Ken Burns, PBS' Future Among Press Tour Highlights (and Lowlights) From Day 6

Is 'The Vietnam War' relevant today? And why was Edgar Allan Poe such a great dinner party guest?
Courtesy of PBS
Ken Burns at July 2017 TCA press tour

Two days of PBS at the Television Critics Association press tour kicked off on Sunday (July 30) with the most PBS possible day of PBS panels.

Critics spent over an hour with Ken Burns talking about The Vietnam War, got our biannual update on PBS' precarious position in the new political landscape from Paula Kerger and sat in terror as a bird of prey flapped aggressively on several ballroom screens.

Some highlights and lowlights.

PBS stands for "Paula [Kerger Don't Take No] BS." PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger knows that public broadcasting is under siege and she shows up prepared with answers to most arguments against PBS. She knows, for example, that larger stations won't go under, but smaller stations may. She knows, for example, that some people think cable TV and the internet can pick up some slack, but she points out the number of cable networks that have steered away from serious missions in recent years and how many rural parts of the country don't have broadband access. She knows people think PBS skews liberal, but she comes with statistics saying that 70 percent of people who voted for Trump feel there should be federal funding for public broadcasting. Ultimately, as she puts it, "It would be so ironic in this year this fall will be the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson signing the Public Broadcasting Act if this is the year that it all ends. And I think, for 50 years, we have done an extraordinary job of what I always think of as sort of our Rapunzel work of spinning gold out of straw, with taking a relatively small investment and using that to create a range of programs that I think are some of the best work on public broadcasting, more Emmy nominations for news and public affairs than any other broadcast entity, many of whom spend significantly more on one show, than we spend for our entire budget for a year."

Ken Burns is the Ken Burnsiest. Nobody other than Ken Burns could get away with doing a TCA panel of well over an hour and, not only that, making said panel consistently engrossing and provocative. I'm not gonna lie: I think I often enjoy Ken Burns' regular press tour panels nearly as much as Burns' series, because there's no question he doesn't have a considered answer for and no theme he hasn't thought of, so you get all the undercurrent of a Ken Burns doc in an hour. [The first five hours of The Vietnam War is really great.]

The Vietnam War just might have contemporary resonance. There were at least a dozen extended Ken Burns monologues on the panel that could count as highlights, but one of the best came when he was asked about how young viewers might connect The Vietnam War to things happening today. Burns didn't pause.  "If I came to you and said, 'This is a story about mass demonstrations all across the country against the current administration, about a White House obsessed with leaks and in disarray because of those leaks, about a president railing against you — the news media — for making up news, that it’s about asymmetrical warfare, which even the mighty might of the United States Army can’t figure out the correct strategy to take, and it’s about big document drops of classified material that’s been hacked, that suddenly is dumped into the public sphere, destabilizing the conventional wisdom about really important topics and accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power at the time of a national election to influence that election" — this is the film we started in 2006, and every single one of those points are points about the Vietnam War having nothing to do with today. So the answer is history doesn’t repeat itself. We’re not condemned to repeat what we don’t remember. It’s that human nature never changes." Indeed, Ken Burns. Indeed.

Ken Burns believes in the NEA and NEH. You'll be shocked to know that Ken Burns is a supporter of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and has testified at the Senate and House on behalf of both. As he puts it, "[T]hese miniscule budgets, you know, .02 percent of the federal budget. They mean really nothing. They’re just ideological footballs, and yet almost every state in the union, Paula describes the system of more than 350 stations, that people assume that we’re there for Nob Hill and Beacon Hill, when, in fact, some of our best ratings are in Alaska and the Arkansas that Paula [Kerger] was mentioning, or West Virginia or Oklahoma. This is really who we’re talking to. And we’re trying so hard as a network to reach out to all Americans with a brand that they can feel comfortable with. And so while we count on the marketplace to do lots of things in our lives, and it’s a wonderful, positive element in our lives, the marketplace doesn’t come to your house at 3:00 a.m. when it’s on fire. The marketplace does not have boots on the ground in Afghanistan at this moment. And while I wouldn’t ever suggest that public broadcasting has anything to do with the defense of the country, I think with every fiber of my being that it makes our country worth defending by what it has added to our national conversation."

[The Vietnam War premieres on PBS stations starting on September 17.]

Can Teddy's heir bear Trump comparisons? Teddy Roosevelt's Amazon expirations with Candido Rondo are the basis for American Experience's Into the Amazon, but with great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt on the panel, it was a good time to ask about comparisons between the first Roosevelt presidency and our current president, who inexplicably has often been compared to him. Well, maybe not wholly inexplicably. "I’m afraid that I can’t tell you what I actually think about that," Tweed Roosevelt said. "It’s absurd. One thing I use when people say that is I say, 'Yes, there were characteristics that were similar to both him and our President, one of which was they spoke a lot and they said what they thought. And they were from New York. But the difference is that TR thought about it before he said it.'"

For the love of God, Justin Bieber! We often think about Edgar Allan Poe the writer and Edgar Allan Poe the cultural critic and Edgar Allan Poe the cousin-loving, brooding man. But how often do we think about Edgar Allan Poe the dinner guest? Denis O'Hare, who plays Poe in the Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive installment of American Masters, has considered it in a modern context. "He’s a wonderfully complicated, contradictory person, and I remember a section where he was invited to a drawing room party in New York because he was such an amazing guest," O'Hare said. "He would come. He was courtly. He was polite. He wouldn’t bore anybody. He was charismatic. People talk about the intensity in his eyes, and then he would get drunk, and he would create a scandal, and he would cause a scene and insult somebody and be barred for a year. So he was the best possible guest, you know, the best possible kind of controversial guest that you want. Kind of like Justin Bieber meets, I don’t know, somebody else. Jon Franzen? Bret Easton Ellis? A bad boy."

More cowbell. H Is For Hawk author Helen MacDonald has figured out a good way of explaining to industry reporters why goshawks are challenging. "Basically, the goshawk is the Christopher Walken of the bird world. They’re kind of high-strung, nervous, like a murderess," MacDonald laughed. "I gave a talk in Connecticut a couple years ago to a wonderful audience, and when I mentioned this, there was dead silence. And after the talk, they came up to me, and I thought nobody knows Christopher Walken in this town. And they all said, 'You know he lives here, right? He is a very, very nice man. He is not a murderer.' And I’m like, 'Yeah, I know that. I know he just plays those roles.' So I should probably qualify that to say that goshawks are the roles that Christopher Walken plays in the bird world. So, yeah, they’re very, very powerful, predatory birds."

Whew. Stella the goshawk was mostly well behaved throughout the panel. She flapped and occasionally tried to get away. Fortunately, the goshawk was still able to hear the falconer. Things did not fall apart. The center held. Mere anarchy was not loosed upon the world.

More PBS tomorrow...

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