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Jennifer Lawson Biography

Selected works


Television executive

As executive vice president of national programming for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) until 1996, Jennifer Lawson is, according to Jeremy Gerard in the New York Times, "the most powerful programming executive in public television." Lawson is responsible for overseeing the creation, promotion, and scheduling of national programming for the 330-station public television system. Prior to PBS, Lawson was a senior programming executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and also had several years' experience working as a funding liaison with filmmakers. According to PBS president Bruce Christensen in the New York Times, Lawson's "strong ties to the independent filmmaking community" made her especially well-qualified to oversee PBS's programming needs.

The naming of Lawson was a landmark appointment for PBS, which, for the first time, centralized national program decision-making in one executive. Among Lawson's primary responsibilities are to expand public television programming and broaden its audience. Lawson's priorities in doing so, as Gerard reports, are "to offer more cultural diversity in public television, to improve and expand programming for children and to increase the audience through better promotion." Already in her first year, Lawson recorded two notable achievements for PBS. The Civil War, a five-night series, drew over 50 million viewers and became the most-watched show in PBS history. Also under Lawson, PBS began promoting its programming on commercial networks for the first time.

Lawson has stated that her parents were the biggest influence in her life. "From my early childhood, they taught me a whole range of skills, from carpentry to painting," she told Darlene Gavron Stevens in the Chicago Tribune. ".… My father always insisted I learn how to work on cars. His notion was that if I could do a transmission job, I could make my living anywhere in the world." Lawson grew up in the deep South, and in the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement emphasized for her the importance of helping people.

Although Lawson won a scholarship and was in premed studies at Tuskegee Institute, she interrupted her career plans and joined black voter registration efforts in the South. She was quoted in Jet: "The Civil Rights Movement became the turning point for me because I began to see that there was a larger ill. To me, it required more courage to try to address that ill than it did to deal with the individual sick person. I felt the time was ripe for us to change this society and eradicate institutionalized racism."

From 1970 to 1972, Lawson worked in Tanzania on an African publishing project, and it was then that she became aware of the power of visual media. She realized, as she told Stevens, "how ironic it was that we were working in print in a society that for the most part did not read. I began to feel that film and TV would be the educational media of the future." Lawson returned to the United States and completed a master's degree in film at Columbia University, after which she worked as a film editor and taught film classes. In 1980, she joined the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as coordinator of their television program fund, and worked as a liaison with independent filmmakers. By the time Lawson left in 1989, she was associate director of drama and arts programming, and was responsible for a $42 million budget.

In her position at PBS, Lawson was able to further the ideals of her work in the civil rights movement. "In a way," she told Stevens, "I'm still continuing my mission of helping people, but using a different and powerful medium: television." Lawson believed that being the highest-ranking black woman ever to serve in public television sent a positive message to viewers. She told Gerard: "I think it speaks to public television's recognition and tradition of serving the entire country, and in presenting the cultural realities of America in a way not necessarily presented in the rest of television." She added: "When you say public television is an alternative, you should be able to see that clearly."

During her tenure as PBS's first chief programming director, Lawson brought such award-winning programs as Ken Burns' Civil War and Baseball and such children's programs as Barney and Friends and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego.

Lawson resigned from her top PBS post in 1995 after the company reorganized. She explained her move to Jet as "my choice," adding that she was considering new ways to make meaningful contributions to television programming. Although offered other high-profile jobs, Lawson started up her own production company, Magic Box Mediaworks, in the Washington, D.C. area. "I thought it would be fascinating to take the risk to be out on my own," Lawson told USA Today. Lawson began working as a consultant from such clients as Maryland Public Television, but within a short time, Lawson had devised an ambitious plan for herself: to produce a multi-part documentary series on Africa. She explained in an interview on the All Africa Web site that "I was thinking I want to present the Africa that I feel I have seen. And I want to present the Africa that is not overwhelmingly disease, famine, warfare, brutality, mutilations—oddities, but is real people going about their lives and doing so in a way that despite incredible poverty I somehow feel inspired and enriched by their presence. So I wanted to try and capture that and share that with viewers." The eight-part Africa series was aired on PBS in 2001. Lawson won kudos for presenting a previously unseen view of the continent and the culture of those who live there. Lawson also served as the executive producer of a Web site called African American World for PBS; the site provides browsers with comprehensive insights into African American experiences and history.

While continuing to develop projects through Magic Box Mediaworks, Lawson took the position of general manager at Howard University Television, WHUT, in 2004.

At a Glance …

Born Jennifer Karen Lawson in 1946; grew up in Fairfield, AL; daughter of William (owner of a repair shop) and Velma (a schoolteacher) Lawson; married Anthony Gittens, 1982; children: two sons. Education: Attended Tuskegee Institute; received undergraduate and masters degrees from Columbia University.

Career: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), staff member, c. 1964-67; worked with National Council of Negro Women, 1968-69; Whitman County, MS, director of adult education program, c. 1969; Drum and Spear (publisher), Washington, DC, art director, c. 1970, lived in Tanzania, 1970-72, and worked on joint government publishing project; William Green Productions (film company), editor; Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY, film instructor; The Film Fund, executive director; Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Washington, DC, 1980-89, began as program fund coordinator, became senior programming executive; Public Broadcasting Service, Washington, DC, executive vice president of programming, 1989-95; Magic Box Mediaworks, Inc., founder and president, 1995–; WHUT, Howard University, general manager, 2004–.

Memberships: Women in Film & Video (WIFV), board of directors; PBS, board of directors.

Awards: Named one of "101 Most Influential People in Entertainment Today," Entertainment Weekly, 1990; Power 50 list, Hollywood Reporter, 1994; International Film and Video Festival, Gold Camera Award, for three episodes of Africa series, 2002; Women in Film & Video, Washington, DC, Woman of Vision Award, 2004.

Addresses: Home—Washington, DC; Office—Magic Box Mediaworks, 1838 Ontario Place NW, Washington, DC 20009; Howard University Television WHUT, 2222 Fourth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20059.

Selected works

Africa (eight-part documentary television series), PBS, 2001.



Broadcasting and Cable, July 1, 1996.

Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1990.

Ebony June 1991.

Entertainment Weekly, November 2, 1990.

Essence, April 1991.

Jet, December 18, 1989; March 6, 1995.

New York Times, October 20, 1989; June 21, 1990.

Time, December 10, 1990.

USA Today, October 20, 2003.


"African American World," PBS, www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/ (March 9, 2005).

"Africa: The Series," PBS, www.pbs.org/wnet/africa/index.html (March 9, 2005).

"Jennifer Lawson, Executive Producer, on the 'Africa' Series," http://allafrica.com/stories/200109100427.html (March 9, 2005).

—Michael E. Mueller and

Sara Pendergast

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