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Does Ken Burns Need a New Sponsor -- Or a Federal Bailout?
March 10, 2009  | By David Bianculli
YosemiteNP_AT04622.jpgYou can't blame this on the current economic crisis, because Ken Burns has known for a year what only now is being made public: General Motors is ending its decades-long corporate sponsorship of Burns and his invaluable PBS documentaries.

GM spokeswoman Kelly Cusinato, while calling Burns "the gold standard of documentary filmmaking," has let it be known that this fall's latest Burns nonfiction epic, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, will be the last one benefiting from GM funding.

With GM asking for even more bailout money, that makes sense. Though the automaker financed only a third of Burns' productions, not including certain marketing and publicity costs, taxpayer dollars deserved for GM can be much better spent.


Besides, Burns has a deal with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting providing partial support for his documentaries through 2017, so all is not lost. Enough is lost, though, for Burns to need other corporate sponsors to maintain his current production and development pace -- and to need them in a chokingly tight economic climate.

It would be a sin if Burns couldn't find such a sponsor. Apple, Google, are you listening?


But Masterpiece Theatre, the flagship program of al PBS dramas, lost its ExxonMobil funding five years ago, and still hasn't found a proper substitute. If we cut the flow of funding to the man behind The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and The War, then who, in the next decade, will make the great documentary on, say, Subprime Mortgages: America's Worst Idea?

Maybe taxpayers should be asked to fund Burns' Florentine Films directly, by checking off a box on a future federal fax form. Or get stimulus money from the government, to create jobs in the much-neglected documentary sector.

Gold, right now, is more valuable than ever. The gold standard of documentarians, you could -- and should -- say the same thing about him.




Eileen said:

Thanks for your comments on Ken Burns and his wonderful work. I've watched his documentaries through the years, and have been enlightened, educated and in awe. The historical research to produce these masterpieces is almost beyond comprehension. "The War" was an amazement.

These documentaries should be required viewing in every high school in the US as part of their American History studies.

I hope some company with integrity and class comes forward to continue to advance Ken Burns' mission.

Comment posted on March 10, 2009 1:02 PM

Matt said:

Just a thought:
According to the Washington Post Burns's "The War" which has a running time of 14 hours had a budget of $8 million.
The film "Mad Hot Ballroom" is number ten on the list of top grossing documentaries of all time and grossed over $8 million.
If Mr. Burns were to release a theatrical documentary it would probably make enough profit to fund his next multi-part project. This would also mean less dependence on corporate sponsorship.

Washington Post story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/02/AR2007050202671.html

Top grossing documentaries: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?id=documentary.htm
(Very nice suggestion. One thing that I always loved about Burns' PBS association, though, is that his inspirational and educational works were available free, over the air, to anyone with a TV set, allowing exposure to the poorest and most culturally deprived segment of society. Of course, digital TV, with its gotta-buy-a-converter catch, is changing that anyway. -- David B.)

Comment posted on March 12, 2009 5:50 PM
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