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Musicians of one genre often hope for crossover hits to reach a new audience. Gary Edgerton, professor and chair of communication and theatre arts, might have a similar commodity on his hands with his latest academic work, "Ken Burns's America."

Now available nationwide at such bookstores as Barnes & Noble and Borders, it is the first book-length study of the man Edgerton calls "the most influential popular historian of this generation."

The reason for the crossover potential of Edgerton's scholarly work is simple - Ken Burns, who was a little-known documentary filmmaker in the 1980s, has emerged as a superstar in a field where superstars never existed. His breakthrough work, "The Civil War," was the most-watched program in PBS history when it premiered in September 1990. The first night 13 million people tuned in; by week's end it was 40 million, and the field of documentary filmmaking was changed forever.

"It was one of those phenomenons where all the stars line up," said Edgerton as a way to explain the success of "The Civil War." Saddam Hussein had gone into Kuwait, signifying the start of what would become the Gulf War and signaling a heightened interest in military action; network television premieres were postponed due to a writers' strike; and PBS sent boxed sets of "The Civil War" to critics across the country who shared their rave reviews with readers. Edgerton also noted that Burns himself helped sell it. "He is as talented a speaker and presenter of himself as he is a filmmaker."

Burns' style was revolutionary for the time, Edgerton added. He used a blend of still images, lively narration, interviews and evocative music to tell a story, framing it to make it seem as though it were happening in the present. He also developed characters and storylines, in a similar vein to the craft of fiction writers, which is how contemporary audiences were accustomed to viewing movies and television programs. This was virtually unheard of in a documentary or nonfiction form.

"He was able to make it 'emotionally meaningful' for his audience," said Edgerton. "He works to bring the past back alive, and television and film are perfect mediums for him to do that."

In fact, Burns's unusual approach, and his choice of medium (television), helped him reach a contemporary audience that was largely unfamiliar with the documentary genre. He was able to popularize the genre to the extent that more documentaries are aired now - both on television and on movie screens - than ever before.

"It's really a sign of how influential he's been when you see how many people's works - in documentaries, movies, commercials and television programs - are shot in the 'Ken Burns style,'" Edgerton noted.

There are, however, scholars who take exception to a filmmaker being regarded as a historian for the masses. But, with 150 million viewers having watched Burns's "Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz" documentaries on PBS, that's exactly what Burns has become. "More people learn their history on television today than in any other way," said Edgerton. "[Historians] may not like that, but they have to start paying attention to it."

In addition to academicians, others are likely to pay attention to Edgerton's book, which may well find a spot under many Christmas trees this holiday season.

According to Christopher H. Sterling of George Washington University, just as Burns's video documentaries have informed a generation, Edgerton has crafted "... an informed and readable guide to the development of Burns's methods and explores the reasons for his spectacular success.

"Edgerton combines critical viewing, a host of well-chosen interviews, and careful analysis to provide the best picture we have of one of the most important American documentary filmmakers."

This article was posted on: November 27, 2001

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