Before you could queue up a documentary with your voice-controlled remote, before you could watch a film on your handheld computer on the train, there... wasn't much you could do. Of course, by the seventies, modern independent film had exploded and important documentaries were being made every other day, but good luck if you were a casual viewer who wanted to see these films: you could either pick yourself up and go to an art film house or the video store, or hope one of the major networks programmed that indie special at a reasonable viewing hour.
Then came along Marc Weiss, who had a simple yet revolutionary idea: an entire television series devoted to independent docs, accessible to millions on public media on primetime. If filmmakers were creating bold works spotlighting the day's most important issues, Weiss believed, then they deserved a large, national audience.
The idea of creating a dedicated home for these works was so novel—and so untested—most funders could only politely decline Weiss' dream. But convinced there was a need (and demand) for a series like this, he eventually brought original stakeholders like MacArthur, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS and its local affiliates on board to help create American Documentary. The show it would produce would be called POV, or "Point of View," to underscore the intimate, human-driven stories the series would showcase. MacArthur has continued to support POV throughout the program's 30-year history.
When word got out, Weiss received 550 films for consideration. Prior to its 1988 premiere, The New York Times wondered if the "provocative and opinionated" independent documentary would ever eclipse the typical network films meant to draw the least offense. By 1991, the Times got its answer—films like Tongues Untied, a documentary about gay black men, was making waves for its National Endowment for the Arts funding, putting into question what kind of arts the public should support.
But stations were jumping on board with POV, and the show began expanding its activities. As the internet began maturing, POV created its own website, the first for any PBS show. It also made viewership interactive and personal, producing digital projects and screening events that allowed community members and educators to raise important discussions that mattered to them.
POV and its parent company American Documentary—once the scrappy insurgent on public media—is now a mature player in a rapidly growing field. People can't get enough of nonfiction stories it seems; today, POV screens over 850 screenings annually in almost all 50 states and produces standalone digital projects like documentaries made exclusively for Snapchat or VR projects co-produced with The New York Times. Meanwhile, American Documentary is expanding the field even further, producing a year-round documentary series, America ReFramed on WORLD Channel,all while funding fledgling filmmakers in cities big and small.
In 2018, it's easy to think fearless, opinionated documentaries were the default since the beginning. But it took some courage from programmers and filmmakers to imagine a place where the best documentaries were accessible to everyone. Even today, programs such as POV or Independent Lens are among the few options—online or on your TV—where any American, anywhere, can watch great films by great filmmakers for free. That's at the core of our mission. It has been for over a generation, and it will be for generations to come.
Since 1988, MacArthur has awarded $8.43 million to American Documentary to produce POV.
In 2013, POV was a recipient of the MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Institutions. View Award profile ›