BIPOC Filmmakers Have a Problem With PBS, Ken Burns

Exclusive partnership comes at the expense of diversity, they argue
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 31, 2021 10:10 AM CDT
BIPOC Filmmakers Have a Problem With PBS, Ken Burns
Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, is seen on Jan. 10, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif.   (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File)

Almost 140 filmmakers, including some who work with PBS, have signed a letter calling out the public broadcaster for a "systemic failure to fulfill [its] mandate for a diversity of voices." The letter, implying an overemphasis on white creators, notes Ken Burns, a white man, has created about 211 hours of programming for PBS over the last 40 years as part of an exclusive partnership, which hurts filmmakers of color. "Public television supporting this level of uninvestigated privilege is troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans," reads the letter sent to PBS President Paula Kerger and ombudsman Michael Getler on Tuesday, per NPR. It was drafted by BIPOC-led collective Beyond Inclusion and signed by high-profile filmmakers including Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras and Emmy-winning editor and director Sam Pollard.

It was also signed by Grace Lee, a producer for the PBS series Asian Americans, who penned an October essay calling on the broadcaster to diversify. She noted Burns' upcoming films dedicate six hours to Ernest Hemingway, and four hours each to Benjamin Franklin and America's bison. But "on Asian Americans, we got five hours to tell 150 years of American history," Lee tells NPR. PBS, which has a program to support "emerging" BIPOC filmmakers, says it's actually aired more programming from Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African American filmmaker, than from Burns in the past five years. It also says 35% of the 200 hours of nonfiction programming set for primetime in 2021 comes from diverse filmmakers. Kerger says she disagreed with Lee's essay, per the AP. But she says she'll sit down with concerned parties to discuss how "to move even more voices forward." (Read more PBS stories.)

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