'Baseball': Covering All The Bases
When Ken Burns’ five-part PBS series The Civil War became an unexpected sensation in 1990, the documentarian spurned the idea of merchandise tie-ins. ”People wanted to do plates and mugs,” he says. ”I thought it was crass.” Then he watched as unauthorized ”horrible knockoffs” flooded the market.
Beginning Sept. 18, Burns hopes to grip audiences once again with Baseball, a nine-part, 181 2-hour paean to America’s favorite strike-vanquished pastime. This time, the producers are readying an extensive marketing campaign, with such tie-ins as caps, mugs, T-shirts, lunch boxes, trading cards, a book, a home video, and an accompanying CD (with baseball faves performed by Carly Simon, Natalie Cole, and Branford Marsalis, among others). Some profits will go to a foundation Burns created to benefit causes including the Negro League museums. But he will receive a cut he’ll use to pay back $4 million in underwriting.
While the Baseball campaign has gone smoothly (”It’s a little more marketable than the Civil War,” says marketing consultant Sheryl Shade), securing the rights to use likenesses of baseball legends in the series itself has involved negotiations that would do in George Steinbrenner. Advances against royalties to some players — none of whom Shade would name — have hit $10,000. ”We’ve had people say, ‘You want us? You’re gonna pay,”’ Shade says. ”There are a couple of players who we had to pay enormous amounts of money to.”
Burns chalks it all up to the success of his Civil War series. ”You lose the ano-nymity that was your bargaining power,” the filmmaker says. ”It’s been a real eye-opener.”