Story at a glance

  • PBS has a long-standing relationship with filmmaker Ken Burns, who they call “America’s storyteller.”
  • An independent filmmaker and producer on PBS’s “Asian Americans” criticized the network for overlooking Black, Indigenous and other filmmakers of color.
  • After the network “respectfully disagreed,” nearly 140 filmmakers wrote an open letter of support questioning diversity on the network.

PBS’s “viewers like you” include filmmakers, producers, directors, executives and programmers — and they’re taking the Public Broadcasting Network to task over a lack of diversity behind the scenes. 

The network is defending its loyalty to Ken Burns, a white, male, cisgender filmmaker, after criticism from an independent producer, director and writer on the channel's heavy reliance on "America's storyteller" for programming. 

“I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work with Ken Burns, whose legacy is extraordinary and as we look forward, has a very rich pipeline of programs that he’s bringing to public television,” President and CEO Paula Kerger said, reported The Associated Press, when she was asked about an essay published by the Ford Foundation as a part of "Creative Futures," a series reimagining various media. 

"The decades-long interdependence of PBS decision-makers, philanthropists, and corporate funders with one white, male filmmaker highlights the racial and cultural inequities perpetuated by this system. The amount of broadcast hours, financial support (from viewers like who?), and marketing muscle devoted to one man’s lens on America has severed PBS from its very roots," said Grace Lee.


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Lee was a producer on PBS's "Asian Americans," which she notes was given just "five hours to tell 150 years of history" — compared to four hours for each of Ken Burns’ upcoming documentaries on Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Benjamin Franklin and the American Buffalo. 

"When bison merit 80% of the airtime afforded to Asian American history, it calls into question not only the leadership of public television but also who gets to tell these stories, and why," she said. 

In a panel with TV critics, The Associated Press reported Burns's response to a question about his focus on Black athletes in documentaries compared to a range of prominent white figures, including artists and political figures. 

“The stuff that’s coming up is incredibly diverse in every sense of the meaning of that word,” Burns said. "As Lynn [Novick] said, they chose us." 


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Nearly 140 filmmakers, or "Viewers Like Us," expressed their dissatisfaction with PBS' response in an open letter addressed to Kerger and published by Beyond Inclusion, a BIPOC-led collective. The letter notes about 211 hours of Burns's programming over 40 years on PBS, which has an exclusive relationship with the filmmaker until 2022 and exclusive home video and audio visual rights to existing and new films through 2025. It isn't the time dedicated to Burns's programming that the letter questions, but rather the time that is — or isn't — given to other filmmakers, especially Black, Indigenous and other filmmakers of color. 

In a statement over email, a PBS spokesperson noted that of the more than 200 primetime hours of documentaries slated to be aired this year, 35 percent are produced by diverse filmmakers. A total of 55 percent feature BIPOC talent, are produced by diverse filmmakers or cover topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“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," said the spokesperson. "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.” 

On this, PBS and Beyond Inclusion agree. 

"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," said the letter, which asks:

“How many HOURS of PBS non-fiction television have been directed or produced by BIPOC filmmakers vs. by white filmmakers over the past ten years? 

Of all SPENDING on PBS non-fiction television over the past ten years, what percentage has been directed or produced by BIPOC filmmakers? 

Of the top 25 production companies that have produced the most content for PBS over the past ten years when measured according to budget, how many of them are BIPOC-led vs. white-led? 

How many PBS management staff (including individual stations and major strands) are BIPOC vs. white? How do these numbers compare to the numbers from ten years ago?” 


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Published on Apr 01, 2021