Posted on August 17, 2021

PBS and Ken Burns Vow to Do Better on Diversity but Critics Aren’t Convinced

Eric Deggans, NPR, August 12, 2021

As the creator of popular documentaries for public television like Baseball and The Civil War, Ken Burns often seems like the face of documentary filmmaking at PBS.

So, when Burns faced journalists at a virtual press conference Wednesday, he was asked a probing question: Does he “take umbrage” at being considered an example of “white producer privilege” after more than 140 filmmakers signed an open letter to PBS citing him as an example of how the service unfairly highlights white creators?

“I didn’t take it personally at all,” said Burns, speaking during PBS’ portion of the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, touting his upcoming four-part series on boxing champion Muhammad Ali . “We will take this on and we will figure out how to make it right and do a better job. I personally commit to that. … How could you possible take umbrage at the idea there could be more empowerment, there could be more representation, there could be more stories told?”

His response — saying, essentially, we do a good job, but we’ll work hard to do better — mirrors the reaction at the Public Broadcasting Service.

On Tuesday, PBS revealed $11 million in grants for diversity initiatives, including funding for mentoring programs, a series of short-form videos on science and technology issues featuring Black and Hispanic communicators and several new digital series featuring a diversity of creators. The service also hired a new senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.


Still, producer Grace Lee expressed concerns PBS hasn’t revealed the kind of data needed to judge its progress on systemic changes.

“We asked PBS for transparency and accountability around the data, and these announcements sort of missed the point of the questions we posed,” said Lee, a producer on the PBS documentary Asian Americans. She’s also a member of Beyond Inclusion, the group which drafted the open letter; a non-profit collective of non-fiction filmmakers and executives led by individuals who are Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).


PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said she convened a diversity council within the service to consider diversity, equity and inclusion issues last year, not long after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer kicked off a worldwide civil rights reckoning.

But the letter from Beyond Inclusion convinced Kerger that even mid-career filmmakers of color with some success felt disenfranchised. {snip}


Kerger announced a raft of diversity initiatives Tuesday during a virtual press conference at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. {snip}


PBS will require producers to outline their own diversity and inclusion plans for projects, setting goals and eventually explaining whether they were met. And PBS hired a new senior vice president of diversity and inclusion, Cecilia Loving.

When asked about PBS’ current diversity figures, Kerger cited an area of the service’s website that lists some numbers, including: 35% of its primetime schedule for 2021 was produced by BIPOC creators and 41% featured BIPOC talent. Among its staff, 40% identify as BIPOC – compared to 35% in 2016 – and 28% of its managers.


The open letter from Beyond Inclusion asked for different figures: the hours of PBS programming over the past 10 years created by BIPOC filmmakers vs. white people; the percentage of spending on PBS programs over the last 10 years which went to projects led by BIPOC filmmakers and a list of which production companies, among the top 25 organizations that produce the most programming for PBS, are led by BIPOC creators.