PBS has awarded documentary filmmaker Ken Burns an unprecedented 15-year contract to continue providing public television stations with his signature films on American history.
"What that represents is an extraordinary commitment from Ken that signals he plans to spend the rest of his professional life working with public television," said PBS President and Chief Executive Paula Kerger in an announcement Saturday to the semiannual gathering of the Television Critics Assn. in Pasadena. Burns' long-term projects include a film on Prohibition and another on the national parks system, she said. "He gave us a list pages long. We will never live long enough to pursue them all," she said.
Reporters peppered Kerger, who has held her post for 10 months, with questions about Burns' upcoming WWII documentary "The War" -- its language, its length and its scheduling.
The critics complained that they will be able to provide only cursory coverage of the 14-hour series because it will air in mid-September, smack in the middle of broadcast television's new fall season. PBS has lost helpful coverage for years by not scheduling an important program a week earlier or later, one critic contended.
John Boland, Kerger's newly appointed chief content officer, said, "PBS cannot go into hibernation when a commercial season breaks. We need to provide our audience with high-quality programming regardless of the commercial season."
Grumbled the reporter, "What's the definition of 'insanity?' "
Boland countered that PBS does not lose out because it does not depend on ratings and advertisements like commercial broadcast operations. "We're doing a public service that goes on 365 days a year," he said.
The program will also be available on other platforms such as broadband, DVD and video on demand, he said.
Kerger justified the show's length by predicting that the documentary "will be one of those seminal events, not just in public television history but in broadcast history."
She added: "This is Ken Burns' greatest work. He says it is.... For him to do the subject justice and to tell the story well, it's the right length of time."
And finally, the language: the familiar issue of whether the FCC will call soldiers' frank talk obscene and threaten to fine member stations that decide to air it uncut or un-bleeped.
It was unclear whether PBS would censor the language. Kerger said the decision would depend partly on the outcome of some similar court cases now pending.
Nevertheless, she said she supports the original language and "is heading down the path" of opposing censorship altogether. Still, the final decision rests with the local stations, she said.
In other news, Boland announced the launch of an animated news program for children, the return of "Bill Moyers' Journal" in April, and the continuation of a multiplatform audience survey to determine which of three new science shows will appear on air as a series.
Kerger also pledged that PBS will not abandon "Masterpiece Theater," even as the search goes on for funding for the award-winning series.