PBS Chief Insists Network Doesn’t Favor Ken Burns at Expense of Filmmakers of Color

Reid Nakamura
·2-min read

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger responded to criticism of the public television network’s “overreliance” on Ken Burns as “America’s Filmmaker,” asserting that PBS’s longstanding relationship with the documentarian does not come at the expense of other diverse voices.

“We create lots of opportunities for many filmmakers,” Kerger told reporters during a Television Critics Association panel on Tuesday. “Ken himself … mentors a number of filmmakers who now have quite established careers have all come up through his shop, and he has a deep commitment to mentoring diverse filmmakers.”

Kerger’s comments came in response to a question about an essay published by documentary filmmaker Grace Lee in Current last October. In the piece, Lee, who served as a producer on PBS’s “Asian Americans” series, criticized PBS for devoting dozens of hours of programming to Burns, which she argued took opportunities away from filmmakers of color.

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“The decades-long interdependence of PBS decision-makers, philanthropists, and corporate funders with one white, male filmmaker highlights the racial and cultural inequities perpetuated by this system,” Lee wrote. “The amount of broadcast hours, financial support (from viewers like who?), and marketing muscle devoted to one man’s lens on America has severed PBS from its very roots. Wasn’t the initial goal to break down inequality?”

She called on PBS to “end its overreliance” on Burns and appoint more people of color at the top of its tentpole programs, including “American Masters” and “Frontline.”

“I read Grace’s piece, and I respectfully disagree,” Kerger said. “I think she’s a very talented filmmaker; we’ve worked with her on a number of projects and I envision will continue to work with her. … I think that it is incorrect to look at Ken and then compare that to others. We are committed to a rich pipeline with lots of voices, and we will continue to look for ways that we can bring even more people forward.”

Kerger also pointed to a new PBS initiative aimed at amplifying the voices of diverse/BIPOC producers in public media. The initiative invites submissions from emerging filmmakers exploring “a broad range of experiences, perspectives and points of view,” with the opportunity for financial support and distribution on PBS platforms.

“As we think about these next years ahead, I’m very excited about what Ken is bringing forward, as well as a new range of great new voices,” Kerger continued. “As well as others whom we’ve made a deep commitment to over the years [who] have been a big piece of public television’s past and will be a big part of our future going forward.”

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