ABSTRACT

In September 2009, 33 million viewers watched Ken Burns’ Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. This was not Burns’ most popular film (The Civil War attracted 40 million viewers, while Baseball, the most watched documentary in public broadcasting history, drew 45 million 1 ) but it still ranks as the seventh best premiere in PBS history. Burns’ twelve-hour film is a visual overture to America’s environment, casting the national parks in a starring role in America’s democratic history. The documentary garnered some critical acclaim: The Washington Post called it “stunning and restorative, just like the Parks themselves.” 2 The New York Times disagreed, noting that the film’s “repetitive flow of lofty, often misty verbiage” has the effect of “sucking the juice out of history, of embalming it rather than bringing it to life.” 3 Many reviews recommended viewers only watch the first few hours. Environmental communication scholar Kevin DeLuca goes further, declaring it “terrible,” and describing it as “an inadvertent autopsy on the idea of wilderness while entombing the environmental movement under 12 hours of slow pans of black-and-white stills.” 4 Slow-moving images of America’s wilderness could not capture the sublime qualities of America’s grand vistas and failed to inspire amid the fast-paced distractions of America’s media saturated society.