PBS Chief Details Diversity Efforts, Promises Change In How It Recruits Filmmakers and ‘NewsHour’ Staff

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Amid numerous exits of top talent of color at fellow pubcaster NPR and ongoing backlash to the lack of diversity within its roster of filmmakers, PBS’ top exec revealed the service’s plan to make significant changes to its own operations and public broadcasting in general.

“In engaging in conversations with filmmakers, it was very clear that there were filmmakers that were having difficulty bringing their work forward,” PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told reporters Tuesday during her executive session at the the pubcaster’s first day of virtual Television Critics Association winter press tour.

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“Some of it is, in part, the structure of public broadcasting, which is very decentralized,” she said “We’re a federated system. Our stations are all independent. There are many paths into public broadcasting, so it’s confusing sometimes for filmmakers figure out, ‘Do I come to PBS? Do I go to a producing station? Do I go to my local station? Where there are opportunities? What about these series like “Independent Lens” and “POV”?'”

PBS has been criticized for relying to often on the same filmmakers (notably, that includes Ken Burns). Kerger says “deeper conversations” revealed that there are troubles for mid-career filmmakers in particular that PBS looked to focus on correcting.

“This a conversation that I’ve had off and on with [filmmaker] Stanley Nelson now for a number of years, that many people can get first films funded,” the PBS chief said. “There are more opportunities for brand-new filmmakers, not to say that there isn’t need to do more, so we’re trying to address that in one of these new initiatives that we’re announcing. But particularly for mid-career filmmakers, it’s very difficult to get a second or third film done.”

Several announcements made Tuesday by Kerger centered on initiatives for PBS to further its diversity, equity and inclusion endeavors. That includes a new partnership with Firelight Media, the non-profit filmmaking organization founded by Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith, that will see PBS commit $3.6 million over the course of three years to support mid-career nonfiction filmmakers through Firelight Media’s William Greaves Fund, “which resources talented storytellers from diverse communities in the United States.”

“We thought, rather than start something up, what Firelight was doing was so impressive, we said, what would it take to help you bring that to the next level? And so we created this partnership,” Kerger said. “The most important aspect of all the conversations, particularly with diverse filmmakers over this last year, has been for us to really listen and try to understand where there are barriers and how we can bring more work forward, how we can better support filmmakers, no matter what stage of their professional career they’re in, and how do we continue to advance the work moving forward? We took a hard look within our own organization, as well as the relationships that we have outside. And we, I think, are on a really good path. I think public television has an important role in this area, and I look forward to all that we’ll do moving forward.”

Kerger also addressed concerns about diversity within PBS’ “NewsHour” staff, and shared that she believed that “huge opportunities to continue to grow and develop that team.”

“It is important for us to always remain focused on the range of people both in front of and behind the camera and to be really diligent in making sure that we’re creating opportunities to bring a great ensemble together,” she said. “And that’s what [‘NewsHour’ executive producer] Sarah Just has done an extraordinary job and will continue to do.”

Kerger also revealed PBS’ new long-term initiative to diversify public media through a Anne Ray Foundation-funded project that will “elevate diverse voices and perspectives and accelerate the transformation of public media’s producing ecosystem to include more diverse perspectives in key production roles.” The initiative will see PBS launch an early-career filmmaker mentorship program and an executive fellowship program, among other efforts.

According to PBS, the public channel offers “more diverse content” and collaborates “with more diverse creators” than any other broadcast network: “During the 2021 season, over 50 percent of PBS’s primetime schedule included diverse on-screen talent and/or addressed specific subject matter. However, to fully reflect and represent the broad diversity of America, PBS is committed to building on this foundation.”

On the programming side of its diversity push, PBS announced several new fall projects: “Making Black America: Through the Grapevine,” a four-part series from executive producer, host and writer Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that will see Gates and director Stacey L. Holman “chronicle the vast social networks and organizations created by and for Black people beyond the reach of the ‘White gaze'”; “The Story of Hip-Hop With Chuck D,” that was developed by the Public Enemy co-founder and tells “the story of this globally influential art form over the past 40 years up to today”; “One Day in March,” a documentary “that will chronicle the troubling escalation of hate and violence against AAPI people and spotlight the movement to turn anger into action,” and docs about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass from Nelson.

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