Call it a sign of the hard economic times, but General Motors today announced that it is ending its 22-year relationship as primary underwriter for the documentaries of PBS filmmaker Ken Burns. The loss of such underwriting, which amounted to tens of millions of dollars per film, might signal the end of 10- and 12-hour epics in which Burns, the nation's greatest documentary filmmaker, specializes.
Burns, who was at The Baltimore Sun last week previewing his coming series on National Parks, hinted that the relationship might be coming to an end when he referred to his partnership with the financially battered automaker as the "great, perhaps soon to be late" underwriting relationship.
"Ken has had a wonderful relationship with GM from The Civil War through the parks film and feels very close to everyone there," a spokeswoman for Burns said in an e-mail to The Sun. "He is incredibly thankful for what they've done. As a partner, they have allowed him to tell many stories about American life that would either not have been told or told in a different way. It was an extraordinary contribution to public television and to filmmaking and of course greatly appreciated by Ken."
GM recently dropped sponsorship of golfer Tiger Woods and pulled out altogether from advertising on Super Bowl and the Academy Awards telecasts. While those are major pop culture events, GM's decision to part ways with Burns might prove to have a deeper impact on national life.
With such documentaries as Jazz, Baseball and The Civil War, which are among the higest-rated productions in the history of PBS, Burns has turned millions of Americans on to history and in so doing, has helped us see ourselves in new ways as a country. While Burns still has a plethora of underwriters, he and his presenting station, Washington's WETA, are likely to have a hard time finding anyone to fill the void left by GM in these troubled economic times. And that could spell the end of long-form documentaries based on meticulous research and painstaking production.
Kelly Cusinato, a spokeswoman for GM, described Burns as the "gold standard of documentary filmmaking," but added that, "the company's financial crisis has forced GM to rein in such spending," according to the Associated Press in Detroit.
The National Parks: America's Best Idea will run 12 hours across six nights on PBS starting in September. It will be the last Burns production underwritten by GM.