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Diversity in Documentary TV Programming in the United States: Comparing Public TV and Cable Networks

October 2014
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Report by:

Pat Aufderheide,
University Professor, School of Communication, American University  
Director, Center for Media & Social Impact

Caty Borum Chattoo,
Executive in Residence, School of Communication, American University
Creative Director, Center for Media & Social Impact

Tijana Milosevic,
Doctoral Candidate, School of Communication, American University 








Comparison With Entertainment

Topics, Issues and Focus






To explore distinguishing features of public television in a television ecology increasingly populated with documentary, an audit was done of documentary programs aired in 2013 across public and commercial cable services. Among prestige broadcast and cablecast outlets for social-issue documentary, public television is marked by a greater proportion of minorities among directors/producers, and for featuring minorities and women among characters central to the documentary narrative.  This suggests a role for public television in a landscape increasingly welcoming to social-issue documentary. A more extensive audit is recommended. 



We would like to thank Assen Assenov and Lucas Regner at the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University.



Over the past decade, the landscape of documentary distribution has exploded in the United States. Social-issue filmmakers in particular have never had so many outlets, even in traditional broadcast and cable television. American public television, once nearly the only venue for the social-issue documentarian, now finds rivals from National Geographic, A&E, CNN, ESPN and others, as well as finding competition in the non-time-based environment, dominated by Netflix. Do independent documentary creators still need public television? Do viewers? Is there anything distinctive, in short, about public television in the explosion of showcases for documentary?

This question is an instance of a larger question about the mandate, function and purpose of public television in a multi-channel, multi-screen, broadband environment. Classic historical arguments about the public interest in public media services, articulated by scholar/public intellectuals such as Blumler (Blumler, 1992) and Raboy, emphasize the powerful distinction between consumer and citizen for media services: “In a broadcasting environment that treats the public as a body of clients or consumers, the role of broadcasting is to address people as citizens.” (Raboy, 1995, p. 9) This concern is also evident among early leaders within public broadcasting, such as James Day (Day, 1995) and Bill Moyers, a founder of U.S. public television and celebrant of its civic utility in his programs.

This question also resonates with discussions of public broadcasting as a mediating element in the public sphere, or the circulation of discourse about public affairs that creates public life. As James Carey noted, reality is a scarce resource; media do not merely interpret that reality but go far to create the reality we understand (Carey, 1989). Many have judged public television against its ability to generate and distribute public sphere-encouraging programming (Garnham, 2000; Keane, 1991). As the multi-channel and multi-screen ecology has become ever more complex, with distributed networks supplanting the one-to-many model of broadcasting, a debate that was engendered internationally by neoliberal skepticism over government funding for public broadcasting has evolved into one about how to serve public interests best in a networked environment (Aufderheide & Clark, 2009; Glowacki & Jackson, 2014; Knight, 2009).  And yet legislators who allocate funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting continue to recognize it as a valued site to inform public discourse, among other things (McLoughlin & Gurevitz, 2013).

In the U.S., public television began as a complementary service to commercial broadcasting, with minority funding from taxpayers and strong incentives to stay decentralized and to partner with the corporate sector; it has evolved shaped around its political and economic pressures (Aufderheide, 2000; Rowland Jr, 1986). In the mini-ecology of U.S. public television, social-issue documentaries are a small element in programming, but a large element in defining the difference between public and commercial broadcasting. At a time when commercial sites for social-issue documentary are proliferating, such programming offers a way to investigate how public broadcasting differs from commercial services.

In deciding on proxies to assess such difference, we focused on representation of minorities and women in such programming. In general, minorities and women are underrepresented in American media overall and notably in broadcast and cable programming, even though ratings have been shown to be higher for programs featuring minorities and women (Hunt, Ramon, & Price, 2014). Thus, continued underrepresentation appears to reflect not an economic bias, but rather systemic discrimination. One role of public television as an agent of fostering public-sphere activity in a society with marked values in support of social equality would be to engage diversity.

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This project uses a limited content analysis approach – an audit – to examine demographics and subject matter of documentaries shown in 2013 across four networks. The approach was highly selective, because of resource constraints. Thus, the study focuses on a small sample, and only looks at publicly available, web-based materials. We focused on branded series that feature work by independent creators, and work designed to raise questions of public importance. On public television, only Independent Lens strand films were considered. We selected Independent Lens as the strand with the greatest number of annual offerings by independent producers per season. (Other strands, for a more extensive study, might be POV and American Masters, among others.) On commercial television, we focused on a few of the series that offer alternatives for documentarians considering placement for a social-issue documentary. We selected the 2013 season documentaries on HBO, a longtime leader in social-issue documentaries on commercial cable; ESPN 30 X 30, which features sports topics often with a social/cultural context; and CNN Docs, which features public affairs content and perspectives. (Other alternatives for independent producers that could be analyzed in a more extensive study could be Al Jazeera English, Participant Media, Netflix and Amazon; one might also extend discussion to DIY platforms such as Tugg and Gathr.) The study examines 61 total documentaries shown across the four networks – 23 on Independent Lens (public broadcasting), 23 on HBO, 6 on CNN Docs, and 9 on ESPN 30 X 30 series.

We examined the racial and gender diversity of creators (directors and producers) and lead characters, as well as subject matter. Coders considered only information made public, either on the television programmer’s website or on IMDB.com, and they used the self-description on the sites to make a judgment about keywords to use in evaluating the subject matter. Finally, the authors considered the approach of the subject matter of the films, as revealed by their online synopses. For comparison, as of the 2010 U.S. census, the population was 51% female and 72% white. [i]

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In general, documentaries showcased in 2013 on these four series likely feature creators who were white and female, though women are much more likely to be producers. Of all documentaries across the four networks, more than 4 out of 5 (84%) did not have any minority directors. In terms of gender, two-thirds (62%) have no women directors. Among producers, 84% feature no minority producers; three-quarters (75%) of the productions feature women producers.

Figure 1

Figure 2 

The aggregate demographic results for female makers, in this small study, appear to be congruent with a much larger one. In comparing overall results with a study of more than 11,000 filmmakers who participated in Sundance Institute events between 2002 and 2012, proportions are very similar, although figures may be skewed since the unit was a person in the Sundance study and a program in ours. Sundance documentary participants were 42.2% women among directors, compared with 38% in ours; and 75% women among producers, matching 75% in ours (Smith, Pieper, & Choueiti, 2014). Comparable statistics for minorities were not available for comparison.

Compared with the pattern created by all 61 programs, both Independent Lens and HBO productions featured more minority directors. Independent Lens directors were the most racially diverse of the four networks; 30% of Independent Lens documentary productions had at least one minority director, compared with 13% for HBO. Documentary films distributed by CNN and ESPN were not directed by any minority directors.

Women directors were represented in every category but the sports channel ESPN. Twelve (52%) of HBO’s documentaries featured at least one woman director, compared with Independent Lens’ eight (or 35% of the productions); three of CNN’s six documentaries had a woman among directors. 

Among productions with at least one minority producer, Independent Lens productions had six (26%), HBO two, CNN and ESPN one. At least one female producer is found in most Independent Lens documentaries (87%), and fewer but similarly for HBO and CNN. Only one ESPN documentary featured a woman producer.

Overall, both Independent Lens and HBO exceeded the average for representation of minorities and women among creators, with Independent Lens productions by far the most likely to feature minorities as creators.


Across all networks examined, more than half (57%) of all the 2013 documentaries analyzed featured at least one woman as a lead character – that is, someone who features in the central narrative of the documentary. About a third (36%) of all documentaries analyzed have between one and three minority lead characters.

Compared with this average, Independent Lens documentaries by far are most likely to feature at least one minority representative as a lead character. On Independent Lens, four of five documentaries (83%) depict at least one minority representative as a lead character. By contrast, only a quarter (26%) of HBO documentaries do, and one CNN documentary does. Two-thirds (67%) of ESPN Docs do, as one might expect in a series about major sports figures.

Figure 3 

In gender, about half (49%) of all the documentaries analyzed featured between one and three female lead characters; a few feature more, and 43% had no female lead characters.

Compared with this average, Independent Lens documentaries were the most likely to show at least one female as a lead character. On Independent Lens, three-quarters (74%) of documentaries depicted at least one female lead character, compared with almost two-thirds (65%) of HBO documentaries, and half of the CNN Docs. ESPN films had no female lead characters.

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Independent documentary is often celebrated as a community distinctive from the mainstream entertainment industry. Thus, comparison of these results with other studies of minority and female participation in the industry is of interest.

We drew on demographic statistics for cable comedies and dramas in 2011-12, selecting it above theatrical and reality programming for some parallelism with the long form documentary venues. Among “show creators,” the nearest equivalent to director, 26% are female and 7% minority. About 37% of the lead actors are female, and 15% are minority.  (Hunt et al., 2014). In our study, 38% of programs have at least one woman director, and 16% have a minority director.   About half the programs feature at least one woman, and 36% feature a minority character. Thus, comparing television venues for documentary and fiction entertainment, documentary programming is more likely to have both female and minority directors. It is no more likely to have a woman character, but substantially more likely to feature a minority character. Neither cable fiction nor documentary programming represents women or minorities at their level in the general population.

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This study did not code for content, but authors did make anecdotal note of themes. Human and civil rights issues generally were taken up by some films in all series, indicated by concern with equality, justice, and representation. For instance, the ESPN documentary “Youngstown Boys” contrasts the very different fates of two sports figures, one African-American and one white, as a reflection of race and class.  CNN Docs’ “The Unreal Dream” concerns a miscarriage of justice. HBO’s “Gideon’s Army” concerns the legal representation of those who cannot afford a lawyer. Independent Lens’ “The Waiting Room” deals with the quality of healthcare for the under- and uninsured. 

The Independent Lens series was especially likely to feature issues from the viewpoints of underrepresented people, whether women suffering from domestic violence or violence in the military, First Peoples’ political rights and conflicts, undocumented immigrants, or at-risk students.  In two other series, fame and celebrity were more likely to be featured; for instance in HBO’s “Love, Marilyn” and “Casting By,” and in ESPN’s consistent focus on celebrity sports figures.  The one Independent Lens documentary to feature celebrities was “Don’t Stop Believin,’” about the rock band Journey’s incorporation of a Filipino singer who rose to popularity through YouTube into the group’s tour.  Independent Lens also features the widest range of approaches and topics, while cable series topics and approaches tend to conform to the niche strategy so crucial to success in the commercial cable environment.

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This study can only be suggestive, given the small pool of documentaries, the widely varying numbers of documentaries in the programs, the fact that all data were drawn from publicly available websites, and the narrow range of questions asked about the documentaries. Nonetheless, we believe that the results are indicative of a difference worth exploring and demonstrate the potential value of a more thorough audit and analysis. We believe it is worth more extensively exploring the question of the distinctions possible to be drawn between public television and commercial television in showcasing social-issue documentary.

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This study suggests that within the ecosystem of U.S. documentary distribution, public broadcasting remains a uniquely valuable player, playing a role in fostering public-sphere activity both by representation of minorities and women as participants and also by representation of both issues and characters in ways that engage questions of diversity. Public television’s showcase of social-issues documentaries Independent Lens demonstrates a distinctive public role for public television, as measured by a commitment to diversity, public broadcasting appears marked in such commitment, whether measured by creators, subjects or subject matter. 

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