Conversations with Ken Burns (2015)

“I never expected to be in this place. I started out as just wanting to be a filmmaker. But I’ve grown up, and I’ve learned how to doggedly pursue support. Your work doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t get seen.” — Ken Burns (2000)

Ken Burns has been one of public television’s most celebrated and prolific producer-directors for almost three decades.  He has single-mindedly pursued his dual obsession with filmmaking and history, anticipating a much broader surge of interest in all things historical among the general population.  When Burns first began work on the film that would eventually become his Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) debut, Brooklyn Bridge (1982), the historical documentary held little interest for most American television viewers.  By 1997, however, audience preferences had changedThree Confederates at Gettysburg dramatically as TV Guide reported: “Seven years after Ken Burns’s The Civil War proved that history on TV could be engaging—and attract millions of viewers, documentaries are all over the dial” (23 August 1997, 18).  Burns, in this way, emerged as the signature figure for a much larger trend in historical programming, primarily because of the unprecedented success of The Civil War as well as the consistently robust showings of his other television specials.


All told, Ken Burns has created twenty-three major specials so far—Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1985), The Statue of Liberty (1985), Huey Long (1986), Thomas Hart Benton (1989), The Congress (1989), The Civil War (1990), Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1992), Baseball (1994), The West (1996), Thomas Jefferson (1997), Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Frank Lloyd Wright (1998), Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999), Jazz (2001), Mark Twain (2002), Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip (2003), Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Baseball: Tenth Inning (2010), Prohibition (2011), and The Dust Bowl (2012).

So much about Ken Burns’s career defies the conventional wisdom.  He became one of public television’s busiest and most celebrated producers during the 1980s, a decade when the historical documentary held little interest for most American TV viewers.  He operates his own independent company, Florentine Films, in a small New England village more than four hours north of New York City, hardly a crossroads in the highly competitive and often insular world of corporately funded, PBS sponsored productions.  His twenty major specials so far (with his twenty-first, Forbidden Fruit: America During Prohibition, already well into production) are also strikingly out of step with the special effects and frenetic pacing of most nonfiction television, relying mainly on filmic techniques that were introduced literally decades ago. 

Most remarkably, however, seventy million Americans have already seen The Civil War; fifty million have watched Baseball; thirty-five million Jazz; nearly thirty million The War; and all of his other TV productions over the last decade have averaged an estimated 15 million viewers during their initial telecasts.  The cumulative popularity of Burns’s biographical or quasi-biographical histories is extraordinary by virtually any measure, and they have over time redefined the place of documentaries on prime-time television.

Conversations with Ken Burns is a complement to my earlier Ken Burns’s America (2001) which is now being readied for a second revised edition.  This current book is part of a new series, “Television Conversations,” that is edited by David Lavery for the University Press of Mississippi. It will gather together into one volume the most significant interviews given by Ken Burns, revealing his thoughts and intentions at various stages of his career on all of his television documentaries.  Conversations with Ken Burns also includes a concise introduction to Ken Burns and his work, a chronology of his career, and a complete videography of his PBS television specials along with his other independent productions

Conversations with Ken Burns. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, Forthcoming in 2015.