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Ken Burns makes great films but says his business model is no good

Adam Shapiro

Famed director Ken Burns says there is no real good business plan for what he does despite the success of documentaries like “The Civil War,” “Vietnam” and his new film “Country Music.”

“I could go to a premium channel and I could get $30 million to do ‘Vietnam’ or to a streaming service, but they are not going to let me take 10 and a half years to do ‘Vietnam’,” he told Yahoo Finances On the Move.

Burns said PBS is the only place that lets him take the time his production team needs to produce his critically acclaimed documentaries. PBS is still one of the country’s largest distribution platforms reaching a huge audience across all demographics, according to Burns.

“This isn’t about the Upper West Side and Nob Hill, we get great ratings in Oklahoma and Arkansas and West Virginia and Alaska and not just for Country Music,” he said.

The film “Country Music” is now broadcasting on PBS and the first four episodes is available via streaming on PBS online platforms. The final four episodes begin streaming September 22. The entire series will be available for six months.

Burns said he’s hitched his wagon to PBS but eventually his films will wind up on giant streaming platforms like Netflix (NFLX).

Country Music’s heart breaking stories

Burns’ “Country Music” chronicles the history of country music and includes stories about some of its greats like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton.

“When you find out why Dolly Parton wrote, ‘I Will Always Love You’ her version, which is fantastic, but doesn’t have the crossover success of Whitney Houston’s magnificent version, hers will soar past Whitney because you will understand the circumstances of how it went,” said Burns.

He said the documentary is a story about the United States, “In which African-Americans are a central part. It’s about class too, rising up from poverty” and also about songwriting.

“I’m a child of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll and I knew the crossover folks like Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash, but I had no idea the depth of this story. It’s kind of a Russian novel of intertwined stuff about American creativity,” he said.

Burns said 99% of people want almost the exact same thing and his films capture that by answering one question, who are we as Americans. “What I learned was first there’s no them. There’s only us,” he said.

Adam Shapiro is co-anchor of Yahoo Finance On the Move.

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