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Ken Burns says he agrees PBS can 'do better' on diversity, representation

"We all have room for improvement," the Emmy-winning documentarian said in an interview.
Image: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

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 a letter addressed to executives of the Public Broadcasting Service, nearly 140 documentary filmmakers — including Garrett Bradley ("Time") and Sam Pollard ("MLK/FBI") — accused the public broadcaster of a "systemic failure to fulfill a mandate for a diversity of voices."

The filmmakers said they believe PBS has been far too reliant on the work of Burns, who has an exclusive relationship with PBS that will last until at least 2022.

In "A Letter to PBS From Viewers Like Us," the filmmakers said Burns has created roughly 211 hours of programming for PBS over 40 years, citing data from his website.

"How many other 'independent' filmmakers have a decades-long exclusive relationship with a publicly funded entity? Public television supporting this level of uninvestigated privilege is troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans," the letter writers said.

Beyond Inclusion, a group of nonfiction creators, executives and industry figures led by individuals who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, wrote the letter and collected the signatures.

Burns is best known for documentaries about epochal American historical events and expansive subjects, such as baseball, jazz and the Civil War. The filmmaker's latest project, a six-hour documentary about the author Ernest Hemingway that was co-directed by Lynn Novick, premieres Monday on PBS.

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."