When PBS unveiled its winter/spring primetime schedule today, it included a January 5 start date for the third season of Finding Your Roots, the celebrity-based genealogy series that came under fire after it was discovered exec producer/host Henry Louis Gates Jr. had removed reference to Ben Affleck’s slave-owning distant relatives at the request of the actor-producer and after conferring, not with PBS, but the CEO of Sony.
Today, PBS programming chief Beth Hoppe said the show’s process now is “much more transparent,” adding, “at the same time, this series is not about embarrassing people.” The fact checker/researcher and the “independent genealogist” ordered by PBS and production station WETA all work for the show’s production company “along with Skip Gates,” rather than for PBS or WETA. But, Hoppe said, they have direct access to the new staffers.
Additional vetting was not performed on Gates’ other program on PBS’ latest schedule, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, exploring the past 50 years of African-American history. Hoppe explained that’s because Gates’ lapse of judgement on Finding Your Roots was an “unfortunate incident, but I don’t have any reason to be concerned about any other program.”
“I don’t think it has any reflection on the history series,” Hoppe said, adding, “I think our standards of quality are well understood in the industry which is why we are such a trusted brand.” With the new people in place to oversee production of Finding Your Roots,” Hoppe said. “We feel confident nothing like this is ever going to happen” again.
In April, when WikiLeaks released a searchable archive of hacked Sony emails, it revealed Gates had emailed Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, instead of PBS higher-ups, to get guidance about the request of a “megastar” to strike from an episode the discovery he is the descendant of a slave owner. In the email, Gates said to do so “would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman” and “would embarrass him and compromise our integrity” and that “once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.” And yet, that’s just what Gates did after Lynton advised taking out the Affleck slave-owning ancestor reference, if no one knew about the situation. But Lynton warned it would get tricky if word got out that Gates was editing material based on this kind of sensitivity.
Lynton was correct.
After news of Gates’ behavior came to light, and after PBS ombudsman Mike Getler blasted the broadcasting service for its early response, PBS announced it had yanked that episode of Finding Your Roots from all forms of distribution, including on-air, digital platforms and home video. PBS also said it would not schedule a third season until staffing changes and other fixes were implemented to significantly improve the ability of PBS and WETA (now the producing station) to monitor Gates’ work on each episode. They ordered the show to employ an additional researcher/fact-checker, and a genealogist to review all episodes for factual accuracy, independent of Gates. Meanwhile, Affleck took to Facebook to acknowledge he had not wanted the show to make reference to his long-dead relative who’d owned slaved because “I was embarrassed” and “the very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.” Taking the high road, Afflect also tweeted out the name of his ancestor.
Getler commended PBS and the production station for the “good job” they did in that investigation and for the “sound recommendations” they made, which he said send a “strong message” to all PBS program producers. But he said the steps won’t fix the basic problem brought to light by the Sony email hack: the judgment of show host and exec producer Gates.
“The problem with the main issue surrounding this episode ultimately was Gates’ judgment, not the facts,” Getler wrote. “One of Affleck’s great-great-great grandfathers did own slaves. But the egregious error here was in seeking and then apparently letting advice from a commercial source (Sony) have some influence on a producer, and the producer appearing to act on that advice…That is deadly for public broadcasting.”
At summer TCA, PBS chief Paula Kerger told TV critics the third season would be scheduled once the show’s new guidelines were in place, but added, “It’s too early to say if there will be a fourth season.” But the fact she added a note that young viewers like this celebrity-driven approach to learning history suggested a Season 4 is Gates’ to lose.
Today, when asked what are the odds of Finding Your Roots being ordered to a fourth season, Hoppe said, “to be honest we want to see how this season is received, and I can say we were pleasantly, not surprised but happy, to see the level of talent willing to participate this season.”
The third season already was in production when news of Gates’ email exchange with Sony came to light, including an episode featuring Sen. John McCain. Also set for this season: Julianne Moore, Shonda Rhimes, Neil Patrick Harris, and Julianna Margulies. If celebrity participation continues at that level, and if this season is well received by viewers, and if PBS remains confident its standards are being upheld, a decision on a fourth season still would be made some time between the middle and end of this season of 10 episodes.