Ken Burns Blocking BIPOC Filmmakers?

Is he bogarting all the good documentaries?

The documentarian has been a staple of public broadcasting for four decades. Some say that is a major problem.

NPR (“Filmmakers Call Out PBS For A Lack Of Diversity, Over-Reliance On Ken Burns“):

Nearly 140 documentary filmmakers have signed onto a letter given to PBS executives, suggesting the service may provide an unfair level of support to white creators, facing a “systemic failure to fulfill (its) mandate for a diversity of voices.”

Titled “A Letter to PBS From Viewers Like Us,” the missive references Ken Burns, arguably one of PBS’ biggest non-fiction stars and creator of popular projects like Baseball, Jazz, The Civil War and an upcoming six-hour program called Hemingway. Citing data from the filmmaker’s website, it says Burns has created about 211 hours of programming for PBS over 40 years, through an exclusive relationship with the service that will last until at least 2022.

Such an arrangement leaves less room for filmmakers of color, who may struggle to gain similar funding or promotional support. And while PBS has created an initiative to elevate newly emerging filmmakers of color, such initiatives can also create a false narrative that non-white artists are predominantly lacking in experience, the text adds.

“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.”

The letter, sent to PBS President Paula Kerger and former ombudsman Michael Getler on Tuesday, was co-signed by several high-profile filmmakers — some of whom produce programs for PBS — including Oscar-nominated director Garrett Bradley (Time), Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and Emmy winning editor and director Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI). (Note: Getler died in 2018, and PBS now has a public editor, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos.)

Leaving aside their unfortunate lack of Google skills, this seems at first blush like a bizarre complaint. Burns has produced 211 hours of programming for PBS since 1981. That’s 5.275 hours a year. If they want to get mad at someone, it should be Big Bird; he’s gotten far more airtime.

Further, PBS rightly argues, they’ve been about inclusion for a long time:

PBS has released a statement with data pushing back on the letter’s assertions, saying 35 percent of the 200 hours of non-fiction programming planned for primetime this year was produced by diverse filmmakers. According to a spokesman, 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.

Still, some of the claims are worth consideration:

Filmmaker Grace Lee, a member of Beyond Inclusion who signed the letter, wrote about these issues in an attention-getting essay for the Ford Foundation that was reprinted in Current magazine, noting, “PBS must end its overreliance on Ken Burns as ‘America’s storyteller.'”


But Lee, a producer for the PBS series Asian Americans, says the issue reaches beyond any individual filmmaker.

“It’s not about Ken Burns, it’s about this public television system living up to its mandate,” she adds. “On Asian Americans, we got five hours to tell 150 years of American history. Ernest Hemingway, one man, gets six hours of documentary in prime time … This kind of disparity is something that I wanted to call attention to.”

It’s hard to argue that Hemingway, great as his work is, was as important as two hundred-odd years of Asian-American contributions. Presumably, though, PBS decisionmakers believed that a six-hour Ken Burns miniseries on Hemingway would be more likely to draw more viewers than a feature on Asian-Americans by a niche filmmaker. Whether this is based on legitimate market research or self-fulfilling prophecy is worth considering, though.

For his part, Burns is saying the right things:

The Emmy-winning documentarian Ken Burns said Thursday that he supports the goals of a group of nonfiction filmmakers who have criticized PBS over a lack of diversity and an “over-reliance” on his work.

“I wholeheartedly support the objectives of the letter writers,” Burns said in an interview. “I think this is hugely important, and one of the reasons we’ve been in public television has been a commitment to inclusion and diversity.”

“But can we do better? Of course we can. Can PBS do better? Of course they can,” Burns added.


In the interview, Burns said he and his colleagues at his production company, Florentine Films, would work to address issues of diversity and inclusion in the documentary filmmaking community. (The full interview with Burns and Novick about “Hemingway” will be published in the coming days.)

He added that most of the money his company raises for television projects comes from “outside sources,” not PBS.

“I’m just very proud that it [PBS] does it as well as anybody else,” Burns said. “The fact that it’s still not good enough? It just means we all have room for improvement.”

Burns and PBS seem like odd targets here. Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, for example, did a lot to renew public interest in the greatness of the Negro League players, many of whom were heavily featured. But he’s arguably the network’s biggest star—certainly its most famous documentarian—so going after him gets attention.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Popular Culture, Race and Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jen says:

    When I first saw that headline a few days ago, I thought it was from The Onion.

    Public Television is heavily dependent on donations. The fact that they are reliant upon a known, successful quantity, like Ken Burns, is hardly surprising. I suspect the timing of this has much to do with the 2022 timeline. Apply pressure now to open things up when the exclusivity arrangement is about to expire.

  2. R. Dave says:

    Nearly 140 documentary filmmakers have signed onto a letter given to PBS executives, suggesting the service may provide an unfair level of support to white creators, facing a “systemic failure to fulfill (its) mandate for a diversity of voices.”

    I believe this is known as “working the refs”. It’s just self-interest masquerading as self-righteousness.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Like @Jen:, I saw the link and figured it was Onion of Babylon Bee material. As you note, Burns’ has produced less than 6 hours a year of programming for PBS through the period of the relationship, he and his productions are not the reason particular projects aren’t being funded.

    PBS has stated that they try to be inclusive in the sources for the programming and that isn’t being contested, so a more compelling argument could be, that Burns is hogging the white male quota for programming on PBS. Yeah, @R. Dave: is right, working the refs.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    We are neck deep in documentaries, PBS is not the only source. And I’m getting really tired of the incessant whines of, ‘not enough, more, more,’ and the North Korean level of imperative mood demands of what ‘we must do’ from every American with an axe to grind. It just becomes a background noise of bitching after a while, and like most background noises you start to edit it out of your consciousness.

  5. Jen says:

    PS–if any OTB hosts or commenters find themselves in Walpole, NH, the restaurant connected to LA Burdick’s chocolates is co-owned by Burns, and the food is fantastic.

  6. CSK says:

    I haven’t seen finnan haddie on a menu in I don’t know how long.

  7. To be honest when I first saw this news i thought it was an April Fools Day thing.

  8. Gustopher says:

    This is almost exactly the same as Duckworth and Hirono Holding Biden Nominees Hostage.

    Just working the refs, trying to get an advantage for their side. Best of luck to them, they will never wean PBS off Ken Burns, but if it is a zero sum game, maybe they can make the pie a little bigger.

  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    It may be PBS, but it’s still TV and in TV eyeballs are all that matter and Ken Burns is gonna draw a fuq-ton of eyeballs. That’s as simple as it gets.
    Need proof?
    There was a time when I was a huge Hemingway fan…read all his books, read his letters, read books about Hemingway. (A.E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway is a great one even if you don’t like Hemingway).
    I’ve since moved onto other pointless obsessions, but lately all you hear is that Hemingway is over-rated and a misogynist and can’t write women and toxic masculinity and blah, blah, blah. In spite of all of that, just you watch and see the viewership on this new Burns documentary.
    It’ll probably draw enough donations and sponsorships to pay for the Asian America history doc.

  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    Presumably, though, PBS decisionmakers believed that a six-hour Ken Burns miniseries on Hemingway would be more likely to draw more viewers than a feature on Asian-Americans by a niche filmmaker.

    Which is kind of the problem. Ken Burns is at a level where he doesn’t need public subsidy to be successful. There’s enough of a market that he could fund his next documentary through commercial sources. PBS should be working on developing “the next Ken Burns” by funding less well known documentarians who can’t get funding through other sources.

  11. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    e.g. there’s a lot more viewers for Marvel movies then independent films, but no one would suggest the NEA should ditch funding small film festivals and give all the money to Kevin Feige instead.

  12. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Ken Burns is at a level where he doesn’t need public subsidy to be successful.

    I doubt he’s getting much of a subsidy, if any. What he’s getting is a primetime slot. And that is a symbiotic relationship…PBS is benefitting as much as Burns is.

  13. @Stormy Dragon:

    Do we know how much PBS puts into a Birns project? I’ve never seen a number.

    Also, Burns has his own network of corporate and charitable organizations that help fund his films. Many of them are the same corporations and foundations that donate to PBS & NPR.

  14. Richard Gardner says:

    I remember many PBS stations played reruns of 50-60s Lawrence Welk Shows after 10PM until ~2000. It was one of their biggest source of telethon fundraising because old rich folks liked Welk. Young avant garde folks have little money. Follow the $ support.

  15. I discovered so Doctor Who because one of the PBS affiliates in the New York area broadcast episodes every Daturday night.

    Eventually I saw pretty much every episode from the 2nd Doctor to the 7th.

  16. Scott says:

    I don’t know what are considered documentaries by the complainants but I have on record Independent Lens, Frontline, American Experience, and American Masters. Don’t those count also?