PBS’ ‘Big Focus’ Is Finding the Next Possible Ken Burns, Network Head Says

Paula Kerger didn’t give a name but emphasized an investment in first-time filmmakers

Paula Kerger
President and CEO of PBS, Paula Kerger speaks during the PBS segment of the 2020 Winter TCA Press Tour (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

When it comes to its storied documentary arm, PBS knows it can’t solely rely on the work of Ken Burns. Network president Paula Kerger explained how the channel was diversifying this essential arm of its programming on Monday during the Television Critics Association’s 2024 winter tour.

Specifically, current TCA president and freelancer for Variety and The New York Daily News Jacquline Cutler asked, “Is there someone who you look at and you think that could be — not that anyone can be Ken Burns — but that could be the next Ken Burns? Someone to carry on the mantle and is not a white male?”

“That has actually been the big focus for us over the course of the last years. There’s been a lot of funding for first-time filmmakers,” Kerger said Monday morning.

Though the PBS head refused to explicitly name a filmmaker, she emphasized that the network has a history of working with Firelight Media, its co-founders Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith and “the great talent that they’re bringing forward.”

“That has been the goal. You can’t build a network off a single individual, and you can’t develop content with just a narrow lens,” Kerger continued. “We’ve always brought people into the organization. I would say that in the last years that focus has become even moreso.”

Kerger also emphasized that its filmmaking program is composed “about 54%” of talent or producers that come from diverse and underrepresented communities.

“This is an area that we continue to be focused on because we view ourselves as America’s storyteller. As a storyteller, you have to represent stories of all of America,” Kerger said. “We’ve done several rounds of funding for up-and-coming filmmakers.”

The executive noted that PBS has spent time developing work through its digital studios as well as on a community level across the country, utilizing PBS stations to develop talent in the YouTube space. PBS also looks inward when it comes to fostering talent, paying attention to “who’s in leadership positions, who makes the editorial decisions.”

“All of that together is what has helped us really develop out a really good cross-section of programming that attempts to meet the needs of diversity in this country,” Kerger said.

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