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BIPOC-led industry collective challenges PBS to ensure diversity mandate is met

More than 140 prominent documentary filmmakers and decision-makers in the entertainment industry have signed an open letter to PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger requesting data regarding the diversity statistics ...
April 1, 2021

More than 140 prominent documentary filmmakers and decision-makers in the entertainment industry have signed an open letter to PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger requesting data regarding the diversity statistics for American public broadcaster PBS.

The letter comes from Beyond Inclusion — a Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC)-led collective of non-fiction filmmakers, executives, and field builders, many of whom have worked with PBS. The group, through the letter, is suggesting that based on available evidence, PBS, America’s largest non-commercial media organization, has not met its diversity mandate as evidenced by its past and present practices.

“As America reckons with the racism that is at the core of so many of its institutions, it is appropriate to ask how PBS, which is funded by public dollars, is leveling the playing field of access to its many resources,” said filmmaker and letter signatory, Grace Lee, (pictured), whose docseries, Asian Americans, aired on the pubcaster. “As a collective we admire PBS and believe deeply in its mission. That’s why we are asking Ms. Kerger to provide specific data showing that PBS is living up to its mission and not just giving lip service to diversity. When PBS truly fulfills its mandate, Americans from a variety of backgrounds will see their experiences reflected in the stories PBS shares with its audience. This will help PBS stay relevant to an increasingly diverse American public.”

Several high-profile filmmakers signed the letter, including Dawn Porter, Roger Ross Williams, Laura Poitras and Stanley Nelson. The latter filmmaker has worked with PBS on various projects, including The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.

The ongoing controversy began when Lee wrote an essay for the Ford Foundation’s Creative Futures series where she questioned the exclusive and expansive relationship PBS has with white filmmaker Ken Burns, with his hundreds of hours of programming over multiple decades versus what is offered to diverse filmmakers.

The essay sparked a reaction from Kerger during a Q&A at PBS’s Television Critic’s Association presentation in February where she said she “respectfully disagreed” with Lee. “I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work with Ken Burns,” Kerger said, “whose legacy is extraordinary and as we look forward, has a very rich pipeline of programs that he’s bringing to public television.”

The open letter from Beyond Inclusion states that Burns has been given 211 hours of programming on PBS spanning 40 years, amassed over 38 cumulative films, miniseries and television series. The letter poses the question: “How many other ‘independent’ filmmakers have a decades-long exclusive relationship with a publicly-funded entity?”

Ultimately, the letter asks for specific data to demonstrate the pubcaster’s commitment to diversity, ranging from the number of hours of PBS non-fiction television that have been directed or produced by BIPOC filmmakers vs. by white filmmakers over the past 10 years, to data concerning production companies that frequently partner with the pubcaster, and the diversity stats within PBS corporate and member station management staff.

“We also welcome the above answers along lines of gender identity, ability and sexual orientation and look forward to discussing these issues with you in person,” the letter states. “We are a coalition of BIPOC-led filmmakers and executives who care about the future of public television. You need not look far to find us. We are right here.”

A PBS spokesperson supplied the following statement to Realscreen: “For over 50 years, reflecting the full range of the American experience has been central to the mission and work of PBS. As America’s home for documentaries, we use our national platform to amplify a broad array of perspectives shared by diverse storytellers. This year alone, we are airing more than 200 primetime hours of documentaries, and 55% of those hours feature BIPOC talent, are produced by diverse filmmakers or cover topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Of the 200 hours, 35% are produced by diverse filmmakers.

“While we have a strong foundation of inclusive programming, we recognize that there is more to be done, and we welcome ongoing dialogue on this critically important issue,” the statement continued.

In an interview with NPR’s Eric Deggans regarding the issue, PBS chief Kerger said she welcomes more discussion. “If people come together and feel this is a way to get attention around an issue, it’s OK,” she told Deggans. “The important thing, is we should sit down and really talk about what it’s going to take to move even more voices forward.”

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