Ken Burns needs to shut up about reality TV and start making it instead

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has slammed reality television, which is too bad since he understands its appeal and could use his considerable talent to make the genre better.

Burns’ Prohibition documentary is currently airing on PBS, and in an interview with the Telegraph, he said, “Reality tv is like dog droppings in the street. You just try to avoid it and keep going with what you’re doing.” He’s said things like this before.

Yes, some reality TV is dogshit. But you know what, Ken? Some reality TV is art. Here’s a radical idea: Maybe you should make some and try to improve the genre that is part of the nonfiction spectrum on which your work exists.

Part of the problem here is that the people who make high-quality reality TV reject the label because they’ve accepted the media’s narrative that “reality TV” means “poorly made stupid shit for dumb fucks” instead of embracing the idea that a genre can have many levels of quality. Who knew? It’s not like there’s a range of quality or value in, say, novels.

Last year, when Deadliest Catch lost to Ken Burns’ national parks documentary, the reality show’s executive producer Thom Beers said that was “an abomination” because the doc was “boring.” There’s obviously some bitterness there, but you know what? Thom Beers is right.

Ken Burns stuff is awesome and compelling but often dry and boring. And he loses a lot of his potential audience that way. I’m not saying he should pander to the lowest common denominator or even stop doing what he’s doing; he tells complicated stories in an understandable and accessible way. But there isn’t just one kind of storytelling. In the Kansas City Star piece linked above, Burns says, as part of his critique of reality TV, “There is an aspect of voyeurism that is interesting.” Excellent: show us.

Last year, talking to TV critics, Burns explained the appeal of reality television while discussing how narrative works. Re-reading that now, it still strikes me as both profound and a gorgeous way of describing how TV works. I love listening to Ken Burns talk, but in this case, I think he needs to stop talking and start using his talent to change that which he continually decries.

discuss this story