Ken Burns’ ‘Prohibition’ uncorks big PBS numbers

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Ken Burns opened the tap and poured some big ratings for the first night of his PBS documentary ‘Prohibition.’

The first episode Sunday night averaged 3.9 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. The three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary examines American culture before and after the passage of the 18th Amendment, which between 1920 and 1933 banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the U.S.


PBS estimated at least 7.6 million viewers saw at least six minutes of the first installment.

Those are giant figures by PBS’ usual standards, reflecting the power of Burns to draw a large audience. But they are small by commercial broadcast yardsticks and also lower than for some of the filmmaker’s past multi-part projects. Burns’ ‘Baseball’ in 1994 reached a cumulative audience of 28 million, and nearly 14 million viewers tuned into the first episode of his landmark ‘The Civil War’ in 1990.

However, PBS has been subject to the same viewing erosion that has affected every other broadcaster in recent years.

In a statement, PBS President Paula Kerger hailed Burns and his filmmaking partner Lynn Novick: ‘Prohibition will join ‘The Civil War’ and ‘Baseball’ as some of their best work, whose impact will continue to linger long after last night’s broadcast premiere. We’re proud to help share this story, and help start a discussion about what the lessons of Prohibition mean for us today.’

Did you tune in to ‘Prohibition’? If so, did you need a drink afterward?


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