Film and Media

History and the Making of The American Experience

AHA Staff, December 1989

The second season of PBS's The American Experience series began airing this past October on Tuesday evenings at 9:00 p.m. (check local times). The sixteen one-hour documentaries incorporate important themes about people and events in American history and are scheduled to run through mid-January. The viewer's guide is available as long as supplies last, from The American Experience, Box 1000, Long Island City, NY 11101. For VHS cassettes, telephone PBS Video toll free at 1/800/424-7963.

The following excerpts were part of an interview conducted by Contributing Editor Robin Cutler Maw with Judy Crichton, Executive Producer of The American Experience series.

Q: What would you like to say to historians about your goals for the series and how it is put together?

A: History on television is very hard to do well. Television, by its very nature, is not kind to nuances or subtlety or grey areas in part because most producers in this field have been trained to be quick responders, not students or serious researchers. We have seldom been paid for reflection. There are serious producers whose personal sense of mission parallels that of historians but they don't get enough support.

Historians often hope a program will carry more information than we believe an hour is capable of carrying. Viewers learn differently from television than from a lecture or print, and they come to it with different expectations—and with more distractions than one has reading a book. Commercial filmmakers have studied how people learn through television but too few others have had this opportunity. We have found that people can absorb much more information if it is encapsulated in story form. If you can translate a subject into a story, the subject becomes memorable.

Historians are correct that television is often bereft of context. One needs time to develop context—at least eight or nine months—and then you still may not know how balanced your story is and what the nuances are. We try to provide an environment in which creative and intelligent producer/writers are given time and money to understand the primary connections that can bring their film to life intellectually as well as emotionally. Our average program costs between $375,000 and $400,000 to produce.

Q: How would you define a story that works for television?

A: By story, I mean a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end which ties the intellectual and personal threads together. Our stories are not gratuitous, they must stand for something larger than themselves. For example, in our first season, we wanted to explore American isolationism in the 30s. There are a thousand ways to approach this subject. In "Eric Severeid—Not So Wild a Dream," Severeid's description of his own boyhood lifted isolationism out of the realm of ideology and made it accessible. We like to take major themes and find dramatic and interesting ways to present them. We often start with a theme, a subject, or an event and then encourage producers to find a corner of the subject—a story that best serves history and television at the same time.

Q: What role do historians play in the development of your programs?

A: The series has ten advisors plus our host, David McCullough, who is extremely helpful. We consider them colleagues and use them as a sounding board. We have a meeting once a year to critique the season, and we are also constantly in touch with them by telephone. We initiate projects but we ask them: Is the context right? Is the story skewed? Is the balance right? We show proposals we are considering and films in progress that we are interested in acquiring. Every film also has its own advisor, and these are not always members of our board. Each program needs a specialist and a generalist. [A list of series advisors appears at the end of this article.]

Q: Are there some improvements in the series that you would like to make in the future?

A: We are aware of major areas we've not yet touched. For instance, we need more programs on the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. We are trying to find effective ways of presenting this early history on film without moving into large dramatic pieces. I think the story on Emeline Gurney in "The Sins of Our Mothers" (season one) worked in large measure because its focus was narrow, it developed a strong and arresting tale and provided viewers with a wonderful sense of what it meant to be poor, to be a woman, and to be an outcast in nineteenth-century Maine. The film was the work of talented producers, David Hoffman and Rocky Collins, and the creative guidance of historian Nancy Cott, Yale University.

If you want to understand our mission, it is important to look at the series as a whole and consider what we are trying to do over an extended period of time. No one film is the definitive statement about a person or an event or a period or a point of view. Not all our programs fulfill our mission equally well. Our responsibility over time is to make sure that a variety of voices and attitudes are reflected in the programs. We are striving for ethnic, regional, and time balance and also hope our films will be fun.

Q: Which films from the first two seasons did you find particularly effective?

A: I'm proud of specific films for a variety of reasons. From season one, I am proud that the producers of "Geronimo and the Apache Resistance" persuaded the Apaches to be interviewed and that we heard a perspective that is usually not heard from. From this season, I'm proud of "A Passion for Justice—The Story of Ida B. Wells" (to be shown December 19) because we are presenting one of the great untold stories in in American history. We had no footage and only five stills, but we have Toni Morrison reading from Ida's writings, and she becomes Ida.

Q: Are you looking for new ideas for future programs?

A: We have thousands of ideas. People even stop me on the street with ideas, but we are always looking for the great untold stories, the talented filmmakers who can tell them well, and the money to buy the time to be reflective.

Historical series advisors for The American Experience are: Paul S. Boyer, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Alan Brinkley, Graduate School, City University of New York; Dan T. Carter, Emory University; Nancy F. Cott, Yale University; William J. Cronon, Yale University; Nathan I. Huggins, Harvard University; David Kennedy, Stanford University; Leon Litwack, University of California, Berkeley; Merritt Roe Smith, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Sam Bass Warner, Boston University.