On TV, The Vietnam War is a hit

In putting together their Vietnam War series over a 10-year period, filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick said they hope to start a national conversation on the war. That hasn’t happened yet, although we’re only three episodes in (the entire series is online). Critics have applauded the series but, anecdotally, the buzz hasn’t taken root.

It’s not because people aren’t watching.

The audience share for the broadcast on Twin Cities PBS last night was the highest of any top-25 market, according to Tom Holter, the director of programming at TPT.

Minneapolis finished second to Portland, Ore., on Monday night. For the debut episode on Sunday, 112,000 Twin Cities households were tuned in, good for third place behind Portland and Seattle and the highest Sunday night audience for TPT since the final episode of Downton Abbey in the spring of 2016.

By comparison, the first episode of Burns’ last epic — The Roosevelts — was watched by 75,000 households in the Twin Cities.

The actual audience is likely much higher because the measurements don’t include people who are streaming the series, or delaying watching it.

Typically, Holter expects the audience to drop over the course of a Burns series, but the audience for the third episode here was as high as the first, and the viewership for Monday night’s audience dropped only by 10 percent.

Why? Holter guesses it’s the different storytelling technique that Burns is using in The Vietnam War, and it’s not being told so much by historians, but by participants.

While we might know how many people are watching, we don’t know the demographics of those watching, so it’s not yet possible to assess whether the audience are people who lived through the turbulence of the time, or a younger generation never taught the history of the war nor the events that led up to it.

That, Holter says, could be easier to determine when national PBS audience measurements are available after the series has concluded.

  • Jeff

    I was thinking I was going to be “eating my broccoli” but it’s been engrossing.

  • John McCain did a lot to put the war aside when he went back years ago.

  • There was a really good segment on PBS NewsHour last night attesting to that.


  • kevins

    I’m watching and remembering and learning. Can’t wait util he gets to ’68.

  • Jay T. Berken

    I have been watching each episode online a day late.

    I am wondering that people are “holding their breathe” right now before they start a conversation. I do hope a conversation starts because there is a lot of resentment and hurt and guilt that needs to get out from my parents generation.

    • Probably. It’s a LOT to process. I figure people will start as soon as we see more Nixon on the screen.

  • MikeB

    I’ve been really enjoying this series (and the NewsCut follow up discussions!). Going in I thought it may be a tough watch. The word quagmire is associated with Vietnam but watching the decision making over time it is the perfect description of the process and outcome. I’m shaking my head, sighing out loud, and seeing parallels in future events. Enthralling, frustrating, educating, loathing; it’s been a bit of everything.

    • JamieHX

      “Enthralling, frustrating, educating, loathing; it’s been a bit of everything.”
      Yeah, everything. It is so good, so well-made. But I’m having some difficulty watching. Last night especially. Even now. At least 58,000 families went through what they did. Such a waste. It’s unfathomable.

      • Jack

        And how many more are going through it with the various military actions since then?

        Afghanistan anyone?

  • Kassie

    We tried to watch it on Sunday, but it started before we finished dinner. We then tried to load it from the PBS app on Roku and had no luck. We would of missed a lot anyhow due to our schedules, so I’m glad we didn’t see Sunday. I will watch it, but at my own pace on my own timeline.

    • Spoiler alert: We lost.

      • Kassie

        Well, unlike a bunch of people I’ve seen online, I did learn about the war in High School.

    • Jack

      TPT is running this week’s episodes again over the weekend.

  • lusophone

    I had to take a break from it yesterday. I think it was affecting my mood.

  • Jeff

    I thought it was telling when they interviewed a North Vietnamese vet and he observed that the Americans were mourning their dead and found out they were humans too. Also we make up with people (Germany, Japan) when they have something we want or want to sell to them or they are the enemy of our enemies.

    • The most memorable — of many — for me is the the guy who said:

      “We didn’t get to be the top of the food chain by being nice. People say soldiers are baby killers, etc. The military is just finishing school.”

  • Wednesday’s episode is where the Vietnam War started to become personal for me.

    I lost a cousin in 1966, a Navy pilot (like his father in WWII) who was hit while bombing Haiphong. He got his damaged attack jet back to the carrier but died on the operating table. His death, at the time, didn’t greatly affect me; Marty was 10 or 12 years older than me and I had only known him from summer visits at the cabins my grandfather and his grandfather (my great-uncle) owned on the same lake road.

    But, his death greatly impacted the life of his sister, who became depressed and a recluse, still to this day.

    (It is also true, as was mentioned by Mogie’s sister late in the episode last night, that you can’t have an honest conversation about war – esp. the Vietnam War – with someone who lost a loved one in service to their country.)

    • The way the episode ended, with her is the kind of thing that can keep someone up at night. As it should.