Black History Month always leaves me conflicted. I believe the entire nation benefits whenever attention is paid to the contributions of groups of Americans. I also believe the month of February is viewed by many as historical drudgery. I think its hard to argue against the notion that most schools do a pathetic job educating students on Black history. Even with my misgivings about how Black history is projected there have been outlets for compelling and informative storytelling. PBS has often been a ray of sunshine in the dreary, cloudy media scape when it comes to Black History Month programming. It has for years provided meaningful programming that far exceeds what is offered on other networks. I am saddened to have to rethink this position. If one compares the network and individual station schedules you may wonder just how committed PBS is to airing Black History Month programming at a time most people will actually be able to view it.
I was looking forward to watching "Spies of Mississippi" a documentary about 1964s "Freedom Summer" voter registration project in Mississippi. (Disclosure: The film's director is a friend) As a political scientist who researches and writes about African American political participation, this is the kind of film I need to see. The PBS website tells me that my first opportunity will be Monday, February 10 at 10:00 p.m. My Washington, DC PBS affiliate, WETA, has a different plan. They are airing "Antiques Roadshow" on Monday at 10:00 p.m. and "Spies" will premier on Saturday, February 15 at 11:00 p.m.
The scheduling of "Spies" is not an isolated issue. A review of WETA's schedule confirms that none of PBS's Black History Month programming will air in prime time. No prime time Black History Month programming from one of the most powerful public television stations in the country that serves a media market with the highest proportion of African American university graduates and one of the nation's highest proportions of African Americans. (Disclosure: I have proudly appeared on "The NewsHour" which is produced by WETA). In case you're wondering, shows like "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" are being kept in place. If a PBS affiliate in such an important market plays around with Black history month programming, then one can fairly conclude this is going on in various markets around the country. This diminishes worthy programming and the subjects it seeks to portray.
Black History Month programming is getting the short shrift because America can't get enough "Downton Abbey" and "Antiques Roadshow." While I understand the economics, public television should not mimic the programming decisions of their commercial counterparts. American culture won't be diminished if, during the shortest month of the year, the country gets to see more stories about the contributions of African Americans.
I encourage you to look at the schedule of your own PBS affiliate to confirm where its Black History Month programming will air. Let them know if they are airing programs in accessible time slots.
Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, DC and author of the book Republicans and the Black Vote. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com and can be followed on Twitter @MKFauntroy and Facebook at Michael K. Fauntroy.