As a media company that represents varied communities across the United States, PBS continues to build on its commitment to transparent reporting and accountability. On Tuesday, at its Television Critics Association (TCA) summer presentation, the public broadcasting network introduced several new initiatives and new producing partner criteria that encourage the telling of inclusive stories and promote diverse voices through its programming.
Cecilia Loving — who comes from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), where she served as Deputy Commissioner, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer — has been named the new SVP of Diversity Equity and Inclusion at PBS, reporting directly to President and CEO Paula Kerger. Among Loving’s duties will be the development of new strategies and cultivation of future partnerships. She will also work with the public television system to support ongoing efforts around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).
“Cecilia is an accomplished leader who has extensive experience driving inclusive and equitable strategies,” Kerger said in a statement. “As a system that serves every person in every community, reflecting the full range of the American experience is central to the mission of public television, and Cecilia will play an integral role in deepening our longstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Under Loving’s leadership, producer partners will now be required to create and share their DEI plans for all new agreements, as well as describe how their projects align with PBS’ DEI principles, and disclose representation data for production team members for both above-the-line talent and below-the-line positions. These guidelines will be standard for producers across all PBS platforms, including Children’s Programming and PBS Digital Studios.
“PBS works closely with producing partners, station producers and individual creators to distribute educational and thought-provoking content to millions of viewers each year,” said Sylvia Bugg, PBS Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming. “Our updated criteria and reporting standards will ensure that the content distributed across PBS platforms continues to reflect the diversity of the audiences we serve.”
These efforts come after PBS and Kerger faced questions during the network’s previous TCA panel in March over an open letter from documentary filmmakers that cited a “systemic failure to fulfill (its) mandate for a diversity of voices.” Signed by Garrett Bradley, Dawn Porter, Roger Ross Williams, and many more, the letter questioned PBS’ dependence on programming from “one white male filmmaker” — namely, Ken Burns, who has an exclusive relationship with PBS and has so far created more than 211 hours of programming spanning 40 years — and asked the network to chart a path forward by engaging with BIPOC filmmakers.
When asked what brought about the changes announced on Tuesday, Kerger said the letter “was definitely a piece of it.”
“We recognize there was a need for us to be more deliberate […] in making a shared commitment to not only who’s on screen, but who’s telling the stories,” Kerger said. “What we’re embarking on isn’t a short-term commitment” — PBS views it as a “foundational” shift for the organization.
In addition to the previous announcements, a $5.5 million grant ($4 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — CPB — and $1.5 million from PBS) will be awarded over the next three years to Firelight Media, the non-profit filmmaking company founded by Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith with a long history of supporting underrepresented documentary filmmakers. The grant will allow for expansion and integration of Firelight Media’s three key artists support programs: The Firelight Documentary Lab, its flagship 18-month mentoring program, which supports filmmakers from a project’s conception through its completion, will expand the number of filmmakers in each group; Groundwork Regional Labs will serve 40 early career filmmakers in partnership with local stations; and digital short films will be commissioned from Documentary Lab and Groundwork fellows or alumni and other regional BIPOC filmmakers for PBS.
“This funding from CPB and PBS will help us expand and integrate 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,” said Marcia Smith, President, Firelight Media. “We are grateful for the support from CPB and PBS to expand and diversify this pipeline of documentary filmmakers for public media.”
Also, with a $3 million grant from CPB, PBS Digital Studios will establish three Regional Digital Centers of Innovation to partner with up to three PBS member stations located in geographically diverse markets across the country, resulting in up to 15 new digital series that will air on its digital platforms over the next two years.
The regional centers will exclusively focus on content that elevates the voices of diverse content creators, both in front of and behind the camera. The first shows under the initiative will begin airing in the Spring of 2022, on YouTube and, in some cases, social platforms like Facebook, TikTok and IGTV.
Other key announcements include a multi-pronged PBS initiative to create STEM-related, short-form videos, and conduct follow-up research to better understand how and why these videos attract underrepresented groups.
According to PBS’ own research, YouTube’s most popular STEM creators are disproportionately white and male, which also reflects viewership data. With a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, PBS Digital Studios will aim to remedy this problem by expanding PBS TERRA, its home of science and nature shows, to new, diverse audiences.
And in terms of specific programming, PBS will celebrate America’s diverse culinary roots in a new cooking competition series titled “The Great American Recipe,” coming in summer 2022. Hosted by Alejandra Ramos, the eight-part series will give a diverse pool of talented home chefs the opportunity to showcase their signature dishes.
The American Masters series will explore the life and impact of visionary African American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey in the new documentary “Ailey,” directed by Jamila Wignot, premiering on January 11. The film features previously unheard audio of Ailey and new interviews with dance world luminaries including Judith Jamison, Bill T. Jones, Carmen de Lavallade, Rennie Harris and others.
And, on October 4, 2021, PBS Kids will premiere “Alma’s Way,” a new animated series from Fred Rogers Productions. Created by Sonia Manzano, beloved by generations as “Sesame Street’s” Maria, who broke new ground as one of the first Latino characters on national television, the series is inspired by Manzano’s own childhood, and centers on a six-year-old proud Puerto Rican girl who lives in the Bronx with her family among a diverse group of friends and community members. The series will aim to provide children with the tools necessary to express themselves, and respect the perspectives of others.
The implementation of these new initiatives illustrate PBS’ understanding that equity doesn’t happen accidentally, but rather through intentional efforts affecting all areas of production and exhibition, resulting in content that is richer and more impactful overall.