Having vowed not to revisit war as a documentary subject after his groundbreaking Civil War, Ken Burns did anyway, telling journalists at the National Press Club in Washington two weeks ago that surveys showing many high school kids thought Germany was our ally in World War II spurred him to produce The War, the seven- part documentary series which began airing Sunday (Sept. 23) week on PBS.
The series has scored big numbers for PBS, with the first episode the highest rated show in seven years. But while Burns was hoping to give a history lesson to those young people, few tuned in if the ratings from the nation’s top market are any gauge.
The average audience over the first four nights on WNET New York was 401,000 viewers, but almosthalf of those were 65 years old or older so virtually all of them already know whose side we were fighting on, and some were probably doing the fighting. By contrast, only an average 7,000 viewers were 18-34 years old. That is the generation Burns was hoping to educate. Apparently not even the publicity surrounding a few profanities that public broadcasters weren’t editing out of the prime time version added any cachet
for the younger set. On the bright side, the number was trending up by Wednesday (14,000 18-34’s), with still three more episodes to go next week.
Yes, the series is being repeated extensively at other times and yes there are curriculum-basedefforts in schools. But if this show’s prime time showcase of the courage and sacrifice and horror of war was meant in part to capture young hearts and minds, many of whom apparently thought we fought with the Germans against the Russians in World War II, it didn’t make much of a dent in the nation’s top market.