How the Film is Broadcast: NETA & PBS

Why was the film ADOPTED: for the life of me on so many different dates and times? Why wasn’t there a single broadcast of the film on all PBS stations? What is PBS anyway?


The Public Broadcast System (PBS) was founded on October 5, 1970, at which time it took over many of the functions of its predecessor, National Educational Television (NET), which later merged with station WNDT, Newark, New Jersey, to form WNET.[6] In 1973, it merged with Educational Television Stations.

Unlike the model of America’s commercial television networks, in which affiliates give up portions of their local advertising airtime in exchange for network programming, PBS member stations pay substantial fees for the shows acquired and distributed by the national organization.

This relationship means that PBS member stations have greater latitude in local scheduling than their commercial counterparts. Scheduling of PBS-distributed series may vary greatly from market to market. This can be a source of tension as stations seek to preserve their localism and PBS strives to market a consistent national line-up. However, PBS has a policy of “common carriage” requiring most stations to clear the national prime time programs on a common schedule, so that they can be more effectively marketed on a national basis.

Unlike its radio counterpart, National Public Radio, PBS has no central program production arm or news department. All of the programming carried by PBS, whether news, documentary, or entertainment, is created by (or in most cases produced under contract with) other parties, such as individual member stations.

WGBH in Boston is one of the largest producers of educational programming, including American ExperienceMasterpiece TheaterNovaAntiques Roadshow and Frontline, as well as many other children’s and lifestyle shows. News programs are produced by WETA-TV in Washington, D.C.WNET in New York and WPBT in Miami. The Charlie Rose interview show, Secrets of the DeadNOW on PBSNatureCyberchase, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer come from or through WNET in New York.

Once a program is offered to and accepted by PBS for distribution, PBS (and not the member station that supplied the program) retains exclusive rights for rebroadcasts during the period for which such rights were granted; the suppliers do maintain the right to sell the program in non-broadcast media such as DVDs, books, and sometimes PBS licensed merchandise (but sometimes grant such ancillary rights as well to PBS).

PBS stations are commonly operated by non-profit organizations, state agencies, local authorities (e.g., municipal boards of education), or universities in their community of license. In some states, PBS stations throughout the entire state may be organized into a single regional “subnetwork” (e.g., Alabama Public Television). Unlike public broadcasters in most other countries, PBS does not own any of the stations that broadcast its programming.

In the modern broadcast marketplace, this organizational structure is considered outmoded by some media critics. A common restructuring proposal is to reorganize the network so that each state would have one PBS member which would broadcast state-wide. However, this proposal is controversial, as it would reduce local community input into PBS programming, especially considering how PBS stations are significantly more community-oriented, according to the argument, than their commercial counterparts.

In 1994, the Chronicle of Philanthropy released the results of the largest study of charitable and non-profit organization popularity and credibility conducted by Nye Lavalle & Associates. The study showed that PBS was ranked as the 11th “most popular charity/non-profit in America from over 100 charities researched.

In December 2009, PBS signed up for the Nielsen ratings for the first time. While they get data on PBS programming, they do not get data on independent programs like ADOPTED: for the life of me. It’s just too expensive…


How did ADOPTED: for the life of me get on PBS?

In the fall of 2009, the film was submitted (along with over a thousand other films) to POV (Point Of View), one of two programs on PBS specifically for independent documentary filmmakers. In March of 2010, we learned that the film had not been selected by POV, but that three other ‘adoption’ films had been chosen.

The film screened at film festivals throughout the winter and spring of 2010, and following the advice of a fellow documentary filmmaker, was submitted to NETA (the National Educational Telecommunications Association). NETA, based in South Carolina, is a professional association which serves public television licensees and educational entities in all 50 states, as well as the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. For an independent filmmaker, NETA provides a distribution avenue for public television. If they select a film, they send a ‘program offer’ to every station in the system (all 350+) and to the nearly 200 public tv programming and traffic people. The film is also listed in NETA’s online program catalog. They alert stations to scheduling opportunities for the program (ie. National Adoption Month).

However, if NETA chooses to provide a feed of your film to PBS (they provide about 1200 hours of programming a year) the independent producer is the one responsible for helping stations know about the film, and encouraging them to schedule it. NETA recommended that we consider hiring a stations relations person (SRP) to help with this effort. This advice was very helpful.

The first thing that we needed to do was to have an HD upconverted version of the film made for the broadcast. We could have kept the film in SD (standard definition), but NETA is finding more interest in HD. We are on the heels of the national conversion to digital broadcasts, so it made sense to provide the film in HD. Next was to try to identify for the SRP what areas in the country were essential to reach with broadcasts. While its attractive to want to ‘reach everyone’, this isn’t realistic. We submitted a list of ten states where it was deemed the film could have an impact, generating a public discussion on adoption reform.

A website was created to help manage the amount of information that the film was generating, from the PBS broadcasts times and dates to community screenings, links, tools for the press, information about reform and support, a consolidation of media, and story and opinion sharing of audience members. Today, has become one of several forums online for individuals interested in post adoption issues.

The NETA feed to PBS stations occurred on October 29th, 2010 at 12 noon EST. Any stations that were going to broadcast the film needed to record the feed. A second feed was provided by NETA in early November to ensure that all stations broadcasting the film had both close-captioning and DVI (DVI assists those who are vision-impaired with an enhanced audio version of the film.)

The film was launched officially throughout the state of New Jersey on November 2nd, with a prime-time broadcast on November 7th which also reached the top markets of New York City and Philadelphia.

By Christmas of 2010, the film will have had hundreds of air dates, giving 75% of US households an opportunity to see ADOPTED: for the life of me. The film may be shown at various times throughout the coming year. PBS has a three year contract to show the film – so November of 2010 is not the end of the film’s run, but only the beginning…