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On PBS Affilitate WETA's Lack Of Prime-Time Black History Month Programming - An Open Letter

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act February 10, 2014 at 3:11PM

On PBS Affilitate WETA's Lack Of Prime-Time Black History Month Programming - An Open Letter
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PBS

WETA, the PBS network affiliate serving the nation’s capital, District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland will not be following PBS' Black History Month prime-time programming scheduling, to the consternation of many across the country - especially in the aforementioned regions. And with very good reason of course. Instead, the station is, in some cases, airing reruns of Downton Abbey and Sherlock, as well as episodes of Antique Roadshow, and will instead broadcast PBS' Black History Month programming at some really odd, if inaccessible hours. 

For example, while a lot of us will be tuning in to watch Dawn Porter's Spies Of Mississippi tonight, when it makes its broadcast TV premiere courtesy of PBS, WETA will instead be airing Antiques Roadshow; and the station will premiere Spies Of Mississippi on Saturday night, February 15 at 11 pm.

That's just one example, because, as research will show, none of PBS' Black History Month programming will air in preferred, coveted weekday prime-time hours.

Dawn Porter (Spies Of Mississippi), penned an open letter to WETA brass (specifically Jeff Bieber, Vice President National Programming) in reaction to their perplexing decision. With Dawn's permission, I've reprinted her letter below. It's followed by a brief response she received from WETA.

Audiences around the country are encouraged to check the Black History Month lineups of their local PBS affiliates to ensure that the network's Black History Month programming, which includes the premieres of a few documentaries we've covered on this blog (like Spies Of Mississippi and Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth), will be airing during hours of the day that are accessible to you - and for most of us, those would be prime-time hours.

Yes, if your local PBS affiliate is airing Black History Month programming during hours that aren't as favorable or accessible, you could always record what you want to watch to view later. However, this isn't simply about time slots and accessibility. It's also about WETA's seeming lack of awareness and interest in the importance of PBS' long-standing emphasis on diversity, and the station's suggestion that it doesn't value PBS scheduled programming and ease of accessibility to it all - even during the month that TV networks specifically honor black history, as limited and reductive the idea of a single month dedicated to black history might be (another conversation for another time).

Apparently, reruns of Downton Abbey and Sherlock in prime-time, when networks clock their most significant and important viewership, are preferred by a station in WETA that, keep in mind, serves areas of the USA with hefty African/African American populations. If you want to watch Spies Of Mississippi, and you're in WETA's area range, you'll have to wait until this Saturday night, at 11pm to tune in, which means you'll miss all the live social media interaction that the rest of the country will be participating in tonight, when the film premieres for a lot of us.

Without further ado, here's Dawn's letter to WETA brass. After it, is WETA's reply:

Jeff Bieber

Vice President National Programming

WETA

3939 Campbell Avenue

Arlington, VA 22206

Dear Mr. Bieber,

I recently learned from a supporter that the programming schedule for your station on Monday, 10 February does not include an airing of my film, “Spies of Mississippi.” “Spies” is the Independent Lens selection for February, so I was dismayed to find out that instead of airing in Primetime on Monday at 10 pm, it will air in the Washington, DC area on Saturday, February 15 at 11:00 pm. Upon reviewing the programming schedule for WETA TV 26, it seems that NONE of the PBS programming for Black History Month will air during prime time.

In place of “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” the primetime slots on Friday, 7 February feature re-runs of “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock.” Instead of airing the documentary “American Promise” the Sundance award winning film, which chronicles the stories of two African American students in NYC and engages a meaningful discussion of contemporary issues regarding race and class, WETA aired “Antiques Roadshow” and a program about the British Royal family. My film explores a little known segment of history and features prominently Representative Bennie Thompson, D-MS, a sitting Member of Congress who risked his life during the civil rights movement and went on to become a distinguished member of the United States House of Representatives, chairing the Homeland Security Committee.  Your viewers will see Antiques Roadshow instead of hearing from this American inspiration. 

Multiple Emmy Award winning strands POV and Independent Lens have curated a series of important programs of depth and substance pertaining to Black History Month and yet your audience must hunt to find them. This is even more disturbing given that WETA is a flagship PBS station in the nation’s Capitol, with a large community of African Americans, including one who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  As a leader in the public media system, that theoretically serves an incredibly diverse community that contains a large African American population, your programming strategy is a terrible disappointment to not only the filmmakers, and the audience, but to the hardworking people in public media who try to ensure a diversity of voices on public television.

If stations such as WETA are going to bury the programming that seeks to share untold stories of underrepresented groups, then who CAN we count on to support this mission? If it is not important to engage with topics of race, America’s fraught history with African Americans and civil rights, and feature the leaders of the black community during prime time, when is it important to do so?

I respectfully request that you re-examine your programming selections. Your public service mission is to educate, inspire and evoke constructive civic discourse. Burying films that help advance these goals is an embarrassment to your station and the PBS brand it carries.  As a filmmaker and a longtime supporter of Public Television I am deeply disappointed by your treatment of programming by and about communities of color.

Respectfully yours,

Dawn Porter

Director

Spies of Mississippi


And here's WETA's reply:

Hi Dawn. Thank you for your comment and for sharing your letter with us here. I have passed it on (as well as the other feedback below) to our programming department. We are offering over 39 hours (20 different series) of programming during Black History Month and you can see a full list of these here: http://www.weta.org/local/black-history-month/tv

This article is related to: Dawn Porter, TV News, TV Features, Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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