PBS announced several initiatives Tuesday during the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour that are aimed at improving the diversity of its programming.
PBS and CPB gave Firelight Media $5.5 million to support its Firelight Documentary Lab and two other programs over a three-year period. A news release said the funding will more than double the number of filmmakers working with the programs, with the goal of assisting filmmakers from under-represented populations, such as Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and people based in the South, Midwest and U.S. Territories.
The $4 million from CPB represents a 33% increase in Firelight’s funding from the previous year. PBS provided $1.5 million in new funding.
The Firelight Documentary Lab, Firelight Media’s flagship 18-month mentoring program that supports filmmakers from a project’s conception through its completion, will expand the number of filmmakers in each cohort and will help Firelight’s Groundwork Regional Lab support 40 early-career filmmakers. Both Documentary Lab and Groundwork fellows and alumni will be commissioned to create digital short films for the PBS system.
“We are grateful for the support from CPB and PBS to expand and diversify this pipeline of documentary filmmakers for public media,” said Marcia Smith, president of Firelight Media.
Firelight Media was co-founded by Stanley Nelson. Several of his films, including The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, have aired on PBS.
Firelight Documentary Lab launched in 2009 and has received financial support from CPB since 2014. The organization’s programs that support filmmakers include the William Greaves Fund, formed in 2020 to assist mid-career documentary filmmakers of color, and an impact campaign fund to engage audiences.
Other existing programs that receive CPB’s support are the Groundwork Regional Lab and the Frontline/Firelight Fellowship. Firelight also partners with American Masters on the short-film series In the Making. Hindsight, a series of short films by filmmakers living in the American South and U.S. Territories, is a collaboration among Firelight Media; Reel South, a documentary series supported by Southern PBS stations; and the Center for Asian American Media, a member of the CPB-funded National Multicultural Alliance.
CPB President Pat Harrison and PBS Chief Programming Executive Sylvia Bugg both praised Firelight and said public media is committed to supporting a diverse range of filmmakers.
“Firelight Media plays a vital role in identifying, nurturing and supporting talented producers and helping them tell their stories through public media,” Harrison said, adding that Firelight “helps producers of color launch and sustain their careers.”
“As a media service that represents every person in every community in the United States, it is PBS’s mission to reflect a wide array of voices in our programming,” Bugg said.
As part of the expansion, Firelight Media will promote Chloë Walters-Wallace to director of regional initiatives. In the role, she will continue to lead the Groundwork Regional Lab and will also lead the regional short films initiative. Walters-Wallace joined Firelight Media in 2017 as manager of the Documentary Lab and most recently served as the lead for Firelight Media on the Hindsight series.
DEI plans required from producers
PBS also announced changes to its producing criteria across all platforms, including general audience programming, PBS Digital Studios and PBS Kids.
The new criteria require producers to provide their own diversity, equity and inclusion plans “as a deliverable at the proposal stage and for all new agreements, series renewals, and direct-to-PBS programs.” The update is “essential to advancing PBS’s mission to serve and represent all communities,” according to a PBS news release.
Filmmakers, most notably those in the group Beyond Inclusion, have criticized PBS for inequities in its funding and marketing decisions. Filmmakers recently told Current that they wanted the organization to do more to support their work.
For general audiences and PBS Digital Studios content, producers must provide plans prior to preproduction describing how the production “includes perspectives of underserved populations” in areas such as subject matter, on-screen talent and editorial personnel and behind-the-camera staff.
Within 45 days of completion of principal photography, after which the majority of a film is usually shot and ready for postproduction, producers must indicate whether DEI goals outlined in their plans were missed, met or surpassed. “When goals were not met, producers must provide details on which aspects were found challenging to address and why,” according to the news release. Producers must also submit final reports addressing their projects’ successes and challenges related to diversity, which are due on delivering the final copy of content.
“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,” Bugg said.
PBS Kids proposals will have separate requirements. Producers must submit written reports on how their projects and staffing efforts align with PBS Kids’ written commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“All children should grow up believing that the world is full of possibilities, and so are they,” said Linda Simensky, head of content for PBS Kids. “When children see authentic, positive representations of themselves in media, it has a measurable effect on their self-esteem and long-term success. PBS KIDS and our partners believe that authenticity doesn’t happen by accident, but rather through intentional efforts affecting all areas of production — and that the resulting content is made richer and more impactful in the process.”
New DEI leader
PBS hired Cecilia Loving as SVP of diversity, equity and inclusion, a new position. Loving, who will develop strategies to boost DEI efforts, will report to PBS President Paula Kerger.
“Cecilia is an accomplished leader who has extensive experience driving inclusive and equitable strategies,” Kerger said in a news release. “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.”
Loving most recently worked as deputy commissioner and chief diversity and inclusion officer for the New York City Fire Department. She has spent most of her career in legal affairs. She was law enforcement bureau attorney for the NYC Commission on Human Rights, as well as a litigator at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, Kramer Levin and the Legal Aid Society.
“PBS is one of the most trusted institutions in America, impacting people of all ethnicities, ages, and other demographics,” Loving said. “My goal is to build upon PBS’s strong foundation through transparency, trust, and ongoing collaboration with employees and key stakeholders across the public media system.”
Loving has certifications in diversity and inclusion from Yale University, Cornell University, Restorative Circle Keeping by Planning Change, Walking in Balance with a Racial Justice Lens by Strong Oak Lefebvre, and Courageous Conversations by the Winters Group.
She is a winner of the National Diversity Council’s 2021 Top 100 Diversity Officers Award and the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ 2021 Innovation Award for FDNY’s Inclusive Culture Strategy.