn money and reach their engagement goals. It’s a complicated time for everyone.
Another challenge is that in the president’s proposed budget, federal funding for public media has been zeroed out for the year 2019. Even though this worst case scenario would not mean the end of POV or American Documentary, the money that CPB [The Corporation for Public Broadcasting] receives from the federal government is vital to public media (and to a thriving democracy), so this obviously raises some concerns. I feel optimistic, though, that the funding will remain intact as there is significant bipartisan support for public media in Congress.
C: What is the unique space POV maintains in the current documentary space, in contrast to other platforms and programming?
EL: To our audiences, we are known for thoughtful curation. Our slate is precise, not cluttered. Viewers can expect powerful character driven documentaries and tools to use these films in the community, including lesson plans, discussion guides, and a lending library for community screenings. If a viewer tunes in, streams a POV film, or organizes a screening, it will be worth their time. We are also one of the only places that consistently showcases foreign language documentaries on national television, in primetime.
To our filmmakers, we are known as film lovers who take care of our documentaries and documentarians. POV has been in the field a long time and a POV broadcast on public media has prestige, but it also means that everyone will have access to your film, whether or not they can afford cable or have high speed wi-fi. For many filmmakers, that’s important.
We are also known for our support beyond the broadcast. Filmmakers know they can always call and get support from the POV team. It’s a relief for folks that we will create a thoughtful and robust engagement campaign. They can expect that we’ll do press, engagement, and social media, as well as support for award submissions including the Emmy Awards. We are also happy to share data on how the film went out into the world.
C: How does publicity and outreach work for a season of films that cover such diverse geography, subject matter, and emotional range?
EL: The approach remains the same, it’s the outlets and partners that change. For both our press and engagement work we have a core group of POV supporters. For publicity that includes television and film critics, and for community engagement it’s the PBS stations, libraries, community centers and classrooms. POV works with thousands of educators and community groups, reaching over 18,000 people directly through free screenings and discussions before and after the broadcast premiere. These events are designed to encourage dialogue around the issues presented in the film. Our targeted press and outreach campaigns for each film include reaching out to numerous feature and issue area writers, along with issue stakeholders and organizations.
So for Last Men in Aleppo for example, for both press and engagement, we are reaching out to the cities in the US with the highest populations of refugees and Syrian immigrants and citizens, and we are partnering with the United States First Responders Association. For Presenting Princess Shaw, we are reaching out to a number of youth media organizations and women/girls empowerment organizations like Global Girl Media. For Do Not Resist we are reaching out to PBS stations and speaking with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, who are working on community policing. Of course, these are just a few of the outlets and organizations we have targeted.
C: What’s the life cycle of a film in your lineup?
EL: This varies film by film. We program each season as a slate, and those films are coming to us at different points in their life cycle. For instance, our season opener, Dalya’s Other Country, is being broadcast just one week after its world premiere at the LA Film Festival, while others, like Cameraperson, have had festival and theatrical releases prior to broadcast. All of our films are US television premieres and no matter what the POV premiere is a seminal moment in the life of a film, when more people will see it than have in its festival run or theatrical premiere. We are open to programming a few titles that have had significant exposure prior if we feel that they haven’t yet reached their full potential and that we would be bringing a meaningful new audience to the project. We also continue to work with the films throughout the life of the broadcast license, and if there is an educational distributor we work with them to extend the life and revenue potential of the film.
C: How are filmmakers involved during the season?
EL: It’s a real partnership! These films are their babies, and often they have worked on them for many years, so we want to make sure they are as happy with the roll-out and resources as we are. Once we know a film will be on our upcoming season, filmmakers meet with staff from our programming, communications, digital and community engagement teams to begin planning their campaigns. At these meetings we find out what their hopes and dreams are for the films and where they are in their campaigns, and these conversations shape our work with each film. We are in close communication throughout the season and beyond, and the filmmakers review and provide feedback on all of the resources we produce. We continue to work with the films through the life of their broadcast license (usually three or four years after their premiere).
C: What are you most excited about regarding the POV Season 30 lineup?
EL: This year we are starting our season with five films that look at different aspects of the war in Syria and the world refugee crisis, each from a different perspective. I am really honored to be working with these films to deepen that narrative. It’s rare that we have more than one film on a given topic in a season, so to be able to offer our viewers and our community partners an opportunity to really explore a topic with educational resources and incredible films, including a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner (Last Men in Aleppo) and an Academy Award nominee (4.1 Miles) is particularly exciting to me.
We are just in the beginning of our campaign and so far there have been 50 screening events across the country. Most of them on June 20th in commemoration of World Refugee Day. There were events in Minnesota, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, Colorado, and New Jersey. In addition we co-hosted two conversations, one in New York in partnership with NYTimes OpDocs and Manhattan Center Productions, and one in LA in partnership with IDA and Skirball Center.
ABOUT ELIZA LICHT
A longtime member of POV‘s senior management team, Licht is Vice President of Content Strategy and Engagement. She works closely with POV‘s executive producer and other senior staff to set priorities and direction for the series, and with POV‘s programming team on series selection. Licht is an industry leader in developing and implementing community engagement strategies to maximize the impact and visibility of documentary films. She builds and oversees broad program strategies through engagement, communications, digital, station relations and fundraising. Licht has spearheaded engagement campaigns for over 200 films, including American Promise, Food, Inc. and Last Train Home. She works with public television stations, educators, and community organizations to present screenings of POV films and to develop and distribute accompanying educational resource materials to audiences nationwide. Through her work, she has built a national network of over 8,000 organizations committed to leveraging the power of documentary film as a tool for dialogue and engagement. Since joining POV in 2001, she has expanded POV‘s community activities by nearly 400% and increased POV‘s educational efforts by over 600%. Eliza frequently represents POV at conferences and festivals. She has appeared on panels at AFI Docs, IFP Film Week, Tribeca Film Institute, DocEdge Kolkata and DMZ Docs.