PBS' 'Finding Your Roots' Returns After Ben Affleck Scandal: "Hard Conversations," More Rigorous Process

Henry Louis Gates - H 2015
Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

“He has taken this incredibly seriously," PBS programming chief Betth Hoppe said of host Henry Louis Gates. "He has been nothing but cooperative with the internal review."

PBS will bow the delayed third season of Finding Your Roots on Jan. 5, marking the return of the show since host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was found to have acquiesced to Ben Affleck’s request to scrub a slave-owning ancestor from the actor’s episode of the genealogy series. An internal review found that Gates “violated PBS standards” by, among other things, not informing executives at PBS or producing station WNET about Affleck’s request to censor the show’s genealogical research into his ancestors. The show has added an additional researcher/fact-checker, another genealogist and an expert in DNA-based genealogical research. 

PBS chief programming executive Beth Hoppe, who led the investigation with WNET executive Stephen Segaller, said she is satisfied that the Harvard professor appreciates the gravity of the ethical lapse.

“He has taken this incredibly seriously,” Hoppe told THR. “He has been nothing but cooperative with the internal review. I’m not going to say there weren’t some hard conversations. But he is one of the pre-eminent scholars in America. We remain grateful to have him on PBS.” 

The revelations came to light in the Sony hack, when Gates sent an email to Sony Entertainment chief Michael Lynton asking for advice about how to handle the request from the “megastar,” as Gates referred to Affleck in his email. Lynton advised Gates not to include the slave-owning ancestors. 

The episode prompted apologies from both Gates and Affleck. And perhaps more importantly than the additional fact-checking staff, the show also has instituted a more rigorous release process.

“The process of getting releases has become much more transparent and the team is careful to discuss it with the talent ahead of time,” said Hoppe, adding that the Affleck episode has not dampened enthusiasm from prospective subjects. “People are excited to do the show. [Gates] has a lot of fans. So does the show. We’ve been talking to the member stations; they’re glad to have it back. But everybody is glad that we’re holding it to the standards we are holding it to.”

The new season of Roots will feature Shonda RhimesNeil Patrick Harris and Julianna Margulies. Roots is not the only program that Gates will have on PBS this season. He’s also producing Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, which will bow April 18 on PBS. And after Roots wraps its third season, PBS will premiere the third season of Genealogy Roadshow, May 17, with participants from Boston, Providence, Miami, Houston and Los Angeles. 

Roots — and the genealogy genre — are important franchises for PBS. “Personal history and genealogy has really become a whole new genre that we kind of own,” said Hoppe, adding “there are a couple of other little shows out there," such as Who Do You Think You Are?, which was canceled by NBC in 2012 and then revived by TLC.

And with the contraction in the unscripted reality space, Hoppe sees PBS as the gold standard in quality factual programming. The public broadcaster will continue to roadblock Wednesdays for science and natural history programming. 

Of course the coming season also marks the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey (premiering Jan. 3), arguably the biggest game-changer for PBS in terms of ratings (season five averaged 12.9 million viewers each week) and perception. And PBS is hoping to turn Downton viewers on to its new drama, the Civil War-set Mercy Street, which will get the post-Downton Sunday night timeslot beginning Jan. 17.

“I think people in Hollywood take PBS much more seriously,” said Hoppe. “I don’t think they thought of us for drama [before Downton]. And now we’re taking American drama pitches all the time. Those doors will stay open and create amazing opportunities for us.”

Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven, also will end its run this year; the series will bow sometime in March or April. Other highlight from the new PBS season include the 90-minute Sherlock special. And while PBS has yet to release a premiere date for the special, Hoppe hinted that the gap between the UK premiere and the PBS premiere will shrink. Last season, Sherlock premiere on Jan. 1 in the U.K and Jan. 19 here. There is also a two-part, four-hour Ken Burns documentary about Jackie Robinson, on April 11 and 12, at the beginning of the baseball season. Apparently Major League Baseball did not want the documentary to air during the season when it could compete with games. MLB's Opening Day is set for April 4. But Hoppe noted the promotional value of airing the documentary in season.