A couple of pointed questions underpin filmmaker Grace Lee’s new podcast, Viewers Like Us: as she frames it in episode 1, “Why is PBS so white and how exactly did it designate Ken Burns as America’s Storyteller?”
The questions are linked, asserts Lee, whose directing and producing credits number a dozen documentaries, some of which have aired on PBS, including the 2020 docuseries Asian Americans. While she acknowledges the public broadcaster has afforded some opportunities to filmmakers of color, she says it’s nothing on the order of the resources lavished on Burns, director of The Civil War (1990), Jazz (2001) and many other PBS documentary series, including two this year alone: the six-hour long Hemingway and the eight-hour Muhammad Ali.
“His hundreds of hours of primetime programming are products of a system,” Lee charges in the podcast, “that for decades has prioritized his worldview at the expense of storytellers of color. PBS has enabled him even as it goes against its very mission, to reflect a diversity of perspectives.”
The podcast, hosted by Lee and co-executive produced by her, Ken Ikeda and Joaquin Alvarado, expands on a critique of PBS which she launched last year in an essay for a Ford Foundation initiative. The essay questioned, “[H]ow much does PBS reflect the audiences it was intended to serve?… Every tentpole series from American Masters to Frontline to Independent Lens has been led by white decision-makers since inception. What would these series look like with BIPOC at the helm?”
At the Winter TCA in early February, Deadline asked PBS CEO Paul Kerger about Lee’s criticism of the network’s record on diversity and inclusion and its close relationship with Burns.
“I read Grace’s piece. I respectfully disagree,” Kerger said. “I am very excited about what Ken [Burns] is bringing forward as well as a new range of great new voices, as well as others who we have made a deep commitment to over the years and have a big piece of public television’s past and certainly will be a big part of our future going forward.”
Kerger’s comments may have been intended to mollify critics, but they only seemed to throw gas on the fire. Beyond Inclusion, “a BIPOC collective of non-fiction filmmakers, executives and field builders,” later sent a letter to Kerger taking her to task over her remarks, writing, “Your commitment to diversity at PBS is not borne out by the evidence.”
Lee, and fellow filmmakers Geeta Gandbhir, Roger Ross Williams, Michèle Stephenson, Poh Si Teng were among the signatories to the Beyond Inclusion letter. Among the co-signers were directors Garrett Bradley, Yance Ford, Laura Poitras, Hao Wu, and Stanley Nelson—a PBS stalwart.
“In the spirit of open, honest and fact-based communication,” the letter “invited” Kerger to share data with Beyond Inclusion, including:
- 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?
Lee renews her call for the data in the Viewers Like Us podcast.
“The data is really important as a baseline to understand whether they’re actually meeting the specific goals that they say they want to meet,” Lee told Deadline. “How can you measure your goals if you don’t have a baseline of understanding of where you’re starting from? It’s disappointing that we haven’t received that data yet.”
However, PBS says it did publish six years of data in response to Beyond Inclusion. According to those figures, the percentage of documentary content produced by BIPOC executive producers, producers and directors for the network more than doubled between 2015 and 2021—from 14-percent to 35-percent this year.
In a one-sheet graphic titled “PBS Content Represents the Diversity of America,” the network insisted, “PBS provides a platform for BIPOC filmmakers and offers more diverse content across our linear primetime schedule that any other broadcast network.”
PBS provided a statement to Deadline responding to the Viewers Like Us podcast.
“While PBS has a longstanding history of supporting diverse makers, we recognize there is more work to be done,” the statement reads. “To deepen our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, PBS is focused on supporting research and development, production, and mentorship opportunities for producers and filmmakers from underrepresented communities.”
To that end, at the Summer TCA in August, Kerger announced “a multiyear, multimillion-dollar commitment to Firelight Media [founded by Beyond Inclusion signatory Stanley Nelson] to support and amplify the work of underrepresented filmmakers with resources designated to The Firelight Documentary Lab, an 18-month fellowship that supports filmmakers of color, and Groundwork Regional Labs, which will partner 40 early career filmmakers with local PBS stations.”
Ken Ikeda, one of the podcast co-EPs, took the announcement with a grain of salt.
“We have to assess and analyze the optics of their actions,” he told Deadline. “It’s not that the grant-making is not exciting and necessary. It is. We’re happy about it. What it masks is the lack of vision and commitment to build infrastructure and sustained investment to place new bets on filmmakers and storytellers that will be replacing Ken Burns and can stand alongside Ken Burns and enjoy the same system of support that he does.”
PBS says that as of April of this year, 28-percent of its senior management team “identify as BIPOC.” It further states that from 2016 to 2021, the percentage of BIPOC employees at PBS overall rose from 35-percent to 40-percent.
But those figures do not seem to mesh with Lee’s experience.
“Who are the decision makers?” she asked. “Why did it take over a decade to get the Asian Americans series greenlit? It’s the most prominent example in my mind because I worked on that show and seeing how hard it was to get on the air, greenlit, money. We didn’t even get the full budget. It was supposed to be six hours and it ended up as five hours.”
In her Ford Foundation essay, Lee noted that PBS has allotted four hours alone to an upcoming Ken Burns series focusing on the “American Buffalo.” “When bison merit 80-percent 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.”
Beyond Inclusion members suggest the PBS commitment to diversity is belied by Burns’ Muhammad Ali series, which aired its fourth and final episode on September 22. The series boasts three directors: Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon.
“It was really surprising to a lot of us that among three directors there wasn’t a single person representative of the community that Muhammad Ali comes from,” said Geeta Gandbhir, one of the Beyond Inclusion signatories. “Muhammad Ali is a legendary Black icon who stood for Black power. To not have a single Black director on the project, in this day and age, seems really kind of tone deaf and startling.”
Furthermore, Lee says, when Burns plants his flag on a particular subject, it effectively becomes a dead zone to others, at least within the PBS sphere.
“Now that Ken Burns has made an 8-hour series on Muhammad Ali, where’s the opportunity for somebody who is part of that community to tell that story?” Lee said. “I’m not saying he can’t tell that story, but there are plenty of opportunities that no longer exist—he’s taking up the space that could have been allocated to other people, and it’s been happening for 40 years.”
Deadline reached out to Burns for comment for this story, but through a PR rep he declined. But at the Summer TCA panel discussion on Muhammad Ali, Burns was asked about criticism of PBS and its tight relationship with him.
“I substantially get less from PBS as a percentage of my budget than other filmmakers,” Burns replied. “And I go out to private individuals and foundations, corporations, and I have encouraged them all to help invest in diverse filmmaking and the filmmakers of tomorrow.”
He also offered diversity stats on the Ali production.
“Forty percent of the nucleus of our crew,” he stated, “producers, editors, assistant editors, directors, writers, 40-percent are people of color; 53-percent are women.”
But Gandbhir says those metrics don’t tell a complete story.
“Everyone plays a really important role on a film team but we know who is in the spotlight ultimately and who the accolades go to and does all the speaking, and who is at the forefront and who’s driving the creative vision. It’s the director,” she said. “I cannot tell you how many times someone has said to me, ‘Oh, there is a person of color or there is a gay LGBTQ person—it’s the assistant editor. It’s the AP.’ Do any of those people have the real ability to hold you accountable? To challenge you? There is a power dynamic that doesn’t allow them to hold you accountable.”
Juan Devis, chief creative officer at PBS affiliates KCET and PBS SoCal agrees with one of Beyond Inclusion’s main goals, to diversify PBS.
“There is a reality that we need to, within the system, instigate conversations of renewal and change,” Devis told Deadline. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done. As forward as PBS may be in certain areas, it resembles and reflects the same realities that you see in larger media institutions outside. Who are the executives? How the money is being distributed… But we have always been at the forefront trying to break that glass ceiling to a certain degree.”
Devis said PBS programming overall, between fiction and nonfiction offerings, reflects greater diversity than generally thought.
“When you really look at the schedule of PBS, in its entirety and you say, ‘Okay, what is this content addressing? Who produced it?’ You’re going to find a much more equal balance than what we think,” he commented. “Kids programming, particularly, has done a tremendous job… You have to take a much more nuanced look at the schedule itself.”
Devis said signature British dramas in primetime, as well as Burns’ prominence, create a white-centric perception of PBS. But he said executives at PBS affiliates have a role in changing that.
“We’re the ones that are on a local level giving opportunities to other filmmakers, to other stories,” he noted, citing the example of the KCET series Artbound, which just kicked off its new season with the documentary Con Safos, about Chicano singer and activist Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara.
Referring to a press event where the Con Safos filmmaking team appeared, Devis said, “You saw that room, that everybody on that stage was a person of color. Every single person. It’s not only by design but it’s also by practicality: who is the freakin’ best person to tell this story? Which [goes back to] certain questions that Grace Lee has about process when it comes to Ali and Ken Burns.”
Gandbhir doesn’t expect rapid transformation at PBS or elsewhere within the entertainment industry.
“When it comes to institutions and corporations, change is slow… If we keep momentum going, I do think in the next five to 10 years we could see real change. But it has to be a sea change,” Gandbhir said, adding, “Change is never easy… [PBS] will be better for it.”
Grace Lee, for one, intends to continue the fight. She noted on her podcast that she has temporarily set aside her filmmaking work to devote her energies to Viewers Like Us. Fresh episodes are expected soon.
“What motivates me so much is that PBS is a public institution. It is one that we all sort of hold in high regard,” Lee told Deadline. “It provided so many opportunities to me as an emerging filmmaker. But at the same time, like many public institutions across America at this time… we need to figure out how to reimagine them. That’s also part of this podcast. We’re not trying to burn it down; we’re trying to reimagine something better that actually serves the public.”
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