PBS' bountiful harvest 'The Farmer's Wife' attracted millions of viewers who continue to care about the fate of the Buschkoetter family. And it proved that the documentary form is far from dead.

One of the biggest mistakes we make on the television beat is that we seldom look back.

About as far back as we'll go is one week, and then it is only to check on the Nielsen ratings to see if a show did as well or poorly as we expected. Part of the reason for that is television itself, the very essence of which is to keep driving us relentlessly forward to and through the next break or commercial by teasing us with "still to come" or "just ahead." And, in case that doesn't work, there are the outright commands from big-voiced announcers saying: "Stay tuned" and "Don't change that dial."


But "The Farmer's Wife" - an extraordinary 6-hour documentary about the struggle of a Nebraska family to save their farm - has been calling us back almost since the morning after it ended its three-night run on public television Sept. 23.

I have received more calls and letters about this show than any of the new network offerings. And requests to borrow my preview cassettes of the show are still coming in. The dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Maryland, College Park has them now. People want to know about the couple featured in the film, Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter, and the filmmaker, David Sutherland, who spent three years living with them as he made the film. "The Farmer's Wife" made people care about what they saw like no other documentary or network newsmagazine story I can remember.


Nor is its afterlife just a local phenomenon. Between 15 and 18 million viewers nationwide saw "The Farmer's Wife," this despite the documentary going head-to-head with the first three nights of the new network TV season and the day of President Clinton's videotaped deposition in the Lewinsky matter. The ratings were huge by PBS standards - more than twice as high as the PBS average for previous September premieres.

But it is the response that has been staggering: 12,000 e-mails and more than 800,000 visits to "The Farmer's Wife" Web site. It is the largest response in the history of "Frontline," the acclaimed nonfiction series that presented Sutherland's film, according to PBS.

And while the comparison is complicated due to different forms of response such as cassette sales, which have yet to be tallied for "The Farmer's Wife," it appears to have generated the greatest response to any PBS film since Ken Burns'

"The Civil War." Donations to the family, pilgrimages to the farm and visits by Nebraska politicians seeking endorsements from the Buschkoetters have been nonstop since the series aired, according to Juanita Buschkoetter and Sutherland.

Sutherland and his wife and co-producer, Nancy, took a cross-country auto trip from their home in Boston to Los Angeles this month and stopped off to visit the Buschkoetters. One reason for the trip was to meet with some of the many producers in Hollywood who want to talk to Sutherland after seeing his work.

"I was at the Buschkoetters' house, and the house has several rooms filled to the ceiling with boxes with ... handmade quilts, long underwear, canned goods, shoes, toys. It's from regular people - some of whom made pilgrimages from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington state, Long Island and places like that to deliver the goods - and it's from department [stores] and other stores, too," Sutherland says.

Many people responded to "The Farmer's Wife" at a very personal level. In the film, viewers were told that Juanita's mother did not want Juanita to marry Darrel; as an inducement to dump him, the mother even offered to have Juanita's "teeth fixed." Juanita is self-conscious about an overbite and some unevenness in her front teeth. Since the documentary aired, Sutherland says, eight dentists have offered to fix Juanita's teeth for free, and other viewers have offered to pay to have them fixed.

One man drove more than 1,000 miles in a pickup truck filled with food, games for the three Buschkoetter children and clothes donated by a town in Illinois. A woman in New York offered to fly the family to Disneyland.


Those who offered money have been asked by Juanita to donate it instead to the Farm Crisis Hotline in Walthill, Neb., or to Farm Aid. Juanita worked for the hot line; that is how Sutherland met her. Juanita says she plans to divert some of the checks sent to the family to the hot line "because they helped us.

Especially getting closer to Christmas, it was such an awful feeling being a mother and not knowing if you can afford anything."

But she is keeping some of the checks designated specifically for the family, including one for $25 that a woman sent with instructions to "buy a bottle of champagne and toast ourselves."

The Buschkoetters are not out of the woods by any stretch, but things are getting better, Juanita says.

"No one is perfect, and we made our share of mistakes. But a lot of what happened to us was beyond our control; four years of drought, losing rented ground. ... We are thankful for the bumper crop in '96 that enabled us to become current on operating bills.

"Things are improving every day. We are finally headed in the right direction, if crop prices come back to a level where we don't lose money farming. We should be OK, but farming is so questionable right now. But we will come out of whatever [happens] together. We finally have time to at least sit back and breathe."


Overall, Juanita says, "We had no clue [the response] would ever be this big. I thought if one family can see they're not alone, it will have been worth it, and this film has touched so many people."

For more than a decade, we have been hearing from network news executives that the documentary is dead. Viewer attention spans have shortened, the remote control has turned us into a nation of channel surfers, and no one will sit through even an hour of nonfiction television anymore. These are among the justifications cited for their stampede to short-format, headline-chasing newsmagazines like NBC's "Dateline" and abandonment of such documentary series as NBC's "White Papers" and "CBS Reports."

So, riddle me this, Mr. Network News Executive: Why did so many people watch "The Farmer's Wife," and why did it make so many of us care so much?

Pub Date: 11/29/98