PBS and Ken Burns:
An Appraisal
October 2009

by Ron Steinman

As with any broadcaster, PBS needs ratings to make it go. Good ratings translate into more sponsors and more grants, both needed to permit PBS to continue in operation. Ken Burns is usually a sure thing, thus his lengthy series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." PBS wants and needs strong ratings. It will surely get them with this new series on a national treasure that I agree America too often takes for granted.

Ken Burns' new and endless documentary series is clearly an attempt by PBS to be in a do-good phase. True, it offers many people a story about a part of America that we tend to forget exists. People will certainly tune in and many will stay with the documentary for its full run. Though I stayed with it as long as I could, I found it tedious and hard to watch over its many hours. However, I did manage to watch some of the series on the small screen. I confess I also used broadband, an even smaller screen, to watch what I did not have time for on TV. So here is a small shout-out to broadband for giving me the opportunity to dip in and out of the entire series on my own time without being a slave to television. Watching whole episodes and sampling others left me with no doubt that I was watching a film for which I had little patience.

Watching a Ken Burns film is similar to sitting in one's favorite rocking chair. It is easy to take, in fact too easy. There is no need to think. There is nothing groundbreaking in his films, and this one is no exception. I note, though, that in his films that saluted jazz and baseball, controversy surrounded those works because of Burns' editorial choices – what he left out was more important in some ways than what he included. As readers can probably already tell, I am not a Ken Burns acolyte.

Here is my problem. Most critics refuse to acknowledge that Ken Burns does nothing unique. He uses slow pans, even slower dissolves, lengthy zooms, both in and out, and very long holds on stills that sit on the screen for what seems forever, techniques that anyone in film school knows before he or she graduates. That said, I could not argue that it is impossible to ignore the stunningly beautiful and breathtaking pictures filmed by talented camera people with loving care.

Of all Ken Burns' films, the one exception for me is his marvelous documentary on the Civil War. It is the one work of his that I truly enjoyed – but he did not invent the techniques he uses over again as if they were a pair of comfortable old shoes. Burns' method is age-old, used by filmmakers for generations before he caught fire with that one series. In fact, the technique lacks inspiration and is boring. Tedium sets in because of the sameness of Ken Burns' method.

In "The National Parks," the story moves lazily across the screen, edited in the inimitable Ken Burns style, making the series dull, predictable, and sometimes stupefying in its painstaking attempt to make it more than a family slide show from a recent trip. In addition, the many voices along with Peter Coyote, the narrator, though seemingly different, had the same cadence, and were often soporific. Most of the music was so uninspiring and conventional that it made me think I was listening to rejects from a bad B western film.

There is something else that I found annoying. Ken Burns infuses this film with nationalism and patriotic fervor that borders on the religious. I found that unappealing. Each played too big a role in a film that supposedly relies on "pure" storytelling. If those elements were part of the history of the national parks, they should have emerged naturally.

PBS is not primarily a news and information network. Nor should it be. If it is to be truly ecumenical, there must be room for a variety of programs. There is a bit of everything on PBS and Ken Burns' "National Parks" opus falls under that mandate. PBS does a superlative job with "Frontline," "Nova," "Bill Moyer's Journal," "NOW," "Wide Angle," "POV" and a host of other strong and timely series and one-off documentaries. For all that, I feel that many independent filmmakers might have better spent the huge amount of money Ken Burns used to feed his indulgence to create films that could make a difference in our lives.

True, it is valuable to remind us about the wonder and quality of the national parks system in America. I will not argue that premise. The national parks are a part of our world that we must honor, and thus preserve. But this is the longest and dullest commercial I have ever experienced. The national parks are important, but they do not deserve this many hours devoted to them on national television. Perhaps a shorter series would have worked better, at least for me. That, however, is something we will never know.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks on SCRIBD.

blog comments powered by Disqus