The publicly funded network has been called out for its overreliance on Ken Burns at the expense of diverse filmmakers
By: Tim Baysinger
January 18, 2022
PBS is committing $3.6 million toward the development and advancement of underrepresented voices and partnering with Firelight Media and its William Greaves Fund, the publicly funded network said Tuesday.
The fund is designed to address the persistent structural challenges many filmmakers face after producing their first films, so that they can remain in the field and continue to create vital stories focused on underrepresented people and topics. Within the Greaves Fund, Firelight Media and PBS will hold a joint open call for filmmakers to submit projects for potential funding by PBS. Starlight Media is the non-profit filmmaking organization from Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith.
“This funding from PBS will help us expand our programs serving underrepresented documentary filmmakers and support their integration in the public media system, connecting filmmakers with stations and mentoring them at every level,” Firelight Media president Marcia Smith said. “We are grateful for the support from PBS to expand and diversify this pipeline of documentary filmmakers for public media.”
“Sharing stories that reflect the full range of the American experience is core to PBS’s work, and these initiatives are another example of PBS’s commitment to amplifying diverse stories and perspectives,” said Sylvia Bugg, PBS chief programming executive and general manager, general audience programming. “PBS is proud to partner with Firelight Media as we continue to advance the work of underrepresented makers and offer more diverse content across our platforms.”
Last year, PBS was called out for its overreliance on acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, with whom PBS has had a decades-long close relationship. More than 130 filmmakers signed an open letter that argued PBS has favored Burns at the expense of filmmakers of color.
The letter, addressed PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger, was organized by Beyond Inclusion, a collective of BIPOC filmmakers, executives and other industry figures. It argues that PBS, in its programming and previous comments on this same issue in the past, has shown a “systemic failure to fulfill a mandate for a diversity of voices.”
That letter came roughly two months after Kerger addressed PBS’ diversity issue during last winter’s TCA press tour.
“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 was responding to a previous criticism about PBS’ diversity from October 2020, when filmmaker Grace Lee published an essay in the magazine Current. 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.