On October 16th Sparrow Chat published an article entitled, “Are The Government Gagging PBS?”
According to the New York Times, PBS had made a decision not to broadcast a controversial documentary, “Torturing Democracy”, until after a new president was installed in the White House.
In response to an email on the subject from Sparrow Chat to WILL-TV, the local channel for PBS broadcasts in central Illinois, I received the following from David Thiel, WILL-TV’s Program Director:
Thanks for writing. First, I’m happy to inform you that WILL-TV will indeed be airing “Torturing Democracy” this month. It can be seen Tuesday, October 28 at 9:00 pm, and appears that way in our printed program guide. It does not, however, currently show up in our online listings, and that’s something I’m looking into. The schedule grid on our website is serviced by an outside contractor, and it appears that they have made a number of serious errors and omissions over the next couple of weeks. I hope to get those corrected soon.
I wish to clear up the misconception that PBS stations are “blacklisting” the program. First, it’s important to understand the relationship between PBS and its member stations. We are not a network in the traditional sense. Stations subscribe to PBS’ program services, and as you and they note, scheduling decisions are ultimately made at the local level. Furthermore, PBS is only one provider of programming to U.S. public TV stations; a significant portion of our schedule comes from American Public Television, the National Educational Telecommunications Association, and various other syndicators.
My understanding of the situation is that “Torturing Democracy” was offered to PBS, but that they felt that they could not clear an appropriate slot in their own schedule prior to January. In my experience, that’s certainly possible: the more complex relationship between PBS and its member stations, coupled with the system’s relatively limited promotional resources, make us less nimble than the commercial networks. In any case, it appears that they were prepared to air the documentary, just not in the timeframe preferred by the producer. (It wouldn’t have been the first time PBS has addressed the subject in a prime-time documentary: “Frontline” aired “The Torture Question” almost three years ago to this day, and repeated it in June 2006.)
Ultimately, the producer opted to make it available through an outfit named Executive Program Services, one of the other program distributors to which I referred above. Individual stations were then able to decide for themselves whether or not to schedule it locally. (Actually, the same would have been true even if it had gone out with the PBS imprimatur, as we are not obliged to carry anything PBS offers.) The announcement came barely in time for us to schedule the program and get it into our October program guide. I don’t have a list of other stations carrying the show, but I know that we are not the only ones doing so.
Please feel free to pass along this information, and again, thanks for your interest in WILL-TV.
300 N. Goodwin Ave.; Urbana, IL 61801
Phone: 217-333-7300 FAX: 217-244-6386
My thanks to David Thiel for troubling to respond in such detail, and bravo to WILL-TV for considering this documentary sufficiently important to slot into their October schedule.
A copy of my original email was sent to PBS’ main website. To date, the only response has been an automated reply detailing numerous links to further information, none of which was relevant to the subject matter.
I would suggest readers consult their local listings to check if this program is being aired in their district. If not, perhaps your local channel’s program director might like to explain why.
 “PBS Slow to Embrace a Program on Torture”, NYT, October 16th 2008
Filed under: Public Broadcasting Service