Burns & Co. hear no evil on 'Baseball'

September 30, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,PBS and NielsenSun Television Critic

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.

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