I love Ken Burns as much as the next person. He was the commencement speaker at my college graduation, and his documentaries about America taught me more than my entire 14 years of schooling. But Burns gets work. I mean, even my parents know who Ken Burns is, and I doubt they could name any other documentarian (aside from maybe Michael Moore). 

When PBS announced another series from him, this time focusing on Hemingway, I was really excited. But I also know that PBS viewers have seen a lot of Burns over the last few decades. 

What has PBS done to lift other voices? 

Nearly 140 documentary filmmakers have signed an open letter titled "A Letter to PBS From Viewers Like Us." It was given to PBS executives, and it says PBS provides an unfair level of support to white creators, facing a "systemic failure to fulfill (its) mandate for a diversity of voices."

"How many other 'independent' filmmakers have a decades-long exclusive relationship with a publicly-funded entity?" the text asks. "Public television supporting this level of uninvestigated privilege is troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans."

PBS has balked at the assertions in the letter. They replied that 35% of the 200 hours of non-fiction programming planned for primetime this year were produced by diverse filmmakers. And over the past five years, PBS has aired 58 hours of programming from Burns and 74 hours of projects by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African American scholar, director, executive producer, and host of programs like The Black Church and Finding Your Roots. 

But it's not just about one man. It's about PBS not doing more for the diverse community they serve. America is full of different voices, but are they getting their fair shake on the network? 

Check out these statistics PBS released about who works there. 

Our Representation:

As of 7/31/2020, PBS staff is comprised of:

  • Women: 55%
  • BIPOC*: 40%

In Fiscal Year 2020 (July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020), our new hires were comprised of:

  • Women: 58%
  • BIPOC: 48%

PBS President Paula Kerger did agree that PBS needs to find a way to make sure funding is going to ensure that BIPOC filmmakers are being treated equitably at their network. 

"This is an important moment for all of us to really take a hard look at what we're doing and make sure that we are pursuing all opportunities." She added, "What is it going to take ... particularly for those mid-career filmmakers, so there is a solid place (for them) in public broadcasting?"

Kerger acknowledges that while PBS didn't feel this way, if others do, they have to confront that.

"If people come together and feel this is a way to get attention around an issue, it's okay," she said. "The important thing is we should sit down and really talk about what it's going to take to move even more voices forward."

This will be an ongoing debate. And while PBS's numbers look good, there's a lot of subtlety in the argument. It's not only about who is on the TV, but how much time, how many series, and really how to build up smaller voices. Burns is an inherent draw for PBS and probably helps them get donations, but who is to say that some of the great unseen content wouldn't help find donors from other demographic areas? 

The same goes for the viewers who tune in for new content. 

Where do you land on these issues? Let us know in the comments.