Ken Burns (photo by David Hume Kennerly, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The BIPOC nonfiction filmmaker collective Beyond Inclusion has drafted an open letter to PBS and its president and CEO Paula Kerger. Released March 29, “A letter to PBS from Viewers Like Us” raises concerns about the public broadcaster’s overreliance on Ken Burns to direct its high-profile documentary content, and how other filmmakers are losing out on opportunities and resources within the venerable institution. The letter responds to an ongoing controversy within the documentary community sparked by the open conversations around BIPOC creatives in the film industry, which gained traction last year.

Last fall, as part of the Ford Foundation’s Creative Futures series of “provocations” by documentary creatives, filmmaker Grace Lee argued that PBS programming is in dire need of diversification. By way of example, she points to Burns, inarguably the most prominent filmmaker to work with the public broadcaster, and how overwhelmingly his work dominates its in-house documentary programming:

In 2020, I was a producer on Asian Americans, a groundbreaking series for which we had five hours to tell 150 years of history spanning from the Chinese who built the railroads to South Asians targeted after 9/11. Compare this to 16 hours of Country Music, which also aired in 2020, or 13 hours of the Roosevelts — both by Ken Burns. His 2021 slate includes four hours each 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.

Lee argues that the broadcaster’s positioning of Burns as “America’s storyteller” minimizes the possibilities and perspectives that other filmmakers might have to offer. Her provocation calls on PBS to diversify both its decision-makers and the creatives whom it supports. “Limiting Black, indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American content to token one-offs and heritage months sustains the myth that our stories are something other than part of the American experience,” she asserts. The essay was later published in Current.

Early this February, during a virtual Q&A with the Television Critics Association, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger was asked about Lee’s essay. She responded that she “respectfully disagrees” with the provocation, arguing that “we [PBS] create lots of opportunities for many filmmakers,” and that Burns “mentors a number of filmmakers who now have quite established careers” and “has a deep commitment to mentoring diverse filmmakers.”

Beyond Inclusion created its open letter in response to these comments, asserting that Kerger’s avowed commitment to diversity at PBS “is not borne out by the evidence.” Citing Burns’s own website, it points out that he alone has produced 211 hours of PBS programming over the past 40 years as part of the exclusive relationship the broadcaster has with him through at least 2022. “How many other ‘independent’ filmmakers have a decades-long exclusive relationship with a publicly-funded entity? Public television supporting this level of uninvestigated privilege is troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans.”

Neither Lee nor the letter critique Burns’s abilities as a filmmaker, and the letter makes clear that “questioning whether PBS could be doing better should not be seen as an attack, but as an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and action.” In that spirit, it concludes by requesting hard numbers from PBS on several subjects:

1. 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?

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

3. 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?

4. 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?

The letter was initially signed or co-signed by numerous creatives in the documentary field, including Lee, Brown Girls Doc Mafia head Iyabo Boyd, Oscar-winning directors Roger Ross Williams and Laura Poitras, and almost 140 others. Hundreds more have added their signatures in the week since the letter was first posted.

PBS released a statement in response, claiming, “We use our national platform to amplify a broad array of perspectives shared by diverse storytellers.” The spokesperson cites that 55% of the 200 hours of documentary programming PBS has created for this year “feature BIPOC talent, are produced by diverse filmmakers or cover topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion.” Still, the statement goes on to say: “[W]e recognize that there is more to be done, and we welcome ongoing dialogue on this critically important issue.”

Speaking to NPR’s Eric Deggans about the letter, Kerger said, “If people come together and feel this is a way to get attention around an issue, it’s OK … the important thing, is we should sit down and really talk about what it’s going to take to move even more voices forward.” She added that she would like to meet with the group and discuss the issues further. “What is it going to take … particularly for those mid-career filmmakers, so there is a solid place [for them] in public broadcasting?” What sort of discussions and institutional shifts PBS will make remain to be seen.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.

One reply on “Filmmakers Condemn Lack of Diversity at PBS and Critique Overreliance on Ken Burns”

  1. Starting in my youth and continuing until his death I read Hemingway. As an aspiring writer I read him in awe as I discovered how easy he made ‘less is more’ seem. I looked forward to the documentary, but am disappointed. The most awesome thing was seeing how he hand wrote with so few corrections! It was the 2021 version of a slick news/sensational biopic. I understand his shortcomings/inherited genetic traits, but cannot forgive how they were pieced together leaving the unknowing and perhaps not a Hemingway reader a very slanted view. As his mental state deteriorated, so did the visuals. I realize that I have not been watching these PBS docs over the past years, and your article about the point of view of some PBS viewers and film-makers opened up pathways of understanding for my dislike of this one and other Ken Burns recent ones. I watch a lot of documentaries. Some are more eye opening than others, but the really good ones may stimulate opinions, but do not try to influence the viewer toward any. I am sorry I watched it and will probably pick up one of Hemingway’s novels as an anti-dote.

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