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Filmmakers Call Out PBS For A Lack Of Diversity, Over-Reliance On Ken Burns

Ken Burns speaks during the PBS segment of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association Press Tour.
Amy Sussman
Getty Images
Ken Burns speaks during the PBS segment of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association Press Tour.

Nearly 140 documentary filmmakers have signed onto a letter given to PBS executives, suggesting the service may provide an unfair level of support to white creators, facing a "systemic failure to fulfill (its) mandate for a diversity of voices."

Titled "A Letter to PBS From Viewers Like Us," the missive references Ken Burns, arguably one of PBS' biggest non-fiction stars and creator of popular projects like Baseball, Jazz, The Civil War and an upcoming six-hour program called Hemingway. Citing data from the filmmaker's website, it says Burns has created about 211 hours of programming for PBS over 40 years, through an exclusive relationship with the service that will last until at least 2022.

Such an arrangement leaves less room for filmmakers of color, who may struggle to gain similar funding or promotional support. And while PBS has created an initiative to elevate newly emerging filmmakers of color, such initiatives can also create a false narrative that non-white artists are predominantly lacking in experience, the text adds.

"How many other 'independent' filmmakers have a decades-long exclusive relationship with a publicly-funded entity?" the text asks. "Public television supporting this level of uninvestigated privilege is troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans."

The letter, sent to PBS President Paula Kerger and former ombudsman Michael Getler on Tuesday, was co-signed by several high-profile filmmakers — some of whom produce programs for PBS — including Oscar-nominated director Garrett Bradley (Time), Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and Emmy winning editor and director Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI). (Note: Getler died in 2018, and PBS now has a public editor, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos.)

Beyond Inclusion, a collective of non-fiction creators, executives and industry figures led by individuals who are Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), drafted the letter and collected the signatures. A version of it is available on the group's website.

It's not about Ken Burns, it's about this public television system living up to its mandate.

PBS has released a statement with data pushing back on the letter's assertions, saying 35 percent of the 200 hours of non-fiction programming planned for primetime this year was produced by diverse filmmakers. According to a spokesman, over the past five years, PBS has aired 58 hours of programming from Burns and 74 hours of projects by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African American scholar, director, executive producer and host of programs like The Black Church and Finding Your Roots.

Still, Kerger agrees that PBS should examine where its funding and resources are going to ensure that BIPOC filmmakers are being treated equitably.

"This is an important moment for all of us to really take a hard look at what we're doing and make sure that we are pursuing all opportunities," says PBS' president, adding that she hopes to meet with the group and discuss their concerns. "What is it going to take ... particularly for those mid-career filmmakers, so there is a solid place (for them) in public broadcasting?"

Complicating matters is the fragmented nature of PBS, where some shows are developed by affiliate stations, like the science program Nova, which is produced by WGBH in Boston.

The letter asks for data from PBS, including its staff diversity and figures over the past ten years for how many hours of non-fiction programming have been directed or produced by BIPOC filmmakers and how much funding has gone to them.

Filmmaker Grace Lee, a member of Beyond Inclusion who signed the letter, wrote about these issues in an attention-getting essay for the Ford Foundation that was reprinted in Current magazine, noting, "PBS must end its overreliance on Ken Burns as 'America's storyteller.'"

When Kerger was asked about the essay at a press conference in February, she struck a slightly different tone, saying she had to "respectfully disagree" with Lee's piece. Earlier, she had cited PBS' work with Black filmmakers like Gates and Emmy winning director Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool); the reaction prompted members of the group to put together the letter.

But Lee, a producer for the PBS series Asian Americans, says the issue reaches beyond any individual filmmaker.

I think PBS might be surprised themselves, if they start looking at what they've put into certain films and certain filmmakers.

"It's not about Ken Burns, it's about this public television system living up to its mandate," she adds. "On Asian Americans, we got five hours to tell 150 years of American history. Ernest Hemingway, one man, gets six hours of documentary in prime time ... This kind of disparity is something that I wanted to call attention to."

Even though his work appears regularly on PBS, Stanley Nelson signed the letter, hoping to help start a conversation that could help BIPOC documentarians.

"I think PBS might be surprised themselves, if they start looking at what they've put into certain films and certain filmmakers," says Nelson, who says he still has to occasionally remind white filmmakers he collaborates with to hire experienced Black technicians. "We have to be aware that race is a part of everything in America."

PBS is already touting several diversity-focused initiatives, including a program to support the next generation of "emerging" BIPOC filmmakers and a collaboration with Nelson to create a two-hour film for Nova in 2022 on the impact of racism on the health of Black Americans.

And how does Kerger feel, seeing filmmakers who often work with PBS co-sign a letter suggesting the service may shortchange filmmakers of color?

"If people come together and feel this is a way to get attention around an issue, it's OK," she says. "The important thing, is we should sit down and really talk about what it's going to take to move even more voices forward."

This story was edited for radio by Petra Mayer and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer and Eric Deggans.

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Corrected: March 30, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story identified Michael Getler as the PBS ombudsman. While the open letter was addressed to him, Getler died in 2018 and has been replaced by a public editor, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.