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Published: Friday, 7/13/2007

'War' of words: Ken Burns' latest project has been an uphill battle

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

For the past year, PBS executives have been wringing their hands over a few instances of profanity and whether the Federal Communications Commission will fine PBS stations that air the program unedited.

More recently, directors/producers Burns and Lynn Novick got caught up in another controversy when Latino groups protested the lack of inclusion of Hispanic stories in the film, which recounts the war from the perspectives of people in four American communities Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; and the farming town of Luverne, Minn.

Burns has created about a half-hour of new material, interviews with an American Indian and Hispanic veterans, that will be added to the end of three of the completed nights of The War.

"I'm in the business of telling stories that haven't been told of American history for 30 years," Burns said at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. "It's painful to us [that] people would misinterpret what the film was about.

"We listened as hard as we could and tried to hear beyond the rhetoric and politics of it and hear the larger questions, and that's what we responded to and tried to speak to as honorably and humanely as possible," Burn said, noting that despite the title, The War is not intended to be a definitive textbook account.

PBS president Paula Kerger called Burns' The War a "seminal moment in the history of our medium," and she applauded Burns for reaching an understanding with Latino groups.

"Their concerns remind us that PBS will be held to a higher standard," she said. "Americans demand a lot of us and that's OK, that's the way it should be. We welcome their interest and enthusiasm."

But the demands of Latino groups also bring up the issue of artistic integrity: At what point should a filmmaker capitulate to activists? And if he gives in to this particular constituency, what's to prevent another group from making its own demands? What if people get upset if there is no focus on Italian-Americans? What if no gay soldiers are featured in The War? It's a slippery slope.

Kerger said she didn't think that was an issue in this case, saying it was Burns' decision to add new material that includes Latino veterans.

"When members of the Latino community began talking to us and to him, he had the opportunity to listen and consider their perspective," she said.

Burns said he's happy with the final version of The War.

"I think we found the right balance that permitted us not to alter the original vision of the film," Burns said, "and at the same time [respond to] a group of people who have not had their stories told in American history."

He said his take on World War II is not "the good war of sentimentality."

"We tend to take this Second World War and wrap it in this gallant thing, but it's the worst war," Burns said. "Out of this war we can learn so many more important things than the two-dimensional treacle we sometimes attend to the appreciation of this war. We do a disservice to the people who experienced the war if we continue, as we often did with the Civil War, to make it about something it wasn't."

With regards to four uses of words the FCC doesn't like (including the f-word), Kerger said The War will be offered to stations in edited and unedited formats "and every station will have the opportunity to decide [which one to air] based on the communities they serve."

Kerger defended the unedited version. "Two of the uses are so profoundly important because they explain [the acronyms] 'FUBAR' and 'SNAFU,' words in the common vernacular," she said.

Fans of Jane Austen, prepare to swoon.

PBS's Masterpiece Theatre will turn into Jane Austen's Masterpiece Theatre for four months beginning in January. Six Austen-penned stories will be featured, four of them new productions of Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility. Encores include Kate Beckinsale in 1996's TV version of Emma and 1995's Emmy-winning miniseries Pride & Prejudice, starring Colin Firth. There's also a new biopic, Miss Austen Regrets.

Executive producer Rebecca Eaton said Masterpiece Theatre will begin its 36th year with "a major brand enhancement," including a new, yet-to-be-named host and a new series opening and on-air look. She said the programming won't change even as the program receives sponsorship from PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A commercial sponsor hasn't stepped up in the several years since ExxonMobil stopped funding the acclaimed series.

Next year Daniel Radcliffe, the lead in the Harry Potter films, who starred in David Copperfield on Masterpiece Theatre will return to the PBS program in My Boy Jack, the story of Rudyard Kipling and his son.

But in January, it's Austenpalooza, interrupted only by a break for the March pledge.

Eaton feels there's enough interest in the author to justify The Complete Jane Austen, citing 100 discussion groups at Facebook.com, with titles that include "I Love Mr. Darcy Enough to Make Jane Austen Uncomfortable," "Real Men Read Jane Austen," and "Jane Austen Is Ruining My Sex Life."

"All six novels are love stories, and that's something that never goes out of date," said Andrew Davies, the acclaimed British screenwriter who wrote four of the films in the series. "The basic stories are in all kinds of trashy romantic novels: The young girl who has disadvantages, things get in her way, she gets a man who is improbably rich, handsome, loving, etc. Within that, Jane Austen managed to do it in a way that doesn't insult our intelligence. It's witty, it's ingenious, the plots are believable, the obstacles seem real, the odds seem insurmountable."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, the TV editor for the Post-Gazette, is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles.

Contact him at:

rowen@post-gazette.com

Channel surfing

Court TV will rename itself truTV on Jan. 1. NBC's ridiculously awful "The Singing Bee " got a huge tune-in Tuesday night, drawing 13.1 million viewers. The public radio show "Car Talk " will become an animated prime-time PBS show next summer. A Canadian TV show called "Ed's Up, " described by a producer as "a celebration of work, " will film in Pittsburgh tomorrow. Host Ed Robertson, lead singer of The Barenaked Ladies, travels to various North American cities to try new jobs, sort of like Mike Rowe in Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs. " Robertson will be in Pittsburgh to join a garbage truck crew for an episode to air on Canada's Outdoor Life Network and on its American counterpart, which is presumably Versus, formerly named Outdoor Life Network.



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