Watching “The War,” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s sprawling 15-hour documentary on World War II, two related thoughts kept recurring: Nowhere else on TV will you see surviving members of the generation that fought and won the war presented in this fashion; and thanks to the shortsightedness of PBS, those octogenarians might well be the primary age group that tunes in.
It’s an easy applause line, depending on the room, to decry the ageism practiced within entertainment, and I’m certainly not above that. Nevertheless, the fact that TV’s financially motivated pursuit of youth routinely discriminates against those over 55 is a topic that periodically deserves revisiting.
One consequence of that chase is that the most vital, healthy and enduring seniors ever to walk the planet are dismissed in terms of their viewing preferences. CBS, for example, never boasts about how its shows kick butt among “adults 65-plus,” which they do on a regular basis.
Because movies and TV target a younger audience, moreover, older characters become clichés and are frequently reduced to broad punch lines — daft old men in boxer shorts, and the horny rapping grannies of Adam Sandler fare.
Compare those movie images with the witnesses featured within “The War” — men and women in their 80s, discussing events that transpired more than six decades ago with riveting, as-if-it-were-yesterday clarity.
“We all changed,” says Quentin Aanenson, a humble Minnesotan who in some ways becomes the Everyman touchstone within Burns’ epic, contemplating the war’s lingering impact on those who served. “We looked maybe the same. But inside, we were so different.”
Although veterans of the war are dying, as the producers have reminded us, at the rate of 1,000 a day, those whom Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation” represented here are far from doddering. By extension, that should provide some indication of the unprecedented market power wielded by the growing host that have aged out of their media prime — whippersnappers in their late 50s, 60s and 70s.
Were it merely one or two voices, “The War’s” unspoken demographic message would be less powerful. Myriad faces keep popping up, however, as Burns and Novick methodically trace the war’s progress through the testimony of these survivors.
Airing on PBS, of course, allows Burns the luxury to paint on an enormous canvas, without the commercial imperative to knock one out of the park in “the demo” — the popular short-hand for the key 18-49 age bracket.
Yet it’s precisely “the demo” that this massive undertaking cries out to be watched by, beginning with the children and grandchildren — from baby boomers to Gen-X-Y-Whatever — who grew up blanketed in liberty and wanton consumerism thanks to the war generation’s collective sacrifice.
Here, unfortunately, is where PBS’ pigheadedness enters the picture, sending this seven-night event into battle starting Sept. 23 — directly opposite the major networks’ new fall season. So the heroes of “The War” will go up against “Heroes,” its medics against “Grey’s Anatomy,” its men of the much-decorated 442nd regiment against “Two and a Half Men.”
PBS already delayed the start date by a week in response to grumbling from TV critics, who questioned positioning the project vs. network fall previews as competition for space within TV books (those that still have them, anyway). Burns himself blessed the revised date, which marks the 17th anniversary of his groundbreaking history “The Civil War,” which ambushed broadcasters with its powerful ratings.
As the saying goes, though, 1990 was then, and this is now. And while there are no free passes anywhere, “The War” should have been redeployed to maximize its chances of success — launched just after Labor Day, say, or between the September crush and World Series in October. It’s the kind of scheduling brinksmanship, frankly, that commercial broadcasters engage in routinely and which PBS has never mastered.
For all “The War’s” strengths, it would be another indignity for those featured and their peers if these stories go largely unseen by younger audiences, those who would benefit most from enhancing their appreciation of this defining period. In fact, they had a term for such screw-ups back then that still applies today, neatly capturing the media’s approach to seniors.
FUBAR. For you kids out there, look it up.