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PBS, ‘Spies Of Mississippi’, And The Business Of TV Programming Based On Racial Viewing Habits

PBS, 'Spies Of Mississippi', And The Business Of TV Programming Based On Racial Viewing Habits

While I empathize with filmmaker Dawn Porter and frustrated viewers regarding the PBS Black History Month scheduling flap, I think some more important questions to be posed are, “Why do we still categorize the content of this programming as black history, and not American history?  Why can’t we see this programming year-round?  Why must it all be lumped into the month of February?”

An even bigger question could be, “Why didn’t Washington, DC-based PBS member-station WHUT (the HU stands for historically black Howard University) air Porter’s Spies Of Mississippi last night?”

I called WHUT this morning to inquire as to whether the civil rights era-set documentary would air at any time this week, and the gentleman to whom I spoke didn’t seem to be familiar with the title.  Anyhow, it’s not on WHUT’s online programming schedule, so I don’t expect to be able to view it on that station.  Clearly, if a PBS station run by Howard University isn’t airing Spies of Mississippi, then some other motivation, besides an aversion to Black History Month programming, is being employed.

To be fair, it’s probably safe to assume that a majority of blacks in this country likely aren’t regular viewers of PBS anyway, because PBS doesn’t regularly air programs that appeal to them (or any other racial/ethnic minority in America, for that matter).  That’s not a knock on PBS; I’m just calling it how I see it.

So, if blacks aren’t watching during the month of February, and a large portion of white viewers tune out during the so-called “black-themed” programming (and we can safely assume that a lot of them do, based on how “black” shows typically perform in TV ratings elsewhere), then how many viewers are there left to watch?

Probably very little; and the ratings will reflect as much.

Because of this, I can almost understand why some PBS member stations would opt out of airing the Black History Month schedule, from a business standpoint.  They want to continually appeal to the viewers who add to the public and private funding they already receive from government and corporate entities.  This is really no different than how regular network and cable TV networks operate.  It’s a simple business model that has helped sustain an industry which is more concerned with commerce than it is art.  I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.  That’s why the lives of some of our more beloved TV programs sometimes are sometimes cut short, despite viewer outcry.  Commerce and art don’t mix well because commerce, in our present society, will almost always win in any struggle between the two.

That’s, at least, my own rationalization for why PBS member station WETA likely decided not to air Spies Of Mississippi and other Black History Month programming.  As for member station WHUT, of Howard University, not airing the film–I don’t know what to make of that.  Maybe a representative from HU will reach out to S&A with an explanation.

So, what needs to happen now?

I think it’s great that Porter and others are reaching out to stations like WETA and are asking for answers.  If these stations were unaware of their viewer’s interests in seeing more diverse programming, they’re not anymore.  The best way to affect change is to first ask for it.

What I would like to see change with a lot of these PBS member-stations, is the propensity to segregate the programming on their schedules.  Why not mix it up a little?  Why can’t we see programs with more diverse casts, like British series Death In Paradise (a personal favorite), aired alongside Downton Abbey and Doc Martin?  This past month, in the U.K., the Sara Martins-starring murder mystery series was averaging more than 6 million viewers every week.  Doesn’t it make business-sense to push a show like that in prime-time?  I think I may have caught Death In Paradise on a local PBS member station once or twice, at around 11PM.

It’s not an exact science, but I believe that if viewers hesitant to diversifying their viewing palette are exposed to a wider array of programming–all of the time–they may begin to feel that all of the programming is for them; as opposed to this sentiment of, “Black History?  That’s for black people; change the channel.”

Let us not forget that the subject of programming such as Spies Of Mississippi is still recent history.  Despite what many believe, racial attitudes in America have not changed that drastically in the past 50 years.  A large portion of PBS’ and other network’s viewership is comprised of people who were present during that moment in history, are set in their ways, and likely haven’t changed much since.  If the viewers aren’t willing to change, then it’s up to the networks themselves to do so.  So, c‘mon, PBS, mix it up!  Stop scheduling your 2014 programming to the suitability of attitudes from 1964.  You only stand to benefit from it.

So, yes, Dawn Porter and others have great reason to be upset that some PBS member-stations are not airing Spies Of Mississippi and other Black History Month programming during the month of February.  But for those member stations that do air the programming this month, let’s continue to remind them while it’s appreciated, it would be appreciated more if that same programming is scheduled to air every month.

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A Little Research Goes a Long Way

The author clearly needs to research how PBS stations are programmed, who makes the decisions, and the status of WHUT as a "PBS" station. So many assumptions and misinformation make your concerns easy to dismiss.
And yes, please do call the African American man who is the head of programming at WETA and ask why 99% of the time he passes on programming ANY independent documentaries regardless of the subject matter.


To the author:

Another thing—–you and all the other folks who are mad about this particular program not being shown—should call up that station and send e-mails to the program manager to protest the non-showing. My guess is that if enough regular PBS donors in your area call up and complain about the program not being on that PBS affiliate's schedule, they'll find a way to get it on there—after all, you're part of their viewing audience–they'll have to listen to all of you anyway.


To the author:

I watch PBS ALL the time (I practically grew up on it, watching Sesame Street and everything) and I'm black, and they air programs about people of color (particularly black folks) a whole hell of a lot—in fact, I see more diverse programming on my local PBS station than some of the regular mainstream ones. (I have to add that I'm from the Detroit area,and so I get to see a lot more African-American-oriented programming mainly because of the D's majority black population, so I can almost take for granted seeing folks that look like me on PBS all the time, as well as on local shows.) I think it depends on what part of the country you live in, and that more than likely determines what programs are shown on your local PBS affiliate. SPIES OF MISSISSIPPI has already been shown at least twice this past week on PBS, as well as many other programs like it—they really go all out for Black History month with the programming. So just because Washington D.C.'s PBS affiliate got their Black History schedule messed up dosen't mean that it was the same with everybody else's PBS schedule.

So that's a big assumption on your part that black people don't watch PBS, because me and my family grew up watching it,too.


PBS does lots of repeat programing in my area. So, I'm sure "Spies of Mississippi" will be seen in other months other than February. I saw the film and it was very good.

Marshell Brown

I am not quite sure why the author ASSUMES that Blacks aren't interested in PBS which is totally false or that white viewers aren't interested either. Neither do I understand the programming of a DC PBS station. Most of us well rounded folks like viewing a plethora of shows for entertainment or educational purposes. I am grateful that the New York stations have continued to inundate us with old, new and innovative shows; ALL YEAR ROUND. By the way, you know what they always say about assuming.




WHAT THE FU*K!!!… The most offense statement of the year at this blog was not given by a drive-by racist, nor your garden variety knucklehead, this prick was actually a welcomed guest writer.

Hey, I ain't afraid to say it. In fact, I am surprised no one other than Alias caught the foul sh*t. Yeah, I'm pissed, I mean, WHAT THE FU*K is this!!???—> "it's probably safe to assume that a majority of blacks in this country likely aren't regular viewers of PBS anyway, because PBS doesn't regularly air programs that appeal to them" ~ Emmanuel Akitobi, guest writer – Shadow And Act

Blacks "in this country" aren't what? Listen, you've lost you fking mind or YOU ARE a garden variety raciest prick. I know, I shouldn't be so crude and disrespectful, but you have to give some to get some, and you've pissed in our punch. I mean, are you implying that blacks are not interested in… what? I mean, PBS's Mission and Value statement reads:

PBS is America's largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.

America's Largest Stage.

At a time when funding for music and arts within our schools is being cut, PBS is helping to keep the arts alive today and for generations to come by ensuring the worlds of music, theater, dance and art remain available to all Americans, many of whom might never have had the opportunity to experience them otherwise. Last year, PBS offered close to 500 hours of arts and cultural programming, which was watched by nearly 120 million people.

A Trusted Window to the World
PBS offers programming for a wide range of ages, interests and genres. Each month, millions through television and over 28 million people online explore the worlds of science, history, culture, great literature and public affairs through PBS’ trusted content.

So Mr. Akitobi, what exactly are you saying blacks in this country don't do or are not interested in? Well, I'd suggest that you speak for yourself because you are NOT speaking for anyone in my family.

Phred G

Glad I am not the ONLY person who LOVED "Death In Paradise". To be honest I started watching it because I fell in love with Ben Miller's comedically-serious acting style in "Primeval" (another great Brit show with a USA knock-off). That Ben is the only white cast regular is icing on the cake. The whole cast is fabulous along with the writing. Will there be/Is there a 2nd season???
I also agree with 'integrating' black programming into the whole year, not just February.

Eric Easter

You also miss the point that the whole notion of public TV and public funding is that it should not be beholden to either advertisers or ratings. Nor should one assume that because a subject has some relationship to the Black experience that it only holds value to Black audiences. WETA's range reaches two of the highest income and highest educated black counties in America, and the doesn't even count DC. If they want black audiences -and black donors- they will program to that audience.

Eric Easter

You also did not do your homework about WHUT. As the third of three PBS stations covering the same market (including MD's WMPT), WHUT's license requires it to program against the two larger stations on first run programming. In short, new programs must air on one of the other two at least one week before it airs on WHUT. WHUT has American Promise, Spies of Mississippi and Jack Johnson scheduled on the same night –in prime time– next week, as well as a regular slate of black and globally focused programming in other time periods– every day, year round.


You sure do make a lot of assumptions about people's viewing habits. I know plenty of black, and white folks who regularly watch ALL types of programs on PBS, year-round — including specific programming airing during Black History Month. …In case you haven't noticed we have progressed in this country to where white people are interested in art/movies/books with black protagonists and stories that, widely, feature black characters and real life people.

I do agree with you, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates wrote about this last week at The Root, that black history IS American history and needs to be better integrated into our schools, and society writ large, as opposed to being singled out, one month per year.

Perhaps one way to do this is for filmmakers, like Porter, to insist that their work be aired at time, other than February. I do believe it was deliberate, on Dr. Gates part, that "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," aired last November. And it did some major numbers for PBS. So, again, I don't know why you make so many "assumptions" about blacks and whites who aren't watching this network. I certainly hope other readers of S&A who are articulate, intelligent patrons of art/books/good TV/film find your "assumptions" as offensive as I do.

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