More cable series than ever before feature social-issue documentaries, but public TV still stands out for diversity in both creators and characters, according to Center research that will be announced at the International Documentary Association’s 2014 Getting Real Documentary Film Conference.
A study executed by Patricia Aufderheide, Center Creative Director Caty Borum Chattoo and AU PhD student Tijana Milosevic found sharp contrasts. The study compared 61 documentaries from four 2013 series: Independent Lens, HBO Documentaries, CNN Docs, and ESPN 30 for 30. The team found that a greater number of Independent Lens programs featured creators from racial minorities, minority characters, or female characters.
Independent Lens showcased works by minority creators much more frequently than did the other programmers. Last year, almost a third (30%) of Independent Lens documentaries had at least one minority director, compared with only 13% of HBO documentaries and absolutely no CNN or ESPN documentaries. More than a quarter (26%) of Independent Lens documentaries had at least one minority producer, compared with 17% for CNN, 11% for ESPN, and 9% for HBO.
Independent Lens documentaries were also the most likely to feature minority and female characters. 83% of Independent Lens productions had at least one minority character, compared to 67% for ESPN, 26% for HBO, and 17% for CNN. Three quarters (74%) of Independent Lens productions had at least one female character, compared to 65% for HBO, 50% for CNN, and none for ESPN.
In women’s participation, the record was less clear. Only a third (35%) of Independent Lens productions had at least one female director, compared to a half for both HBO (52%) and CNN (50%). But Independent Lens featured a greater number of programs for which there was at least one female producer.
Public television is still the go-to venue for programming that draws on diverse perspectives and features diverse casts. By embracing diversity, public television helps bring more nuanced and underrepresented perspectives to public conversation.
Ironically, many local stations continue to program Independent Lens and its sister programming POV in the off-hours, and PBS nearly let both programs slip off the prime-time schedule last year.