Incentives for ‘diversity, innovation’ come with big CPB grant to PBS

By Dru Sefton

CPB and PBS are completing an agreement that may lead to the agency’s first annual grants for the PBS National Program Service based on measures of diversity and innovation in programming and related projects.

Sources tell Current that this funding method would be one of the strongest attempts to encourage diversity and innovation in pubcasting so far, influencing the allocation of $14 million or more over the two-year contract.

[Update: The final amount, CPB announced May 13, will be $20 million over two years. PBS request for proposals.]

CPB President Pat Harrison announced to the Board at its January meeting that the two had “reached a signed agreement,” but since then CPB has declined to provide specifics.

“Yes, CPB and PBS have a signed agreement that commits funding to projects that emphasize diversity and innovation,” CPB spokesperson Louise Filkins told Current in an e-mail. “We are now discussing an implementation plan that will detail precisely what kinds of projects will be supported over the next 18-24 months. There is no timeline for when all these guidelines will be finished, but everyone is working hard to get this done.”

Harrison said at the January meeting that the plan “will contain detail on themes of race, ethnicity and age, and specific metrics to measure success.” She added that the agreement is for two years, as opposed to the usual three, “so CPB can evaluate PBS’s performance before considering terms and conditions for future NPS grants.” Senior staffers from both groups collaborated on the planning, she said.

The initiative comes three years after a bitter showdown between PBS producer Ken Burns and Latino activists offended by the lack of Hispanic service members featured in his World War II documentary series.

More than a year ago a PBS Diversity Initiative on Content, based on interviews with nearly 80 pubcasters, white and minority, recommended that the network compile baseline data on program diversity and start measuring progress in serving a more diverse audience (Current, April 14, 2009).

In the past CPB has backed many NPS program projects that are innovative or about, for and by minority group members. This new grant program would be the first to contain specific standards for evaluation.

How CPB will measure either innovation or diversity is not clear. A program may look like success to one person and failure to another. At the PBS Content Summit in January, a network official pointed to The Story of India, a new limited series. But Jacquie Jones, executive director of the National Black Programming Consortium, said the show was hosted by a visiting Englishman, Michael Wood, whose role would make the program feel “very colonial” to many people of color — turning off the same viewers PBS wants to win over.

However the new NPS grant applies its incentives, some minority pubcasters are puzzled why the CPB-PBS agreement took so long.

Shirley Sneve, executive director of Native American Public Telecommunications, told Current she understands that work began in earnest last June when Joaquin Alvarado arrived at CPB as its senior v.p. for diversity and innovation; he departed for American Public Media last December. Alvarado was a driving force to complete the agreement, she said. Then, at the PBS Content Summit in January, programming execs John Wilson of PBS and Alvarado’s successor at CPB, Joe Tovares, acting v.p., diversity and innovation, said the new NPS guidelines would be available at the end of March. “There were lot of questions and a lot of interest” in the agreement from summit participants, Sneve said. “But we still have no real answers.”

Jones said that the ongoing lack of specifics is “frustrating,” adding, “There’s been a lot of stopping and starting.”

CPB offers a year’s subsidy for hiring minority professionals

In another move to diversify pubcasting stations and producers, CPB announced a Workforce Diversity Associates Program this month. An RFP dated April 9 requests proposals by midnight April 30. The grant year will begin in June or July.

The objective is “to spur sustainable long-term employment opportunities” for underrepresented minority groups.

Grantees will get partial support for employing “associates” for their first year. The grantees must propose plans for mentoring the associates and incorporating the new positions into their staffs.

CPB said it would supply lists of qualified associates, including graduates of the Emma Bowen Foundation/CPB scholars program.

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