Ken Burns backlash?

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For 25 years now, the revered documentarian Ken Burns has explored America's big topics in his films--"Jazz," "Baseball," "The Congress," "The Civil War"--and given them depth, meaning, humanity. He's won dozens of awards, including two Emmys, two Grammys and producer of the year from the Producers Guild of America.

It seemed he was one of our untouchable greats. A filmmaker who could do wrong. A genius who could extract everything important from a topic and give it back to the viewer in a thoughtful, intelligent narrative.

But with reviews of his long-awaited 14-plus-hour documentary on World War II not as glowing as they might be, maybe even this titan of PBS culture is beginning to experience some backlash.

The Hype:

Before the first episode of "The War" aired on PBS on Sept. 23, an Associated Press story called the series "much awaited" and a piece in Reuters described Burns as "one of America's greatest visual historians."

Maureen O'Ryan of The Chicago Tribune had a few quibbles with the film but mostly loved it, writing: " 'The War' is a landmark achievement, as comprehensive a visual and personal record as we're likely get of the experience of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines during World War II."

And Tim Goodman of The San Francisco Chronicle agreed. "The War" is "a remarkable storytelling feat and a visceral television experience, a twinned accomplishment that, combined, does the nearly impossible -- it allows the rebirth of an overly familiar story and freshens it in astounding ways," he wrote.

The Backlash:

Nancy Franklin of The New Yorker wrote, "You have to work very hard, and take yourself very seriously as the keeper of the keys to America, to make a tedious documentary about the Second World War. But that is what Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have done with their 15-hour series 'The War.' … They've taken a subject that is inexhaustible and made it merely exhausting."

Writing in The San Diego Union-Tribune, Peter Rowe explained that his problem with the film is that it is not the definitive, all-encompassing statement that Burns had delivered in the past. He also admits he may be holding Burns up to impossible statdards. "While a masterful work, 'The War' is too limited to become the Final Word," he wrote. "Perhaps I'm asking for an all-encompassing, all-knowing film, but this is no subject for partial measures."

The cold hard facts:

As our own Scott Collins reported, PBS originally reported the gross audience for the two-hour premiere of "The War" was 18.7 million. But that's not the number most networks use when stating their ratings. The "total viewers" number, which is how most of the world measures ratings, was the significantly smaller 7.3 million.

That's still double what most PBS programming does, but not nearly as impressive as PBS originally led the media to believe.

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