Why Ken Burns will never make a documentary series for a streaming service

Evan Barlow

It's a good time for documentaries. The proliferation of streaming services has made funding available for many projects, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has given a lot of people time to spend watching long documentary shows. Netflix's Tiger King, ESPN's The Last Dance (which quickly landed on Netflix after its original broadcast), and HBO's The Vow count among some of the most talked-about TV of the past year. However, one luminary of the form isn't interested in working with the streaming platforms.

In a new interview with Yahoo Finance, legendary documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball) says that he will always stick with public television over taking a lucrative Netflix deal. It's not just about the funding, Burns says, but also the lack of strict deadlines.

"I could have gone a few years ago to a streaming channel or premium cable, and say, with my track record, 'I need $30 million to do Vietnam,' and they would have given me," Burns said. "But what they wouldn't have given me is 10 and a half years. PBS gave me 10 and a half years. They gave me six and a half on Ernest Hemingway."

Burns' latest documentary is indeed an exploration of the influential American author behind novels like A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea; the three-part miniseries kicks off April 5 on PBS. Though many may associate Hemingway with his macho-man persona, Burns recently told EW that "it's as complex a biography as we've ever worked on."

In order to complete such complicated projects to his satisfaction, Burns says PBS' relative lack of interest in profit or pleasing subscribers helps a lot.

"It's not a financial model; it's a grant model," he says. "We raise money from foundations, and individuals of wealth, from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, from PBS itself."

Burns continued, "What that gives me is total creative control. If you don't like these films, it's my fault. And that's the way you want it to be: No excuses."

Read or watch the full interview at Yahoo, and look out for the Hemingway premiere next week.

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