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Nearly 140 documentary filmmakers have signed a letter that was then given to PBS executives. In it, they suggest the service's support of white stars like Ken Burns might disadvantage nonwhite filmmakers and reduce the diversity of voices in its programming. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says that letter has reignited some longstanding complaints about diversity in public television.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Grace Lee wants to make one thing clear - she loves PBS, and she doesn't have anything in particular against Ken Burns. But the California-based filmmaker signed on to a letter inspired by an essay she wrote last year declaring, quote, "To truly reflect diversity, PBS must end its overreliance on Ken Burns as America's storyteller." Lee, a producer on the five-hour PBS series "Asian Americans" notes that for many viewers, Burns is synonymous with PBS. And he gets a lot of time and resources to tell his stories, including a six-hour program on Ernest Hemingway starting next week.
GRACE LEE: You know, I worked on this landmark, groundbreaking series about Asian Americans. We got five hours to tell 150 years of American history. And then when you sort of just observe, like, how much time is given to, say, Ernest Hemingway - one man gets six hours of documentary prime time (laughter). So this kind of disparity is something that I wanted to call attention to.
DEGGANS: Titled A Letter to PBS From Viewers Like Us, the missive was sent to PBS President Paula Kerger and the service's ombudsman on Tuesday. It was co-signed by several high-profile filmmakers, including some who produce programs for PBS, like Sam Pollard, a co-director on the documentary classic "Eyes On The Prize;" Stanley Nelson, Emmy-winning director of "Freedom Riders" and Garrett Bradley, director of the Oscar-nominated film "Time." Quote, "This is about equitable support for Black, Indigenous and people of color filmmakers to author their own narratives that rival the access and support seen by their white peers," the letter reads. Beyond Inclusion, a collective of nonfiction creators, executives and industry figures led by individuals who are Black, Indigenous and people of color drafted the letter and collected the signatures.
PBS responded by releasing figures to show 39% of PBS staff are nonwhite, and 35% of the 200 prime-time hours of documentaries they air in 2021 will be produced by diverse filmmakers. At a February press conference, PBS President Paula Kerger pushed back against Lee's essay, saying she would, quote, "respectfully disagree." But Kerger now says PBS should examine its funding and resources.
PAULA KERGER: You know, her larger argument, I actually agree with. It is an important moment for all of us to really take a hard look at what we're doing and to make sure that we are pursuing all opportunities. For PBS and for others, we're proud of the work that we do, but we certainly can do better.
DEGGANS: The letter asked for more specific information from PBS, including figures over the past 10 years for how many hours of nonfiction programming have been directed or produced by people of color. Kerger says she hopes to meet with the group, provide more data and discuss their ideas.
Eric Deggans, NPR News.
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