This Message Is Brought to You by the Letter ‘D’: Nearly 140 Documentary Filmmakers Call Out PBS for Lack of Diversity in Programming

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Shanelle Genai
·3 min read
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 The PBS logo as displayed on a monitor during the PBS 2005 Television Critics Winter Press Tour on January 15, 2005 in Universal City, California.
The PBS logo as displayed on a monitor during the PBS 2005 Television Critics Winter Press Tour on January 15, 2005 in Universal City, California.

In news that should surprise no one—because, let’s face it: various publications, platforms, and organizations have been getting aired out for their discriminatory practices, as of late—PBS is getting called to the fire for their lack of diversity and support when it comes to creators of color in their programming.

NPR reports that BIPOC-led collective Beyond Inclusion penned a letter titled, “A Letter to PBS From Viewers Like Us” to address the station’s “unfair level of support to white creators” and “systemic failure to fulfill (its) mandate for a diversity of voices.” They specifically cited the creative deal that filmmaker Ken Burns has had with the station for nearly 40 years, which allowed him to create roughly 211 hours of programming and allegedly leaves little room for the proper development and support of other content from creatives of color. The letter, which garnered nearly 140 signatures from notable documentary filmmakers, including Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras and Emmy-winning editor and director Sam Pollard, was subsequently sent to the late ombudsman Michael Gaetler and PBS President Paula Kerger and also addressed Kerger’s comment in response to an essay written by Beyond Inclusion member Grace Lee.

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The letter, in part, via Beyond Inclusion:

Your commitment to diversity at PBS is not borne out by the evidence. When you program an 8-part series on Muhammad Ali by Ken Burns, what opportunity is there for a series or even a one-off film to be told by a Black storyteller who may have a decidedly different view? Your chief programming executive recently announced an initiative to fund “the next generation” of BIPOC makers but where does that leave the current generation? This is about equitable support for BIPOC filmmakers to author their own narratives at all stages of their careers that rival the access and support seen by their white peers. Emerging filmmaker initiatives enforce the false narrative that BIPOC artists are predominantly first timers, lacking in experience.

As the leader of the public broadcasting system, you are responsible to commit to an open and sustained public dialogue. Questioning whether PBS could be doing better should not be seen as an attack, but as an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and action, and to engage BIPOC filmmakers as we chart a course forward.

In response to that letter, PBS released a statement to NPR with data that claims to show that “35 percent of the 200 hours of non-fiction programming planned for primetime” was produced by filmmakers of color this year and that there have been 58 hours of programming from Burns as opposed to 74 hours of projects by African-American scholar, historian (and co-founder of The Root) Henry Louis Gates, Jr. But according to filmmaker Grace Lee, a member of Beyond Inclusion and author who penned an essay highlighting PBS’ unfairness (an essay that Kerger “respectfully disagreed” with back in February, mind you)—this issue extends beyond the liberties of just one creative.

“It’s not about Ken Burns,” Lee explains. “It’s about this public television system living up to its mandate. 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.”

Stanley Nelson, whose work regularly appears on PBS and whose signature was also added to the letter further explained: “I think PBS might be surprised themselves, if they start looking at what they’ve put into certain films and certain filmmakers. We have to be aware that race is a part of everything in America.”