Documentary organization helps 5 public broadcast stations gain better viewer feedback


This is part of a series about Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge winners in North America and how they’re putting funding to develop sustainable business models, diversify revenue streams, and increase audience engagement. Watch the webinar from Wednesday, Nov. 18, which explores lessons from three TV broadcasters all innovating to connect with new and diverse audiences. 

By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

Public broadcast filmmakers often produce impactful work but struggle to measure that impact better.

Independent Television Service, or ITVS, has created a tool called DocScale that helps filmmakers and public broadcast stations better connect with their audience. ITVS is the largest funder and presenter of documentary films for the public television system. Since it started in 1991, ITVS has produced around 1,700 films.

“We were sort of created as the in-between to both fund those projects and bring them into the public television system,” Senior Strategist Eric Martin said. “In addition to finding those best projects and funding them, we act as sort of a sherpa once these independent filmmakers get to the public TV system.”

The content is delivered in a platform-agnostic format and broadcasted by several different news and documentary series, including “Independent Lens.” The ITVS content is consumed on broadcast airwaves as well as across digital platforms and events — currently conducted virtually.

Now the film producer is indirectly driving membership at partner public broadcast stations.

Google News Initiative grant funding awarded last fall helps measure the societal impact of the partnerships between ITVS and five public broadcast stations. As part of the Innovation Challenge, ITVS will deliver local content and civic participation strategies centered on social justice issues.

“How do you create tools and services that help us understand the impact of those films while serving some of the really basic needs? For example: generating audience, engaging audience, getting new subscribers,” Martin said. “That was kind of our inspiration for exploring this tool that we’re developing.”

If the DocScale pilot program proves successful, the concept could help other public TV and radio operations increase engagement and, ultimately, membership at their stations. This grant project builds on an initial prototype and customizes it for the following participating stations:

  • North Carolina Public Broadcasting
  • Louisiana Public Broadcasting
  • Oklahoma Educational Authority
  • Nashville Public Television
  • Arizona PBS

After these stations air ITVS or other content, DocScale is used to gather open-ended responses, which are then circulated to other participating viewers. Martin said this process crowdsources comments, helping the audience essentially ask each other questions and develop a consensus or clear disagreement around various issues.

“You’re going to share your thoughts with other viewers and also see their thoughts and weigh in on them,” he said. “In some ways, it’s just a basic survey — but more engaging and gamified than an average survey.”

As participants rate each other’s responses, that helps ideas rise to the top or bottom based on the group’s feedback. This process helps ITVS code qualitative responses and translate that feedback into actionable data.

“You’re putting them in the driver’s seat,” Martin said. “It has the ability to find things you didn’t know you were looking for and surface some surprises.”

Participating stations each use the data differently. For example, DocScale helped Louisiana PBS receive more meaningful feedback on the governor’s coronavirus briefings. Other stations produced content specifically for the feedback platform, including an Oklahoma project about the early release of hundreds of prison inmates as part of local criminal justice reform efforts.

At least 10 films have so far used DocScale, and the early returns are already promising. Martin reports 60 percent to 70 percent response rates during live events (pre-pandemic), 30 percent to 40 percent online participation, and 1 percent to 2 percent engagement during public broadcasts.

Broadcast is a generally difficult medium to engage audience, let alone track that engagement directly. However, one partner station used a 30-second pitch from the filmmaker directly following one presentation, and that helped drive a higher-than-usual response for broadcast.

“So it seems there’s a power in the creator offering a personal appeal: ‘I want to hear from you and want you to hear from each other,’” Martin said.

The DocScale rebuild using Google grant money wrapped up in early October and is now being actively used by the participating stations. The hope is that the tool could help public broadcasters meet their ultimate goal of gaining new members, creating a relationship with the viewer or listener in the process.

That’s especially important because much of ITVS’s work attracts audiences that don’t typically watch PBS.

“Networks are trying to tell those viewers, ‘Actually, we have more content you’re interested in. Stay with us and become part of our community,’” Martin said.