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Rick Sebak and one of his diners.

Happy history
At pledge time, is that all there is?

Originally published in Current, Oct. 3, 1994
By Steve Behrens

It's no news by now that public TV viewers will get lumps in their throats and a generous impulse in their check-writing fingers if they are shown pictures of the ballparks, ferryboats and roller coasters of their youth. Or the dance halls where they dated and the trolleys that took them there.

It's already time to get nostalgic about the innocent days before the present spate of local nostalgia documentaries hit the air. Practically every station seems to have made one or more of these local histories: Georgia PTV's "Lost Atlanta," Maryland PTV's "Gone But Not Forgotten," KCTS's "Northwest Memories," KTCA's "Lost Twin Cities," and "The Way It Was," from KEET in Eureka, Calif.

A surprising number, in Philadelphia, Maine and Buffalo, even share the same title, "Things That Aren't There Anymore," along with a look, sound and long-ago fragrance developed in Pittsburgh by WQED producers Rick Sebak and Nancy Lavin.

Two of the Philadelphia programs ("Things That . . ." and "More Things . . .") together have earned almost $1 million in pledges for WHYY, which is, right now, turning out a national pledge special for PBS to feed next March. And, so far, all five stations getting loans from PBS to make their own local pledge specials have chosen to do history shows.

Even if you grew up in a subdivision with a brief record of human habitation, you could get misty about places like: Maine's old Auto Rest Park, where dance bands played and the Brady Gang stayed the night before the FBI shot them in Bangor. Or Philly's old Trocadero theater, where strippers headlined until it became a Chinese-language movie house. Or certainly Pittsburgh's long-gone chain of Isaly's ice cream shops, where you'd get a free Klondike if you were served one with a lucky pink center.

Many of the shows are nearly identical, according to producers, and machine-like in their commitment to the Pittsburgh formula, while others are rural variations, like a string of well-loved travelogues by Kentucky ETV's John Morgan, who took viewers across the state and back into history in "Along Kentucky Eighty." The state network issues an annual video catalogue with some 60 tapes on Kentucky history, geography and folklore.

Urban or rural, these shows seem to connect more directly with their viewers' emotions than most anything the stations have made in 40 years of public TV.

The documentaries are not history, strictly speaking, but "shared memories," said WQED's Nancy Lavin at a PBS annual meeting session that spread the word about the shows. Shared memories, she noted, are also the stuff of the most successful pledge shows of other kinds as well. These documentaries diverge in style, structure and intent from histories of the American Experience type.

In Minneapolis/St. Paul, KTCA has done both kinds. Its "Lost Twin Cities" in March did so well with viewers--8 rating and 14 share--that the station plans to do "Lost Twin Cities II" for the next March pledge drive. "I've never enjoyed a pledge drive more," said Vice President Gerald Richman. "There was a smiling face behind every ringing phone."

KTCA's only local production to draw more viewers was a more traditional historical narrative, "The Dakota Conflict," which had an 8.5 rating and 12 share. Despite the audience, KTCA hasn't run it in pledge. It was about a settler/Native American war that climaxed with the largest mass hanging in U.S. history.

Let's all do the Shag

The progenitor of the shared-memories genre is the plain-talking but faintly droll Rick Sebak, WQED's producer/narrator who "sounds like Andy Rooney, but not as grumpy," as WHYY's director of TV broadcasting, David Rubinsohn, describes him. Or like Michael Moore, only not mean.

Sebak's first success in the genre was a 1984 documentary for South Carolina ETV, where he worked then. The subject was the Shag, which he says is a slow jitterbug that Carolinians can't stop dancing.

When Sebak interviewed for his job in Pittsburgh three years later, he recalls, Executive Producer Nancy Lavin told him, "We'll have to find something here like 'Shag.' "

The first something was "The Mon, the Al and the O," about the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers and the Ohio, which they create at their confluence in Pittsburgh.

The second was "Kennywood Memories," in 1988, which permanently established amusement parks as five-star nostalgia material. (Sebak says he got a call from a producer in another city who had been inspired to do an amusement park show, too. What was it called? "Riverside Memories.")

Then in 1989 came "Things That Aren't There Anymore," and since then Lavin has sent Sebak and other producers into the streets to do award-winning shows about Pittsburgh churches and temples, the black community along Wylie Avenue, "Downtown Pittsburgh" (which broke station records with a 12.3 rating/16 share in November 1992), Pennylvania diners, and more.

For December pledge, Sebak is shooting "Houses Around Here." He would include a segment or two on haunted houses, if he wasn't saving them for a show of their own.

Sebak's also got a yen to do "Eating Pittsburgh," though he has already frittered away some high-caloric material, zooming in on the corndogs at Kennywood and the piroghies made by Ukrainian Catholics, and devoting an extraordinarily large helping of "Things That" to the Isaly's ice cream shops. He admits the diner show was one long pig-out.

The idiosyncratic choices fit with Sebak's working style, which contrasts with the stereotype of ultra-deliberate PTV production. "We tend to do the shows with a lot of the research done on the run, and it's worked out okay so far," he says. "I trust my gut a lot. I have a crew for three or four weeks. Some days, I say 'let's go and see what's there.' "

Pledge prospects remember Burma Shave

Though some local history shows already have gone national as PBS specials, the genre takes its next inevitable step during pledge drives in March [1995] with a pledge special, "Remember When," commissioned by PBS and now being produced by WHYY, Philadelphia.

WHYY pledge producer Ed Cunningham, who's making it, says the show will take us back to Howdy Doody, tailfins, Burma Shave signs, Norman Rockwell and other fondly remembered relics.

To the annoyance of some in Pittsburgh, WHYY not only won the PBS production contract but earlier drew rapt attention to the genre by hitting the pledge jackpot with its own knockoff of "Things That," same title and all.

Cunningham got a green light to produce it on the gamble that it would work in pledge. WHYY's gamble paid off: the show cost about $9,000 to make, out-of-pocket, but earned $440,000 in its first nine pledge broadcasts, Cunningham said at a PBS conference. If you throw in the sequel "More Things That Aren't There Anymore," the pair have brought in $968,000, says Robert C. Altman, WHYY's v.p. of development and marketing.

With these numbers, WHYY made the eternal connection between pledge and local nostalgia.

Back in Pittsburgh, WQED "never created these shows to be a pledge vehicle," says Sebak. Until the diner show, his local histories always had premiered during the regular schedule and were pledged only on second airing or later. But Philadelphia premiered the show in a pledge drive.

"It was probably the one and only night I ever enjoyed a pledge drive," Rubinsohn recalled to PBS colleagues in Orlando. "The phones went berserk."

Producers from other stations heard about the phenomenon from Lavin and Cunningham at the PBS meeting in 1993, and, in the universal tradition of TV, imitated what works. Lavin "planted the seed in my brain cells," says KTCA's Richman. "It's important that we don't toil alone in our vineyards," he observed.

The economics were enticing, though few could equal the smash in Philadelphia. Maryland PTV reported at the PBS meeting this year that its "Gone But Not Forgotten" cost $20,000 out-of-pocket for production, and brought in not only $73,000 in five airings last March but also $5,000 from local underwriters. WQED said it puts two staffers on the job for four months, culminating with on-line editing for 10 days. Out-of-pocket budget: $10,000. Paper budget: $100,000.

For the Pittsburgh station, selling the shows on videocassette, like pledging, was also an afterthought, according to Lavin, but sales of about a dozen Pittsburgh History Series tapes at just $19.95 each have totalled $690,000 in three years, she reported. The Force may have been with Lavin, but she didn't clearly see the Way at first.

What about the rest of the past?

Another thing many stations don't know yet is whether emotionally involving local history of the chronological and significance-laden variety can also work in pledge, and thereby justify the high priority for production dollars that self-supporting programs get.

So far, the consensus is that programs about mass hangings won't cut it at pledge time. "The important thing about pledge is to strike an emotional chord and not be a downer," says Richman. And producers further limit themselves by concentrating on the short period when today's middle-aged donors were young.

Sebak considered what to include and what to exclude when he planned the original "Things That." When you think of things that aren't in Pittsburgh anymore, he says, the first thing you think about is steel mills. But even though he didn't realize he was making a pledge show, he had already decided to stick to happy memories. The steel story remains on WQED's list of big unfunded future projects.

Anyway, Sebak rejects the notion that histories of pop culture are inferior to those involving front-page issues. "It is a pleasant kind of history. I don't think it's any less worthy than controversial and political history." It's important to know how our predecessors lived and ate and enjoyed themselves, he says.

The shared-memories shows need not ignore the hardships of the past. WQED's "Wylie Avenue Days" and "Remember When," from KERA in Dallas, looked back at the black and Mexican-American communities that thrived despite and because of segregation and oppression.

Could genuine local histories, with the full range of joy, tragedy and ambivalence work at pledge? The Civil War pledged well, Rubinsohn observed, as well as some Bill Moyers documentaries reporting extremely unhappy realities.

"I certainly think that emotional stories--if there is some resonance with the audience, even if they end tragically--certainly could be good pledge shows," says Richman. He doesn't know what the next wave of local history shows will bring. Maybe someone will pledge a serious history and it will do well. "So that may be the next wave."

Will Sebak do "Steel Mills That Aren't There Anymore"? A history on that touchy topic might require some careful calculation of the effect on Pittsburgh viewers. "If the show brought tears to their eyes, I'm sure they would pledge," he speculates. "But if it made them angry . . . "

Web page posted Sept. 12, 1995
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.


A second generation of local history documentaries runs through a wider emotional range, 1999.