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Doyennes of Doc-TV: PBS

By Belinda Baldwin

Paula Apsell began her career with PBS in 1975 as a production assistant on a small science series called NOVA. Back then, men would typically be brought in as associate producer and women of comparable experience, as production assistants. Apsell started as a production assistant, although, at 30, she was older than many of the associate producers and already had experience as a producer in public radio. She consequently jumped to associate producer rather quickly, and when, on a fluke, she was given a chance to produce, she did so with acuity and success. Still, after finishing the project, "They wanted me to go back to associate producer, but I put up a fight," the award-winning executive producer of the series says.

Today, PBS is run by talented women. Besides Apsell, there's Susan Lacy at American Masters, Cara Mertes at P.O.V. and Lois Vossen at Independent Lens/Independent Television Service (ITVS). In 2000, Pat Mitchell, the first woman to host and produce a national talk show (Woman to Woman) out of her own production company, also became the first woman president and CEO of PBS. Mitchell has been instrumental in bringing in women-centered programming like Eve Ensler's What I Want My Words to Do to You (Judith Katz, Madeleine Gavin, Gary Sunshine, dirs.), about women in prison.

Ask Vossen about her career at PBS and she'll tell you she's only ever worked with exceptionally talented "female bosses and feminist men." Since 1996 she has worked at ITVS, a San Francisco-based programming and presenting branch of PBS, and since 2002 as series producer for Independent Lens, the Emmy Award-winning series of independent documentaries and features that is in keeping with ITVS' mission to bring public television audiences a rich range of programs by a diverse body of independent producers. Vossen sees PBS as "a place for smart women to grow" and takes pride in being a role model to "younger women coming up the food chain."

So does Mertes, executive director, since 2000, of P.O.V., the long-running showcase for independent, nonfiction media. "I've only ever worked for women at PBS, so it's nothing new," says Mertes, who consciously chooses high-quality film projects with stories we might not see on commercial television. And that's why P.O.V. gets to have so many "firsts"--first stories by first-time filmmakers. The latest airs this February: Chisholm'72: Unbought & Unbossed, the first American film made about Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for US president, and it's directed by first-time female filmmaker Shola Lynch. "That's what nonprofit is all about: diversity," says Vossen.

To some extent, PBS has always been about diversity. The government initiated public broadcasting in the late 1960s to "save" television from private interests. A decade later, during the US bicentennial celebration, the government put even more money into PBS to generate American programming, like American Playhouse. Up until this point, many of PBS's best producers were from the BBC, and many were men.

Since then, PBS has gone from a low-profile place to work to a viable entity in television. The idea of American Masters, an ongoing series of documentaries that examine the lives, works and creative processes of America's greatest cultural artists, was one that, according to Lacy, "nobody thought was good" when it was introduced over 20 years ago. Yet it has been programs like American Masters that have saved PBS from its reputation as a stodgy learning network. During the interim, women producers took the helm.

Under Apsell's leadership, NOVA has gone from an esoteric science series to a household name, and she's earned the respect of scientists in the process. "I am 100 percent dedicated to public understanding of science and using NOVA as a vehicle for that," she says. "I love the people I work with. I love storytelling with science. ".

"We're held accountable in much different ways," says Vossen, of women at PBS versus those elsewhere in the media industry. There's a striking difference in pay between PBS and commercial media, where high-profile women represent in exceeding low numbers. In her study The Celluloid Ceiling, San Diego State Professor Martha Lauzen found, for example, that women comprised just 17 percent of the individuals working in key behind-the-scenes roles on the 250 top-grossing domestic films in 2003.

Television isn't much better as a welcoming milieu for female employment. According to the Association for Education and Mass Communication, women have made up the majority of college journalism majors since 1977 but hold a mere 26 percent of television news director jobs and just 39 percent of all television news jobs. This disproportion shapes what and who count as newsworthy. Of the news stories on NBC, CBS and ABC in all of 2002, just 14 percent of them had female protagonists.

According to The Celluloid Ceiling, women are more likely to be working in documentary, making up roughly 29 percent of the total number of people working in these genres. At PBS--and particularly in the documentary programming divisions--women are represented in even higher numbers. Although there isn't a study to verify just how many women are working at PBS, those interviewed for this article estimated that figure to be about 50 percent.

At American Masters, Series Creator and Executive Producer Susan Lacy notes that around "half of our filmmakers are women." Series such as American Masters, while not as lucrative as commercial television or studio work, are extremely important to talented, first-time filmmakers, many of whom also happen to be women. Lacy herself directed the first films of her career for American Masters, including the award-winning documentaries on Leonard Bernstein, Joni Mitchell and Judy Garland. "It's a more flexible storytelling form," Lacy says about documentary work. "And it's where I want to be."

The general consensus among those interviewed for this article is that the need for a flexible work schedule is key to understanding why women work so well at PBS. As Apsell explains, "PBS pays much less than commercial television, but the working conditions are better." For one thing, you don't have to live in New York or Los Angeles to have a career in public broadcasting. There are stations in cities like Boston and San Francisco that produce some of PBS' best-known series. In addition, while working at a nonprofit is certainly tireless, hard work, production schedules at PBS are generally twice as long as those in industry jobs. So, since most "women have complicated lives," as Mertes puts it, with families and the work it takes to run one, PBS complements women's lives.

"We believe in something and PBS is the place for that," Mertes asserts. "Because I have been helped, I want to help the next person," Vossen adds.

So, although the media industry tends to segregate "meaningful" from lucrative work, the devoted women who make PBS work know that sleeping at night hinges on more than just the high thread count of your sheets. And if you're very lucky, you wake up every morning caring about what you do.


Belinda Baldwin is a Los Angeles-based writer and producer.