Burns & Co. hear no evil on 'Baseball'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Declare victory and move on.

That's what Ken Burns and Company are doing now that the 18 1/2 -hour "Baseball" mini-series has finally ended after two weeks on the air and more than six months of the biggest promotional campaign in PBS history.

The reviews were mixed, at best, the ratings were lackluster, the accuracy of the self-proclaimed historical epic is in dispute, and the work's inflated style has become the stuff of parody elsewhere in the media.

But that didn't stop Burns and his partners from declaring the series a triumph.

"I'm thrilled with the success of 'Baseball.' The response has been my greatest ever. It's phenomenal. I mean, I can't walk anywhere. Yesterday, I had some business in Harvard Square and I was just mobbed," Burns said over the phone yesterday.

"I'd say we're thrilled with the performance of 'Baseball' too," said Harry Forbes, a spokesman for PBS, when asked for public television's assessment.

"We are very delighted," said Tamara E. Robinson, senior vice president at WETA, the PBS station that co-produced "Baseball" with Burns' Florentine Films.

A spokesman for General Motors, the program's corporate underwriter, was a little more subdued, saying GM was "pretty glad" to be affiliated with Burns and "Baseball." But GM was clearly satisfied with the bang Burns delivered for the company's bucks.

What else are they all going to say? It's in their best interests to spin a storyline that calls "Baseball" a triumph. And anyone who saw "Baseball," or heard the promotional claims made for it, knows that no one in volved is shy about overstatement. Burns is now in overdrive trying to sell a perception of the series as a hit. He will probably find some buyers.

The truth is probably a lot closer to the assessment offered by Douglas Gomery, media economist and professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"They're all disappointed, I suspect. They're certainly not as happy as they were with the homerun hit by 'The Civil War.' But, despite the ratings, Burns is still this big, big star at PBS," Dr. Gomery said.

It does not appear that Burns' star has fallen much, if at all, with PBS or General Motors. And he himself was definitely not in retreat.

Asked about negative or mixed reviews, he proceeded to read an adoring review from Film Comment comparing "Baseball" to "Citizen Kane."

"And the negative stuff, I just fully expected, given the length," Burns said, noting that reviewers aren't accustomed to having to watch 18 1/2 hours of a program to write one review. "There is a kind of laziness in the press. And if you try to watch too much in one day, it's going to seem like too much.

"I have heard from literally hundreds of people. Not one has said it's too long, and everyone has said those critics who say it's too long are crazy. I mean, one guy said having Jeff Jarvis [TV Guide] review 'Baseball' is like having Adolf Hitler review 'Shindler's List,' " Burns said.

It wasn't just TV Guide and daily newspaper reviewers who criticized "Baseball."

James Wolcott, of the New Yorker, wrote, "Baseball is a slow game, but not as slow as Ken Burns' 'Baseball,' which is paced like a religious procession -- or a ghost march."

Wolcott's criticism wasn't just about the program being long and slow. Sounding complaints heard in publications ranging from Time and Newsweek to the Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun, he ripped the series for its "nearly all-male chorus of talking heads." As he put it, "The entire series sags under this mopey air of male menopause."

Off base?

Burns laughed derisively at the mention on Wolcott, saying, "He's the one I dismiss most absolutely. He said I was a square filmmaker, and I wear that badge with honor."

Burns blames all the other negative reviews on the "herd instinct" and critics falling in line with a "conventional wisdom that the metaphor [baseball is America] was overblown or whatever and that I was this 800-pound gorilla at PBS that was out-of-control."

The "conventional wisdom" was created by Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley, "who wrote this scathing review back in the summer without ever having seen a single piece of the film," said Burns. He dismissed the Post as "uniformly negative," and Washington as "a one-horse town."

As for the ratings: "The ratings were great," he said. "Can you imagine that in the face of the new fall season that the networks are cranking out, we're doing twice the normal ratings for PBS?"

That's one view of the ratings -- the glass-is-half-full view.

The other -- the half-empty view -- holds that doing twice as well as normal ratings for PBS is not saying much for something that cost $8 million to make and at least another $8 million to promote.

There were at least five PBS shows during the last TV season that did as well or better in the ratings than the average episode of "Baseball," from a rerun of a "Nova" episode on Jan. 12 to "I'll Fly Away: Then and Now" on Oct. 25.

In terms of other limited-run series, "Baseball" is eighth on the PBS all-time list behind such series as "The Living Planet" and "Dinosaurs." None of the other series had the kind of multimillion-dollar promotion "Baseball" did.

The series averaged a 5 rating nationally, which translates to about 4.7 million homes. In Baltimore, only about 44,000 homes were tuned to the series on any of its nine nights.

That means about 7 percent of the sets turned on were tuned to "Baseball," both nationally and locally (in contrast, about 14 percent were tuned to "The Civil War" over the five nights it aired in 1990). Stated another way, 93 percent of the people watching TV when "Baseball" was on chose to watch something else.

How small an audience is that?

The lowest-rated of all network prime-time shows last week, Fox's "Fortune Hunter," had an audience almost twice as large nationally. In Baltimore, the lowest-rated late newscast, WBFF's "News at Ten," had an audience more than twice as large as the one for "Baseball" on any given night.

How is it that Burns remains a big star despite such reviews and ratings? Ironically, the reasons are almost all commercial -- the one thing that Public Television is not supposed to be.

General Motors has what it calls a "partnership" with Burns, which guarantees GM will underwrite his work into the year 2000.

The man

Burns is already in production on a biography of Thomas Jefferson, the first of four biographies PBS plans to air under the title "American Lives" starting in 1996. He also has a GM and PBS commitment for a history of the West.

Because of his corporate underwriting, Burns is the man at PBS. He's like a big-name professor at a research university who brings huge amounts of grant money with him. All he has to do is please GM, and he seems to be doing that.

"Somebody asked whether or not we were disappointed because the early ratings were not as high as those generated by 'The Civil War.' And my response was that 'The Civil War' just did so much more than anyone ever thought it would that it would have been awfully hard to meet the expectations set up by [it]," John Maciarz, a General Motors' spokesman, said this week.

"But, having said that, I can say this company is pretty glad that we were affiliated with 'Baseball.' Even though it's obviously non-commercial television, the rub we get from being part of that kind of high-quality programming comes back to us several times over."

There's the rub, said Gomery -- and the rub is what it's all about.

"GM knows that the numbers on PBS are almost always small. The key is the kind of people that they can get with someone like Burns. I've not seen the demographics yet. But, if they're typical for something like this, they're getting the rich people who don't normally watch the (commercial) network television shows that GM normally advertises on," Gomery said.

In other words, Burns and "Baseball" do for GM just what, say, Aaron Spelling and "Beverly Hills, 90210" do for Noxzema: They round up a target audience and serve up that audience to advertisers. For Fox, it's teens. For PBS, it's that "upper-middle-brow" audience that new PBS President and CEO Ervin S. Duggan pledged to serve first and foremost.

"I am a very dense filmmaker, and this film is very rich," said Burns. "It's my greatest work. . . . And the important thing is that it has been phenomenally received by the people for whom I make films."

The question is, who are those people? The mass audience, as Burns continues to claim, or a relatively narrow, upscale and elitist niche that buys expensive cars, watches PBS and thinks only it understands the true and deeper meaning of baseball?

POINTS OF COMPARISON

Some ratings highlights on "Baseball":

* The average overnight rating for "Baseball" was 5.0 rating, 7 share. (Each ratings point equals 954,000 homes and is the percentage of all TVs tuned to the show. Share is the percentage of sets in use tuned to the show.)

* The average for "The Civil War" over five nights it aired in 1990 was a 9.0 rating and 14 share.

* Baltimore fell in the middle of the pack nationally in terms of interest, with an average rating of 4.6 and 7 share. With each local ratings point here equal to about 9,500 homes, that means the total audience was about 44,000 homes. It also means only 7 percent of the homes watching TV in the Baltimore market were tuned to the show on any given night.

* The best market for "Baseball" was St. Louis with a 7.5 rating and 11 share. The worst was Charlotte, N.C., with a 1.3 rating and 3 share. In Washington, "Baseball earned a 5.0 rating and 8 share.

* PBS says the audience for "Baseball" was about double its normal audience. But that's not saying much. For example, in the 1993-'94 season, there were several PBS shows that did about as well or better than "Baseball." They include: "National Geographic" ("Island of the Giant Bear" on Jan. 12), 6.1 rating and 9 share; "Nova" rerun ("Iceman" on Jan. 11), 5.2 rating and 8 share; "I'll Fly Away: Then and Now" (Oct. 11), 5.2 rating and 8 share; "Nature of Sex" (Nov. 23), 5.1 rating and 8 share; "The Great Depression" (Oct. 25), 5.0 rating and 8 share.

* In terms of all-time ranking for mini-series on PBS, "Baseball" is eighth. Ahead of it are: "The Civil War" (1990), 9.0 rating; "Life on Earth" (1982), 7.9; "The Living Planet" (1985), 7.8; "Cosmos" (1980), 6.5; "Planet Earth" (1986), 6.3; "Dinosaurs (1992), 5.3; "Vietnam: A Television History" (1983), 5.2.

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