Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Ken Burns’ ‘The Vietnam War’ Triples PBS’s Primetime Average

‘The Vietnam War’ from Ken Burns & Lynn Novick earned a hit-level PBS audience.

This post on the 18-hour, $30 million ‘Vietnam’ series wraps up my coverage of PBS’s impressive factual ratings.

(Read below my personal take on ‘Vietnam’ that is based on my eyewitness experience in wartime Laos as a 22 year old researcher / reporter working with Dispatch News International.)

The Ratings:

  • ‘The Vietnam War’ more than tripled PBS’s primetime rating.
  • That’s down 25% +/- from Burns’ previous archive-based series on the Roosevelt family (2014), but higher than his 2009 National Parks series.
  • Takeaway: Big characters (“Roosevelts”) are more appealing to TV audiences than topical or thematic series (“War” or “Parks”).

Minute-by-Minute / Episode-by-Episode:

  • Minute-by-Minute ratings across the 10 eps confirm that PBS viewers are remarkably loyal: when they tune in to an episode, they stay.
  • However, viewing levels eroded from episode to episode: ‘Vietnam’ lost around 25% of its initial audience by #3, and nearly half by #10.
  • However, episode #10 nearly tripled PBS’s primetime average.
  • My experience is that ‘The Vietnam War’ is a very hard watch, and that many engaged viewers are still catching up with the series over time.
  • Another Takeaway:
    • The storytelling may have lost its compelling quality.
    • It could have been told more efficiently at a lower total budget and with fewer episodes.

Key Demo’s

  • And here are further PBS breakdowns of the ‘Vietnam’ audience.


Takeaway: PBS is the ‘Unlikely Phoenix’

  • A veteran network exec recently described PBS as an ‘unlikely Phoenix’ that is recapturing attention after being categorized as ‘old’ and ‘politically vulnerable.’
  • The PBS audience is relatively steady and has impressive scale, while many U.S. factual cable channels are struggling against the disruptive forces of online viewing.
  • Here’s a sample of average primetime ratings (cable channels for 3Q2017):
    • PBS 1.4 (2,116,000)
    • Discovery Channel 0.9% (829,000)
    • History 1.1% (1,050,000)
    • National Geographic Channel 0.4% (357,000).

More on the PBS Audience

Thanks for this Series of Posts

  • I’m very grateful to the PBS Programming, PBS Business Intelligence and PBS stations for providing data and context.

My Indo-China War

  • That’s me as a 22 year old. It was taken in Vientiane, Laos in 1970.
  • I was an aspiring reporter/researcher, covering the war in Laos with Dispatch News International.

Vertical Runway

  • The Buddhist-styled Arc de Triomphe in the photo was dubbed the ‘Vertical Runway’ because it was secretly built with concrete that the Americans shipped from Thailand to extend Vientiane’s airport to accommodate their fighter bombers.
  • The Royal Lao government’s concrete heist was an open secret within the ‘Secret War’ in which a  country of subsistence rice farmers became the most bombed nation in history, bombed even more heavily than Germany in WW2 or Korea soon after.
  • I was at first a shocked witness and then a field researcher and reporter in Laos.
  • I found myself at the edge of a decades-long assault by the world’s greatest industrial nation on one of its poorest.
  • It is estimated that 2-3+ million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians died during the American war in Indo-China. Most were from defenseless farming families like the ones I interviewed in Laos.

Revealing Archive 

  • At the time, I wrote to my friends in Melbourne that I felt like I was witnessing a war crime of a vast scale. It was all the more painful because it was being waged by ‘my side’.
  • The compelling archive and interviews assembled by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick reveal that this war was fought by cynical politicians who held at best only a small hope for victory, and by a military brass who failed to account for an Asian enemy who they largely held in racist contempt.

A Moral Muddle

  • However, despite the evidence of their own research, the filmmakers never frame the war first as a war crime with millions of innocent victims.
  • They don’t ask why the Americans and their allies have never apologized, made amends, or held their own perpetrators accountable.
  • Instead, PBS’s The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is a war of many truths, a moral muddle that was “started in good faith by decent men” who were filled with fateful over-confidence.
  • We deserved a more courageous statement from our most celebrated and best-funded documentarians.

Final Thought

  • My experiences were so profound that now, even after nearly 50 years, they strongly color my reaction to any creative work like The Vietnam War that attempts to make sense of what I witnessed.