‘The only place where you have a measure of creative control’

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Documentary-maker Ken Burns told why he’s continuing to work with public broadcasting at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles in January [1992]. During a question-and-answer session, a writer asked him: “Ken, for this project, as well as your others, you’ve found a very appreciative home at PBS. But now, with all your success, have the commercial networks tried to lure you away? Have they made offers to you?”

There have been a lot of very, very generous offers and ideas. But the fundamental reason why I don’t intend to move is that this is not only my home — and being a historian, one kind of honors the past and where you’ve been — but this is the only place on the dial where you can be free of commercials, where you can have a measure of creative control over your project, a lack of interference; where you can have a strong relationship with an underwriter that develops over time, in the case of [General Motors], where you can really forge these kinds of relationships; where we can go and we can say we’re thinking about doing this, and you can actually accomplish it.

Can you imagine what The Civil War would have looked like elsewhere? First of all, it wouldn’t have been 11 hours; it would have been a couple of hours in an evening. And, Dan Rather would have walked from behind an antebellum column in a sweater. [Laughter.] If Ted Turner had had it, you know, all my black-and-white photographs would have been colorized. There would have been an ad every six to eight minutes. And, pretty soon, the Time-Life ads for the cassettes would become indistinguishable from the program, and you wouldn’t know what was what.

No, this is my home, and I think that this is a home that has a really viable future, too. I think that as we become increasingly aware of the sameness of everything else, and our restlessness makes us switch whenever a commercial comes, if we can fund programs that can hold your attention–and all we’re in this business is attention — then public television will be alive for a long time and do very well. And I’m happy to make it my home. I’m honored that they’ll have me; it’s not the other way around.

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