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In My Opinion
Want "Reality" In Your Viewing? Seek Out Ken Burns!
Editor
Wednesday, July 17, 2013 • Posted July 17, 2013

I've carped on many occasions about my disdain for "reality" television. A form of television entertainment that began during a writers' strike, reality television shows have devolved into a reflection of the worst we human beings have to offer, presented as reality; but, actually nothing more than an obvious attempt to grab viewers, ratings and advertisers.

The networks quickly discovered that "reality" shows were very inexpensive to produce, and very popular with viewers. The networks didn't have to pay for writers. They didn't have to build sets or purchase props or costumes. They didn't have to pay expensive talent or finicky directors. The "reality" shows required only camera, lighting and sound operators, and a good editor further down the line to cut together the footage into the pabulum that the public consumed with a voracious appetite.

The guests of the Big Brother house have shown themselves to be immature, bigoted and shallow.

The "Real Housewives" are neither real, nor very good housewives.

We've learned that many of the shows create false tension among the cast members in order to tantalize viewers. Even shows such as Hog Hunters and Duck Dynasty have lines fed to their cast members to help move the action in a direction that will seem more exciting to viewers.

I worry that we, as consumers of these shows, have started to draw our ideas about fashion, politics, morality and etiquette from these shows that feature some of the most repugnant and objectionable individuals ever to populate the television universe. There are people that actually think that because their favorite television personalities have gotten away with such behaviors and practices, they can model themselves after those characters.

If it is reality that you crave as a tv viewer, I've found something that can easily replace your viewing habits -- the Ken Burns documentaries.

If you're not familiar with the documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, you have been missing some of the most exciting and entertaining programs on American television.

During the 1980s, Burns began his journey into the medium of the documentary with shows about the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Louisiana Governor Huey Long, and the American Congress. But, it was his 1990 documentary, "The Civil War," that would raise his visibility with television viewers and that would move him to the top of the list of filmmakers who truly understood Americans.

"The Civil War" made use of archival photographs to present an accurate history of the personal struggles that made the civil war a pivotal point in American history. But, he went further with a technique that would become a signature of his later works - he used diaries, personal letters and first-person accounts, read by some of the most talented voice actors in America, to move the dramatic action forward. We heard from wives, fathers, doctors, slaves and farmers. We heard the real voices of those who lived during the conflict, and we began to fully understand the emotional turmoil of the people during the War Between the States.

The success of "The Civil War" has allowed Ken Burns to continue his documentary filmmaking, and to chronicle the "real" people of our country. He shows their courage, their strength, their vanity, their optimism.

In the 1990s, Burns would produce films about baseball, Thomas Jefferson, the early years of radio, Lewis & Clark, Susan B. Anthony and Frank Lloyd Wright. Each documentary followed the formula of The Civil War, blending archival images, film, and written records of actual participants in the events being discussed.

As the 2000s dawned, Burns' energy never flagged. He kicked off the new century by looking at the jazz movement, profiled Mark Twain, explained the beginning of our love of the road trip, examined the struggles of blacks in the years prior to the civil rights movement, and then turned his focus to World War II, the creation of the National Parks, Prohibition, and The Dust Bowl.

It is heartening for me to see that the projects he has coming down the pipeline include such fascinating topics as the Roosevelts, Jackie Robinson, the Vietnam War, country music and Ernest Hemingway. They are all uniquely American topics, deftly presented with all of the disparate voices that were involved, all with an even handedness that one rarely sees in documentaries. After watching some of the Ken Burns documentaries, a viewer walks away feeling they have a better understanding of the journeys that have been made by those who preceded us. And, we have a new respect for decisions that were made and actions that were taken, better understanding the context in which such things happened and knowing that we Americans have met numerous challenges; but, we have developed a personality to move through them and to emerge on the other side with our hearts and our souls intact.

So, you can keep your housewives and your big brothers. You can have your hog hunters and duck call manufacturers. They do not represent reality for me, not even in passing. I'll choose the reality of the real Americans who built our country, and continue building it, into the country that continues to make me proud.

It’s all just my opinion.

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