In both their styles and subjects, the four original programs premiering as part of PBS’ slate for Black History Month offer a fascinatingly prismatic view of African American history and struggle over the course of the 20th century.
Leaning on the sturdy documentary pillars of narration, contemporary interviews and well-deployed archival footage, the ‘American Masters’ doc Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands — a tribute to the celebrated contralto who became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera — and ‘American Experience’ special The American Diplomat, which spotlights three pioneering Black U.S. ambassadors, depict Black Americans working to reform a white-dominated (and often actively racist) establishment from within.
By contrast, the more impressionistic ‘America ReFramed’ original Fannie Lou Hamer’s America — which eschews a retrospective framework in favor of privileging the civil rights leader’s own voice through artfully edited archival recordings — and ‘Frontline’s’ American Reckoning, an investigative doc that combines the present-day cold-case search for the killers of a local NAACP activist in Natchez, Mississippi in the 1960s with rare footage from the period itself, chronicle equally important histories of Black resistance from outside mainstream political channels (including, in the latter case, spotlighting a pre-Panthers legacy of Black militancy/armed self-defence in the Deacons for Defense and Justice).
Naturally, these struggles from both within and without were (and remain) intrinsically linked, just as these four documentaries’ revisiting or rediscovery of past horrors and injustice inescapably speak to our just as fractious and frightening present. In an interview with Realscreen, Sylvia Bugg (pictured), PBS’ chief programming executive and GM of general audience programming, emphasized the pubcaster’s commitment to not only bring these kinds of stories beyond the discrete boundaries of Black History Month, but also beyond those of traditional broadcast.
How did you seek to thematize or conceptualize the programming slate for Black History Month, and how do these four original programs fit into that plan?
Sylvia Bugg: We’re fortunate in that we always have a pretty robust pipeline of programs that are coming down the pike at any given time. So when it comes to heritage or culturally themed months —whether it’s Black History Month, AAPI Month, et cetera — what’s important for me is that our schedule [for that month] really reflects the diversity of the content that we offer all around the calendar year.
So we work with producers, with our producing stations internally, with our departments from scheduling to our digital group to our marketing group, to look for the best ways to maximize [our impact] across our different platforms. So, as the schedule and the timing would have it, these programs were available for us during Black History Month, and we’re pretty excited about them.
How long had you been in contact with the makers of the new programs about these projects?
Bugg: Well, for example, with The American Diplomat, I knew about that project when I worked with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — that production company had been in development for quite a while with that particular project. So when Cameo George came on as executive producer of ‘American Experience,’ she became immediately interested, and Chris Hastings from the World Channel (who we’re doing the Fannie Lou Hamer doc with) was also involved in some of the early conversations.
We like to think about how we bring projects into the system as a very collaborative method, so that we can share different ideas about distribution. I love it when all these different organizations across public media can come together to support a filmmaker. I think too that’s one of the beauties of producing projects for PBS: the filmmakers can have the time to make the films they want to make, and think about what they want to accomplish with their films even beyond broadcast, whether it’s digital or learning media and education.
[American Reckoning] is just such an example of [a project] being so much more than just a film. The executive producer at ‘Frontline,’ Raney Aronson-Rath, has put together a terrific team of filmmakers from diverse backgrounds to tell this story, [and] in addition to the film they also created a multiplatform experience called Un(re)solved. It consists of a podcast, learning media materials, and there’s also a mobile installation that’s traveling across the country that allows audiences to learn more about these stories through this immersive experience.
So when we talk about the value of public media and what we offer, I think it’s that kind of a programming experience — ones that we can really take beyond broadcast and that can resonate across a number of different distribution platforms to meet audiences where they are.
We covered in January the initiative PBS is doing with Firelight Media to provide $3.6 million in funding to help support mid-career filmmakers of color for their second or third films, as well as the parallel “Diverse Voices” initiatives within PBS itself. These were announced about nine months after the publication of an open letter from the Beyond Inclusion group, for which Stanley Nelson from Firelight was one of the signatories.
Could you discuss the process of developing this program with Firelight, the kind of conversations you were having with Stanley and [Firelight president and co-founder] Marcia Smith, and how the specific targeting of this funding ended up being decided upon?
Bugg: I’ll start with last summer actually, because we were fortunate to work with Firelight Media in the announcement of $5.5 million in funding support that both PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting offer to support the Firelight Documentary Lab, plus two other programs that were aimed at increasing the diversity of public media content in partnership with our local stations. So we’ve been having [ongoing] conversations with Marcia Smith and Stanley Nelson about how we think about continuing to [provide] support, and we were happy that we were able to provide this additional funding through [Firelight's] Greaves Fund.
But we know that’s not the beginning and the end: there’s a lot more work we need to do collectively, and we look forward to having those conversations about how we help build for the future to provide even more resources and opportunities.
In the announcement for this initiative, PBS included an assessment of its 2021 primetime programming, saying that 55% “included diverse on-screen talent and/or addressed specific subject matter” and that 35% was by filmmakers of diverse backgrounds. Are there currently discussions about or planning around specific targets for either the Firelight or the Diverse Voices programs in terms of increasing representation by the end of the funding period?
Bugg: What I can say is that PBS is in the process of releasing its new diversity metrics in the next few weeks, which provides an overview of the full 2021 DEI efforts across PBS. And on those programs that we talked about, we always build in an evaluation piece, so as part of it there is some goal-setting that we will be working on to understand what progress has been made. But the purpose of the evaluation is also to look at the gap areas that we need to focus on, so that’ll be baked into the work we do going forward [in terms of] thinking about how these programs can be sustained for the future and where we really need to focus our efforts.
Can you preview any further plans for new African American-focused and/or diverse content for the rest of PBS’ 2022?
Bugg: We announced some of our forthcoming programs during [the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour], and we’re also focused a lot on the digital space, [such as] growing the Voices channel, which looks at diversity across a number of different areas. We’re also in conversation with the National Multicultural Alliance to look at projects that they have in development. And stay tuned for the summer TCA, because we’ll have more titles to share heading into the fall, plus 2023.