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PBS, 'Spies Of Mississippi', And The Business Of TV Programming Based On Racial Viewing Habits

Shadow and Act By Emmanuel Akitobi | Shadow and Act February 11, 2014 at 11:15AM

While I empathize with filmmaker Dawn Porter and frustrated viewers regarding the PBS Black History Month scheduling flap, I think some more important questions to be posed are . . .
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Bottom Left: Dawn Porter, filmmaker (Spies of Mississippi)
PBS Bottom Left: Dawn Porter, filmmaker (Spies of Mississippi)

While I empathize with filmmaker Dawn Porter and frustrated viewers regarding the PBS Black History Month scheduling flap, I think some more important questions to be posed are, "Why do we still categorize the content of this programming as black history, and not American history?  Why can't we see this programming year-round?  Why must it all be lumped into the month of February?"

An even bigger question could be, "Why didn't Washington, DC-based PBS member-station WHUT (the HU stands for historically black Howard University) air Porter's Spies Of Mississippi last night?"

I called WHUT this morning to inquire as to whether the civil rights era-set documentary would air at any time this week, and the gentleman to whom I spoke didn't seem to be familiar with the title.  Anyhow, it's not on WHUT's online programming schedule, so I don't expect to be able to view it on that station.  Clearly, if a PBS station run by Howard University isn't airing Spies of Mississippi, then some other motivation, besides an aversion to Black History Month programming, is being employed.

To be fair, it's probably safe to assume that a majority of blacks in this country likely aren't regular viewers of PBS anyway, because PBS doesn't regularly air programs that appeal to them (or any other racial/ethnic minority in America, for that matter).  That's not a knock on PBS; I'm just calling it how I see it.

So, if blacks aren't watching during the month of February, and a large portion of white viewers tune out during the so-called "black-themed" programming (and we can safely assume that a lot of them do, based on how "black" shows typically perform in TV ratings elsewhere), then how many viewers are there left to watch?

Probably very little; and the ratings will reflect as much.

Because of this, I can almost understand why some PBS member stations would opt out of airing the Black History Month schedule, from a business standpoint.  They want to continually appeal to the viewers who add to the public and private funding they already receive from government and corporate entities.  This is really no different than how regular network and cable TV networks operate.  It's a simple business model that has helped sustain an industry which is more concerned with commerce than it is art.  I wish it wasn't that way, but it is.  That's why the lives of some of our more beloved TV programs sometimes are sometimes cut short, despite viewer outcry.  Commerce and art don't mix well because commerce, in our present society, will almost always win in any struggle between the two.

That's, at least, my own rationalization for why PBS member station WETA likely decided not to air Spies Of Mississippi and other Black History Month programming.  As for member station WHUT, of Howard University, not airing the film--I don't know what to make of that.  Maybe a representative from HU will reach out to S&A with an explanation.

So, what needs to happen now?

I think it's great that Porter and others are reaching out to stations like WETA and are asking for answers.  If these stations were unaware of their viewer's interests in seeing more diverse programming, they're not anymore.  The best way to affect change is to first ask for it.

What I would like to see change with a lot of these PBS member-stations, is the propensity to segregate the programming on their schedules.  Why not mix it up a little?  Why can't we see programs with more diverse casts, like British series Death In Paradise (a personal favorite), aired alongside Downton Abbey and Doc Martin?  This past month, in the U.K., the Sara Martins-starring murder mystery series was averaging more than 6 million viewers every week.  Doesn't it make business-sense to push a show like that in prime-time?  I think I may have caught Death In Paradise on a local PBS member station once or twice, at around 11PM.

It's not an exact science, but I believe that if viewers hesitant to diversifying their viewing palette are exposed to a wider array of programming--all of the time--they may begin to feel that all of the programming is for them; as opposed to this sentiment of, "Black History?  That's for black people; change the channel."

Let us not forget that the subject of programming such as Spies Of Mississippi is still recent history.  Despite what many believe, racial attitudes in America have not changed that drastically in the past 50 years.  A large portion of PBS' and other network's viewership is comprised of people who were present during that moment in history, are set in their ways, and likely haven't changed much since.  If the viewers aren't willing to change, then it's up to the networks themselves to do so.  So, c'mon, PBS, mix it up!  Stop scheduling your 2014 programming to the suitability of attitudes from 1964.  You only stand to benefit from it.

So, yes, Dawn Porter and others have great reason to be upset that some PBS member-stations are not airing Spies Of Mississippi and other Black History Month programming during the month of February.  But for those member stations that do air the programming this month, let's continue to remind them while it's appreciated, it would be appreciated more if that same programming is scheduled to air every month.


This article is related to: Documentary, Dawn Porter


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