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Ken Burns Says Vietnam Documentary Is Only Possible at PBS

Ken Burns Defends Federal Funding for PBS
David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

With President Donald Trump pushing to eliminate funding for public broadcasting, filmmaker Ken Burns defended the model Sunday as the only one able to accommodate his brand of longform documentary filmmaking.

Appearing at the Television Critics Association press tour to promote his upcoming documentary “The Vietnam War,” Burns said, “I need to give a commercial to public broadcasting,” adding “there is no other place that this could have been made,” having spent 10 years working on the 18-hour series.

Those in the commercial-television world apparently agree with him.

“There’s not a business model where any film production company — and I’m very good friends with [HBO CEO] Richard Plepler, and he agrees — that we can spend the resources and the time and the scholarship to do this, except public broadcasting,” Burns said.

Burns’ comments came two months after Trump proposed a federal budget that would eliminate most funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which provides hundreds of millions of dollars every year to local PBS and NPR stations. The House appropriations committee recently voted to preserve CPB funding, but the federal budget has yet to be finalized.

Burns defended federal funding Sunday, touting the impact of PBS and the relatively miniscule cost of funding its member stations through federal appropriation.

“While we count on the marketplace to do lots of things in our lives, and it’s a wonderful, positive element in our lives, the marketplace doesn’t come to your house at 3 a.m. when it’s on fire,” Burns said. “The marketplace does not have boots on the ground in Afghanistan at this moment. And while I wouldn’t ever suggest that public broadcasting has anything to do with the defense of the country, I think with every fiber of my being that it makes our country worth defending by what it has added to our national conversation.”

Burns also said that the upcoming Vietnam film, which he directed with Lynn Novick and which premieres Sept. 17 on PBS stations, does not offer a political take on the the war.

“We try super hard not to sort of put our thumb on the scale or to promote an agenda, political or otherwise,” Burns said. “It’s enough to spend 10 years just trying to wrestle this story to the ground, and we felt that it was hugely important because the story is rarely told from more than one perspective.”