PBS Retreats on Airdate Plans for Ken Burns's 'War'

Ken Burns, whose World War II documentary has been pushed back a week in September.
Ken Burns, whose World War II documentary has been pushed back a week in September. (2005 Photo By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, February 2, 2007

Two weeks after TV critics begged PBS execs not to follow through with plans to debut Ken Burns's 14-hour World War II documentary during the commercial broadcast networks' so-called Premiere Week, PBS sent a memo informing them it had moved the September start date.

The critics, who have grown used to being ignored by all networks and most viewers -- how else to explain the success of "Deal or No Deal"? -- were stunned.

Instead of debuting "The War" the same night as the Primetime Emmy Awards broadcast, Burns's project will start a week later, on Sunday, Sept. 23. Episodes 2, 3 and 4, instead of airing the first week of the official TV season, when ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW typically unveil many new series and returning series, will be broadcast Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 24-26. The following Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Episodes 5, 6 and 7 will air. Each episode starts at 8 p.m. and is two hours long, except Episode 4, which runs 2 1/2 hours.

"In setting the official broadcast schedule for 'The War' we took a number of factors into consideration, including your important concerns," PBS Chief Content Officer John Boland said in the memo to critics this week. He was alluding to a revolt against the public television network's broadcast plans for the project that erupted during the PBS exec's Q&A session at Winter TV Press Tour 2007 in mid-January.

"It felt like that day was the Iraq committee [report] and the PBS execs were the White House and it didn't matter what the committee said -- they were not going to listen to our advice," New York Daily News critic David Bianculli told The TV Column yesterday of that heated exchange.

Bianculli was among those who led the charge against the network's original broadcast plans; he was the one who asked Boland, rhetorically, "If you have friends in the room who love your stuff and we can't give it the space we want to because you're determined to play chicken [with the commercial broadcasters] -- and you lose every single time -- what's the definition of insanity?"

Peppy stuff.

In his e-mail, Boland also said that "luckily all of the 'stars' have aligned. Ken Burns reports that with the new date 'The War' will premiere on the 17th anniversary of 'The Civil War' debut -- to the minute."

We assume he knows how much the TV landscape, and the scheduling of TV programs, has changed in those 17 years. Which got us wondering:

What advice would the scheduling brainiacs at the commercial broadcast networks give PBS about airing this very special project, and what did they think of PBS's game plan?

We made the calls:

"Monumentally stupid," said one, who asked that he not be named because he said the plan was "monumentally stupid."

"Why not do it two weeks before the season starts? Give yourself a real chance to get some viewers. If they want to prove their worth to the country, why don't they air it when more people can see it?

"Why make people choose between 'Desperate Housewives' and Ken Burns?"

FYI, this guy says he's a Ken Burns fan. He described PBS's airdates as "flying a little too close to the sun" in light of the "millions and millions and millions of dollars" the commercial broadcasters spend at that time of year promoting their new fall lineups.

Another network scheduler was more concerned about the whole Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday thing. He also did not want to be named because the other guy did not want to be named because he had said the plan was "monumentally stupid."

"Who would watch this? You've got to figure it will be more male and older, and starting on a Sunday and Monday you're going up against football, so a lot of your 25-plus or 35-plus male audience . . . is probably over at football.

"Maybe in their minds they want to avoid Thursday," he continued. "I kind of get that. They probably figure the two biggest shows on television are on Thursday. If I were doing it, the best way would be to pick a night and run it every week that night for two hours. When was the last time a broadcast network put on a miniseries which asked you to be there for [several] nights in a row? I think it's a lot to ask of anybody to watch eight hours of anything so close together."

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