Bombing 'Belfast' 

WDCN nixes Wiseman doc for now>

WDCN nixes Wiseman doc for now>

It seemed like old times last weekend at WDCN-Channel 8, Nashville’s PBS affiliate. While an on-air promotional campaign promised its viewers a ”bill of rights“—which includes the right to see things you can’t see anywhere else—the station declined to show Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Belfast, Maine when it aired on PBS stations across the country last Friday.

There is a good chance the show may air later this spring, but it isn’t on WDCN’s schedule at this time.

According to WDCN staffers, the problem wasn’t the show’s content but its length. The portrait of life and work in a small Maine port town runs for more than four hours, and WDCN president/CEO Steve Bass said that logistically the show wouldn’t fit into the station’s Friday-night schedule. Instead, WDCN offered hour-long shows with gospel singers CeCe Winans and Kirk Franklin along with its regular late-night lineup.

Unfortunately, the decision came at a time when WDCN is attempting to shed its reputation for excessively safe programming, as detailed last week in a Scene cover story (”Changing the Channel,“ Feb. 3). That reputation stems, in part, from WDCN’s past refusal to show Wiseman’s documentaries Titicut Follies, Aspen, and Public Housing.

WDCN was not the only Tennessee station to turn down Belfast, Maine. Memphis’ PBS affiliate nixed it also, although Knoxville’s and Chattanooga’s both aired it Friday in its entirety. Nor was WDCN alone outside the state. According to WDCN vice president Milt Capps, only four of the top 46 metered Nielsen markets carried the documentary in its PBS-appointed slot: New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

Even so, Belfast, Maine had received a lot of attention. WPLN-FM aired an interview with Wiseman last week on the popular Fresh Air radio program. The documentary also received substantial plugs from The New York Times, New York magazine, and The Nation. These coincided with a major Wiseman retrospective at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Nashvillians, on the other hand, haven’t had a chance to see Wiseman’s work since the Sinking Creek film festival showed Titicut Follies and Aspen in 1992.

Frederick Wiseman is regarded as one of America’s great documentarians; his films on American institutions are public-television landmarks. They’re also excruciatingly slow and make no concessions to the viewer. Bass is right when he says Belfast, Maine is ”not the kind of program that would appeal to a broad audience.“ But as the tagline on the Web site for Knoxville’s WSJK-Channel 2 puts it, ”If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?“

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