Ken Burns, “Country Music,” and the PBS Two-Step

Ken Burns’ marathon “Country Music” documentary series did not air on CMT, originally Country Music Television, a pay channel owned by Viacom Media Networks. “Country Music,” from Burns Florentine Films, ran the Public Broadcasting Service. PBS operates the Corporation for Public Broadcastinga private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.” That raises questions about the proceeds for Ken Burns’ series and the aftermarket products.

As critic Steve Ramm notes, besides the 16-hour film seen on PBS there is also a “Concert at the Ryman” on PBS, plus a 450-plus page coffee-table “companion book” to the series. Don’t forget the DVD and Blu-ray offerings, and a five-CD and 68-page book set from Sony/Legacy. How the aftermarket products shake out is not readily apparent, but might be enlightened by Andrew Ferguson’s 1991 examination of Bill Moyers in The New Republic

Moyers was a fixture on PBS and also had his own production company, cranking out “Moyers: The Public Mind,” “Moyers: God and Politics,” “Moyers: In Search of the Constitution,” and “The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.” That special, featuring New Age guru Joseph Campbell, was a “stunning success,” Ferguson noted, with a viewership of more than 30 million. The series’ companion volume was on the best-seller lists for seventy-four weeks, and “The World of Ideas” inspired a best-selling spin-off book, with Moyers’ PBS shows acting as commercials for his products.

How the profits all shake out is hard to tell because, as Ferguson discovered, “the flow of funds within the hermetic world of public TV is one of its tightest secrets.” And the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting “is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.” So how Moyers and Ken Burns made out, with help from taxpayers, remains something of a mystery. Maybe somebody in Congress could press for more disclosure. 

Meanwhile, “Country Music” covered a lot of ground, from bluegrass in the 1920s through Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, et al. to Garth Brooks and beyond. The series had its moments, but despite the fanfare country music isn’t for everybody. A jazz drummer who has played with Eddie Harris, Jimmy Smith, and other greats sometimes tells this story. An armed robber captures two men and offers each a last request before killing them. “I want to sing a country song,” says the first. The second replies, “shoot me first.” 

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
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