Burns Jazz is hot

PBS' series makes music-to merchandisers' ears

While Jazz
is far from PBS' top performer, the merchandising hype surrounding the 19-hour Ken Burns documentary has won the gold. Literally. The series' accompanying five-CD boxed set, Jazz: The Story of America's Music,
had sold more than 500,000 copies as of Jan. 12.

has grabbed merchandisers'-and consumers'-imaginations unlike any other of director Burns' past productions, including 1990's Civil War
and 1994's Baseball. This time around, "I think it's a combination of Ken Burns and very accessible subject matter," said Harry Forbes, PBS senior director of program press relations.

Although each of Burns' earlier series garnered better ratings, Jazz
stands alone in PBS history in both the "sheer amount of ink [that] this series has generated" and the promotional push behind it, Forbes noted.

The 10-parter debuted Jan. 8 and dropped the curtain last Wednesday. PBS executives last Tuesday said the show was averaging a 3.6 rating, but they expected that number to grow to a 4 with the finale. The average PBS prime time rating is about 2. Baseball
averaged a 5.1 rating and a 7 share, and the "phenomenon" that was the Civil War
won a 9/14.

General Motors, Jazz's sole corporate underwriter, has engineered a variety of tie-ins and cross promotions for the series, including:

  • A "Best of" 20-track CD culled from the 94-song boxed set, along with 22 more titles by individual artists. Normally competitors, Sony's Columbia/Legacy and Universal's Verve Music Group record labels collaborated to release the albums, which went on sale Nov. 7.
  • PBS' boxed VHS and DVD versions, released Jan. 2.
  • A $65 coffee-table book, published by Knopf and released Nov. 9.
  • Jazz-themed TV spots for the NBA and live halftime shows featuring jazz performances and clips from the documentary.
  • A "Ken Burns Jazz
    store" at Amazon.com.
  • In-store events and contests at Borders Books and Music and an online Jazz shop at Borders.com.
  • CD sales and viewer and listener guides at Starbucks coffee shops.

Jazz was slated to air last November but was delayed partly to shoehorn it into PBS' schedule, said Dalton Delan, executive vice president and chief programming officer of series co-producer WETA Washington. The delay proved fortuitous: The preceding release of the CDs created a buzz that led new viewers to PBS and drove up ratings. In the world of quality non-fiction, Jazz is the equivalent of the wildly successful Survivor on CBS and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? on ABC, Delan exulted.

The hoopla can't hurt PBS stations, which rely on attracting viewers-and their pledges-to survive. Many stations planned to run Jazz over and over-10 times a week in the Boston area, according to The Boston Herald-and offer "aggressive community outreach program[s]," WETA Washington President Sharon Rockefeller said in September. That should "resonate" not just with current viewers but with new viewers, she said. (WETA produced Jazz with Burns' Florentine Films in association with the BBC.)

Not all the ink surrounding Jazz
has been good. As the Daily News
(New York) noted last Tuesday, "The main objections to Jazz have been that [the final] episode condenses 40 years of history into two hours (whereas previous installments covered as few as two years) and that Wynton Marsalis, who emerges as the work's principal voice, has a particular and conservative point of view when it comes to his enthusiasms for various subgenres of jazz."

Actor Hal Holbrook and English teachers undoubtedly will be pleased by Burns' choice for his next PBS documentary subject: all-American writer Mark Twain. That four-hour series is slated for next fall or winter.