for 26 September 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.



Slash and Burns

Ever since those chumps in Congress
proposed cutting off the trickle
valve to public broadcasting, PBS
has been crying, "If we don't do it,
who will?" Given the sad shape of
most public programming, where
Sesame Street and Prime Suspect are
bookends on an empty shelf, we're
tempted to answer the question
uncharitably. Still, nothing primes
the pump like patting yourself on
the back good and hard until someone
notices and joins in. But until the
Fed monies flow in - or, more
likely, in lieu of them - PBS is
smart to tend the trickle of
sepia-toned gold that flows from
pumping (and pushing) Ken Burns.
The Civil War made him a
townhousehold name. And last year's
ambitious epic, Baseball, was an odd
but well-received sequel that
countersigned his credibility. While
his artistry with the camera is
questionable, he's a whiz with
marketing, which is what the PBS
folks need the most help with,
anyway. And in the spirit of brand
extension, he's now lending his
pedigree to other projects. With
director and coproducer Stephen
Ives, Burns is presently inviting us
to rediscover the wild and woolly
Now that he's an Executive Producer,
Burns has the formidable job of
doing nothing much at all, except
looking for opportunities to babble
with erudition like some
second-string disciple of Marshall
McLuhan. [Sounds insultingly
familiar - ed.] Seems he's taken to
calling the TV "an electronic
campfire." Yawn. Judging from the
smell, we suspect someone's been
peeing on the embers, despite his
noble efforts to draw together our
nation's defining moments for prime
time. And while we agree that just
plain information is about as useful
as a Smithsonian full of phone
books, we would be remiss if we
didn't call Burns on his
self-appointed role as the historian
laureate of public television.
Actually, the style and format of
Burns's now-familiar documentary
style are great precedents for
low-tech web content. It's a recipe
copied so many times on the net it
gives Neiman Marcus pause: Combine
the power of photographs with a
recital of amateurish first-person
verbiage, stir in a major corporate
underwriter, and wait for the whole
thing to rise under the power of its
own offgassing.
Burns and Ives use photographs almost
exclusively to illustrate their
narrative. This despite the fact
that the first two episodes predate
photographic technologies by
decades. For example, the first
episode, covering the period "To
1809," is illustrated with photos
from a century later. And many
natives will be surprised to see
that Burns and Ives apparently don't
know their Arapaho from a hole in
the ground, as evidenced by their
liberal and indiscriminate use of
interchangeable, stock "Indian"
photos from the portfolio of E.S.
Curtis. But then that's the real
value of TV, isn't it: You don't
have to worry about interactivity,
inviting all those pesky Mensa
dweebs to the party, where they'll
insist on handling every fudge on
the editorial tray. We figured that
out a long time ago: feedback has a
way of looking a lot like upchuck,
even - perhaps especially - when it
bears a germ of truth.
Burns's productions may not be
flushing any cheeks over at Nielsen,
but the fact that he's still around
is enough to make us look twice.
Given Americans' famous
anti-intellectualism and willful
ignorance of history, the success of
his historical Passion plays is as
strange as the value of Barnes &
Noble stock. But no one is accusing
Burns of being an intellectual, and
no one who knows any better is
calling him a historian. How, then,
to explain the success of these
air-conditioned omnibus tours
through history's red-light
districts and tourist traps?
Call us cynics, but it looks to us
like the cowpokes at PBS know a cash
cow when they see one, and they plan
to ride Burns all the way to the
bank, with their saddlebags full of
fall pledges. The only question is
what's next for Burns. He's already
working on a history of jazz music.
Beyond that, we suspect he'll be
jumping Carl Sagan's
extraterrestrial claim, mining the
rich photo history and video footage
of the space age.
If nothing else, Ken Burns has his
hands wrapped snugly around the
saddle horn of PBS's most lucrative
demographic: the mid-career boomer
set, who can purge their guilt over
the History Channel and the other
exhaustive offerings of their
premium cable hookups by clicking on
over to public TV at least once a
year. Here, they can trip through
the clover with their quotidian
compadre. Burns has been inching
closer and closer to a climax in his
love affair with his own generation.
We've booked front-row seats for the
fireworks that'll undoubtedly fly
the day he unveils his take on
Suburbia, with Keanu Reeves
voice-overs and tear-jerking
Polaroids from Ye Olde Subdivision.

[Zero Baud Archive]

Courtesy of
E.L. Skinner