American Experience: where we’ve come from

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Teddy Roosevelt speaking on bunting-draped stage

“There’s nothing more interesting than what has happened to people,” as David McCullough says and The American Experience has demonstrated for a decade. Pictured: Theodore Roosevelt speaks in Wyoming. (Photo: Library of Congress.)

On a warm summer day in 1946 I find myself, somewhat improbably, at the helm of a U.S. Navy ocean tug, threading through a crowded, palm-fringed Pacific atoll called Bikini. We stay only long enough to anchor the derelict ship we’ve towed here from the Philippines. Several days later, making slow progress east to Honolulu, we learn that the wreck we had pulled into that pristine island sanctuary had been obliterated — along with everything else in the lagoon — by two atomic bombs. More than a few of my shipmates are bitter that, unlike others, they had been denied an extremely close look at the destruction. But for most of us it is simply an isolated event, one among many in those rather bewildering post-war days following the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Now fast-forward 42 years to October 1988. I am watching “Radio Bikini,” the second program in a new public television history series called The American Experience. More than four decades have passed before I learn from Robert Stone’s film that the Bikini explosions were ordered by the U.S. Navy in order to make a propaganda movie (never completed) at a time when the U.N. was debating strategies for controlling atomic energy.

The program explains how inhabitants of the island were uprooted and, even now, are not permitted to return because of high levels of contamination. Nearly 42,000 armed forces, politicians, diplomats and reporters observed as the bombs were dropped over the island. I sit transfixed, watching sailors inspecting the site just hours after the detonations, then setting Geiger counters buzzing when they returned to their ships. Many who reported sick were told they were probably suffering from food poisoning. They left for home to begin dying slow deaths.

Adm. William Blandy supervised the operation. He and Adm. F.J. Lowery and their wives posed for photographs, beaming at a celebratory cake in the shape of a mushroom cloud. Mrs. Blandy wore a fancy hat adorned with a similar cloud-like puff. I think of my ship companions who felt betrayed when they missed all this.

Fast-forward again: it is now a June day in 1998, more than 50 years since the U.S. demonstration of power in the Pacific. India and Pakistan have set off “tests” of nuclear weapons. “The nuclear club” has become a familiar, largely innocuous phrase. Bikini is a style of swim suit. George Santayana’s well-worn phrase (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) has finally taken up permanent residence in my consciousness. “Radio Bikini,” the second chapter in an increasingly complex TV history called The American Experience, has clarified a critically important dimension of our present life, and perhaps its future.

When The American Experience series began its broadcasting life on Oct. 11, 1988, those associated with its creation held high hopes that it would be a long one; not just that the series would continue to be produced, but that its programs would have more staying power and effectiveness than most TV material. Judy Crichton, executive producer from the beginning until her retirement in 1997, recently reflected upon this: “Very early on I was struck by the fact that those who work in television were turning out a disposable product. By the time I got to WGBH, I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to make films that had an ongoing life. I think that if I’m proud of one thing that would be it.”

During her years with WGBH, Boston, the series turned out 100 films. However enduring their substance, their longevity has unquestionably been improved by brisk video sales to schools and the general public (the total is now approaching 275,000) and their influence extended by a web site that now occupies a full-time staff member. A no-nonsense professional with a sternly pragmatic approach to TV production, Crichton is clearly moved when she describes conversations with teachers using American Experience programs in their classrooms.

Peter McGhee, for many years the Boston station’s vice president for national programs, calls the series a “place-holder for the intent to make history come alive on public television.”

“It will undergo nuanced changes,” he says, “as executive producers change. But essentially it has infinite capacity . . . to make sense of our history, and find stories that illuminate both the past and the present.”

The American Experience owes much to the 13-hour series, Vietnam, A Television History, that McGhee began planning in the late 1970s. Vietnam became a major event in public TV’s program history when it was aired in 1985. The series was brought back by The American Experience in the 1996-97 season. “Television was the means by which a generation was educated about Vietnam,” says McGhee. “We decided there was a lot [more] American history that fell into that category.”

Plans for some sort of American history series began to take shape in 1985 when McGhee asked Marilyn Mellowes, one of his staff members, to prepare a background paper and a proposal for funds to study the prospects for producing an extended American history anthology. It was sent to the National Endowment for the Humanities. A copy went to Ron Hull, then director of the CPB Television Program Fund. The humanities endowment turned it down, but Hull was enthusiastic.

“Ron liked the idea of history,” says McGhee, “but thought it should be about the American experience. I think he had in mind something much more contemporary — like how it felt to be an American. But Ron’s expression found resonance in the title.

“We assembled a group of station managers, created a large editorial board, and did a fair amount of consulting on the way to the SPC,” says McGhee. (The SPC was the Station Program Cooperative, the stations’ major means of voting financial support for PBS programs.)

In the summer of 1986 WGBH hosted a two-day seminar in Cambridge, Mass., inviting TV and film producers, public TV executives and historians. Here there were many expressions concerning the importance of history by nationally recognized scholars, including David Kennedy, professor of history at Stanford. He, and others drawn from Harvard, Boston University, Yale, MIT and Wisconsin University, became the project’s first advisory board.

Not unexpectedly, the Cambridge conference produced a large number of lofty aspirations: the series would “use the past to challenge the assumptions of the present and thereby assist in the process of reflection and rejuvenation that is the mark of a vital culture.” There was also a certain amount of debunking history as it had been taught in the past, resulting in popular disdain for names and dates because there had been no “narrative to give them drama.” Henry Ford was evoked, a man who said that history was “bunk” (and later spent much of his fortune constructing a museum of American life).

The specific design of a series was not neglected: it would “bring together reliable scholarship with experienced and aspiring filmmakers; it would be “primarily a series of documentary films”; “it will have to show that history is as complex as the present, and just as lively.”

According to McGhee, one of the first bridges to be crossed was the chronological approach to history. “The historians we talked to — the best in American history,” he says, “rebelled against the notion that there was a history that could be reduced to some chronological account. What we came to understand was that there were many histories of people and groups of people. History presented chronologically was a very old fashioned and discredited idea, one that, not surprisingly, TV critics held to firmly — a set of accepted events along a chain of time.”

If The American Experience was not history in the sense that TV critics, and perhaps others, were prepared to accept, what was it? Those who planned the new programs had an answer, of sorts: “It will do for history what Nova has done for science.” WGBH’s Nova had been on the air since 1973 and in this time had become firmly established as television’s premier science anthology, each week treating a different subject.

The linkage worked. TV critics who had agonized over explanations of Nova when it first appeared (some publishers commissioning essays on science rather than attempting descriptions of the early programs) now repeated the WGBH mantra: “It will do for history what Nova did for science.”

“Basically,” continues McGhee, “we were trying to sell PBS and CPB on the priority that should be given to this subject” and adds, “I think it’s fair to say that we were successful. We hired Judy [Crichton] when we had the certainty of one [fully financed] season. She made the second and third SPC presentations. We got three seasons financed before there was a program on the air.” (Those who have observed producers presenting program concepts to a gathering of more than 200 skeptical, independently minded station representatives will recognize this as a considerable achievement.)

Judy Crichton had come prepared. Forty-two years earlier she had helped her father, Ben Feiner, provide CBS television coverage of the 1944 elections. He had one camera, a secretary and his daughter who kept voter tallies on a blackboard. Earlier, Feiner had worked as a radio reporter for WKNY (“The voice of the Hudson Valley”) with Judy as his “spotter” at sports events and parades.

“He was a great reader,” she remembers, “especially of popular historical works.” Her own formal education was sketchy. She left high school when she was 16 (but not before delivering the class paper: “Wither Video?”). “Fortunately,” she says, “I married a brilliant man [Robert Crichton] when I was fairly young. He said, ‘First, you’ll have to read War and Peace and lose 20 pounds.’ War and Peace was easier.”

After a few years as a researcher for This Week magazine, she joined the (now defunct) Dumont Television Network in 1949. “In those days,” she says, “everyone in TV did everything. I was the secretary, the researcher, did the [audience] warm-ups, hawked tickets at Rockefeller Center, tried to explain the image orthicon camera to tourists, and wrote questions for quizzes. I had four kids and a husband who was trying to be a novelist so I didn’t do much traveling. I had never spent a night in a hotel until I was in my late 30s.”

“By 1973 I had put on lots of TV shows, although I was an associate producer — for 17 years. In those days no woman was given the title of producer.”

One day she ran across Bill Leonard, then president of CBS News, and asked him for a job. “I was the first woman producer at CBS Reports and did many shows there that I’m still proud of: ‘The CIA’s Secret Army,’ ‘The Battle for South Africa,’ two programs in a five-part series entitled, ‘The Defense of the United States,’ among others.”

There were several job offers from WGBH during this time but she turned them down. “My husband was ill, my kids were college age. I needed the security that CBS could provide. In 1981 I went to ABC where I was very happy until they disbanded their documentary unit.”

McGhee and Crichton had been friends for many years, having met on Martha’s Vineyard where both spent some part of their summers.

“He [McGhee] called and asked if I wanted to do this [history series]. He said in no uncertain terms that I was getting a bit long in the tooth, and implied that if I were going to jump I had better do it then or not be invited again.”

“At the time we asked Judy to become executive producer” says McGhee, “she was beginning to run on empty as far as commercial television is concerned. Her first assignment was to build a staff and develop programs.” Throughout her supervision of The American Experience she continued to live in New York, spending three days a week in Boston.

“I chose the first program of the series [“The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906″] for three reasons,” she says. “First, because it is a helluva story. Second, it was nearing a time when witnesses to the event were few and becoming fewer. And third, I wanted to prove to myself — and everybody else — that you could build tension and excitement using still photographs and a really good, strong script.

“By that time Ken Burns had produced ‘The Brooklyn Bridge,’ but it was a short film, not an hour. It was very good but it used a lot of modern film. I wanted films that got back in time and stayed there — visually as well as in terms of the narrative.”

The New York Times‘ John O’Connor welcomed The American Experience by calling it “an umbrella series, encompassing a variety of documentaries within the confines of a sketchy theme,” noting that it would be produced by “first-class professionals.”

Time recognized the first show by placing it on the magazine’s “Critics’ Choice” list along with Liberace. John Carmen of the San Francisco Chronicle described “The San Francisco Earthquake” as “a fiery film history that sizzles and crackles and pulls together heaps of data and interviews with survivors into a cohesive and dramatically told story.” Crichton, who had been very unhappy at ABC before her departure, must have been pleased at a comparison in the Boston Globe‘s review: “The ABC program [Our World] left you with the impression that the producers and writers began with the film footage and built their stories around it, whereas the PBS show seems to begin with the story then looks for the best way to illustrate it.”

Before the series commenced, reviewers were sent information on all programs in the first season. The subjects were nothing if not varied, a smorgasbord as had been intended, drawn from a wide spectrum of American history: a Mississippi exploration in 1832, the lives of factory women in World War II, the evolution of rhythm and blues, Geroni-mo’s Apache resistance in 1886, profiles of Eudora Welty and Robert Moses.

Some reviewers seemed perplexed. Some called the series eclectic, and others, as McGhee had foreseen, complained about the lack of continuity, the chronological linkages they had found in earlier productions such as Alistair Cooke’s America.

CPB, thanks largely to Ron Hull’s persuasive advocacy, was a prominent funder of the first season. The corporation, once criticized for supporting bold documentaries, now found itself taken to task (by the Boston Herald) for “no longer giving full support to controversial works . . .” Some objected to the series’ title: “Saying nothing and saying something at the same time,” remarked Thomas Fleming, author and historian. “A collection, perhaps, but not a series.”

Meanwhile, Crichton and her senior producer, Margaret Drain (whom Crichton had hired from CBS to join the original staff) continued to commission and acquire films with a professionalism born of talent and long experience. “It was not that different from what we’d done in the past,” Crichton remembers. “It was some time before the good reviews came in. But it was one of those things where we had so much enthusiasm. I seldom say this about projects I work on because by nature I’m always running scared. But American Experience was such a damn good idea! It just seemed so logical that it gave us all spine.”

One of the most encouraging early press reactions was not in a TV column but an editorial in the Canby (Ore.) Herald (circulation 4,310): “It may seem strange for a newspaper to urge people to watch a television program, but The American Experience . . . deserves recognition and promotion.”

It was clear before the series began that universal acceptance by audiences, critics and public TV executives would not come easily. “There were enormous misgivings and misunderstandings,” says Crichton. “When you said history to people in those days, there was a tacit assumption that you were going to present a chronology, and were therefore going to start in the 17th century with the colonists and march through time. No one could imagine pulling in an audience for that. The public TV stations saw it as potentially very boring.”

The series needed a host, someone who could supply historical credibility and the continuity that many felt was absent. “David was my idea,” says Crichton. David McCullough was a historian and author whose work included books on the Panama Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, Theodore Roosevelt and the Johnstown flood. Moreover, he had TV experience as host for Smithsonian World, a distinguished series produced by the federal museum agency. Like McGhee and Crichton, McCullough spent his summers on Martha’s Vineyard. Crichton, although familiar with his books, had never seen him in person — until he began to speak at a town meeting on the island, discussing a road maintenance problem.

“When he stood up and spoke he was so brilliant and easy that I thought, ‘My God, he is absolutely perfect as the host.'”

In addition to his on-air duties for The American Experience, McCullough has contributed much by way of his frequent statements of support for the series. McGhee notes that Crichton introduced McCullough to station executives when she went before them to ask for second-season financing. A man who has rarely misjudged the stations’ attachment to conservative, tested talent, McGhee says, soberly, “He gave them reassurance.”

In a widely distributed Associated Press interview with Kathryn Baker in the early days of the series, McCullough explains that he became involved in history through looking at photographs of the subject he eventually described in writing. “When imaginative and talented people start nosing around in old films and [photographs],” he says, “they’re going to . . . reveal aspects of our nature that we haven’t even thought about.” He is frequently quoted on the inadequacies of teaching history in the classroom, the power of well-told stories, and the effective historian’s interest in people: “It is my experience that if you simply tell what has happened, it is so fascinating, so human, you don’t have to sugar-coat the pill, you don’t have to devise a means to pull people into the subject. They’ll come in because there’s nothing more interesting than what has happened to people. And that’s all history is.”

A mong the papers flowing from the conference that defined the hopes for The American Experience, there was considerable emphasis upon the interaction between scholars and filmmakers: “An active and lively partnership” was one description. In 1996 David Grubin, producer of several presidential documentaries for the series — “LBJ,” “Theodore Roosevelt” and “Truman” — reported some of his encounters with scholarly committees: “[They] review the script and the film at several points during its development.” In the process of his Theodore Roosevelt biography he argued with historians about whether or not T.R. was “attracted to war” and whether or not he had an “almost messianic” belief in his own destiny. (They also discussed whether a flag was at “half-mast” or “half-staff.”) “The biggest difficulty with historical advisers,” says Grubin, “is that they want to see more than you can ever do.”

Crichton acknowledges that initially the historians viewed the TV producers with considerable suspicion, perhaps with good reason: “There weren’t many producers then who had worked in the field of history, and very few who had used still photographs. The historians were not used to translating printed material to film. Film is a very chintzy medium. If you pack too much information into a film, people can’t hear it, can’t absorb it. And so for all of us — historians, producers, writers — there was a real period of learning. We were trying to design film economically, to carry the maximum amount of information and yet not destroy the power of the narrative or overwhelm the viewer.”

Margaret Drain, senior producer of the series since its beginning, became its second executive producer in January 1997, although she had been its senior producer from the beginning. Like her predecessor she is the daughter of a TV producer. When she was a child, both of her parents worked for pioneering station WLW in Cincinnati. Following parochial school she graduated from Marquette University (English and history), taught English as a second language in Boston, and spent a year as an au pair in France. In 1976 she graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism where she met Fred Friendly, the venerated, influential CBS producer with whom she later worked in the communications division of the Ford Foundation. She produced programs at New York’s WNET (Bill Moyers’ Journal) for two years before moving to CBS News. There she produced programs with Charles Kuralt and for CBS Reports. It was at CBS that she met Judy Crichton, who later invited her to WGBH.

These days Drain and her staff receive about 300 production proposals each year (down from nearly 400 earlier). They come in various stages of development — from concepts to partial productions, but few completed films (an exception was “Ridin’ the Rails,” about teenaged hoboes in the ’30s). There are fewer acquisitions now than in the past. Nearly half of the programs were purchased in the first season. The total budget is now about $9 million, an increase of nearly $2 million since 1988.

From start to finish, completion of an average production requires between eight and nine months. “We try to give people as much research time as possible,” says Drain. “Producers work on the narrative for four or five weeks or longer. We are critically interested in where the story is going and spend a lot of time on that. The producer must have a sense of how much archival material is available and how to fill out the story if it isn’t. Producers check in periodically, some more than others. Some productions are extremely complex.”

The series has been known for giving producers sufficient time to do their homework. “There are two kinds of time,” says Crichton, “one that is enormously expensive — once the editing doors open. If you try to shake out your thinking at that juncture, you nearly always get into budget trouble. We sometimes said to people, ‘You’re not prepared yet to go out and shoot’ or ‘You’re not prepared to open the editing room.’ We’d demand an awful lot of paperwork before we let people get going.”

Drain and Crichton agree that writing is the most important element in American Experience documentaries. Crichton puts it this way: “Good writing is essential. If you don’t do it with imagination, energy and grace, [the program] is just a confection.”

David McCullough, who writes his own material to introduce the programs (usually preparing and recording descriptions for two or three programs in a day), has often commented upon the programs’ stories: “We tell stories, authentic American stories for their own great fascination, the pull of narrative, and, often because they are so particularly revealing about who we are and how we got to where we are. One of the aspects of a good story is getting the hero down a well and then up again. One of the most interesting ways to learn about history is to see how character manifests itself during crisis.”

Drain and Crichton say that some of the most frustrating productions were ultimately the most satisfying, especially programs that lacked archival material and needed to rely upon a strong script — “The Way West” and “The Donner Party,” for example. Of the latter program Crichton says that it is “put together by spit and mirrors, Ric Burns and Lisa Ades’ genius, and a very strong narrative. You could give a filmmaking class by turning off the sound on ‘The Donner Party’ and you’d think nothing has happened.”

The audience for The American Experience remains remarkably unchanged in total number (about seven million) as well as composition (predominately male, 31 percent with college degrees and family incomes over $60,000). Disaster films (“The Johnstown Flood,” “Influenza — 1918,” “The San Francisco Earthquake”) remain the most popular along with programs on flying (“Lindbergh,” “Amelia Earhart” and “The Wright Stuff”). (Not surprisingly, these are the topics Nova audiences likewise find most attractive.)

As the series has matured, multiple programs on one subject have taken on larger significance. Many of these have been presidential portraits. “When we aired the two-part ‘Nixon’ in the third season,” says Drain, “we knew we were on to something.” Seven presidential biographies have followed — “LBJ,” “The Kennedys,” “Ike,” “FDR,” “T.R.,” “Truman” and “Reagan.” In addition to their gratifying broadcast ratings (the five-part “The Kennedys” was the most popular PBS mini-series since Ken Burns’ The Civil War), they have enjoyed lively video sales and, by 1998, millions of “hits” on the series’ web site.

“What we began to do with those films,” says Crichton, “was to structure them . . . like novels, so that you have a sense of where the characters are when they’re off-screen. ‘The Kennedys’ had a big cast of characters. It began to happen in that film. There’s a very novelistic quality to the film on LBJ and Theodore Roosevelt. I had always wanted to do a documentary version of The Jewel in the Crown, and I felt working on those films — ‘Nixon’ and ‘The Kennedys’ — that we were beginning to approach that kind of work, where the story had a really strong narrative drive and the filming and editing were up to the script. You came out of it with a richness that was rare.”

Those associated with the presidential productions, indeed the entire output of The American Experience, seem keenly aware of how time and contemporary perceptions can modify events. “We’ll always have a president in our sights,” says Peter McGhee, “whether Grant or Jimmy Carter or whoever. But it’s very important that you let the dust settle a bit so that you can begin to make the first rough estimate. We couldn’t have made the Vietnam series in 1973, when the helicopters were taking off the roof in Saigon. I think if someone looked at the [Vietnam] experience now, it would look a lot differently than it looked to us.”

“I think part of the success of The American Experience,” says Crichton, “was that I never felt any of these films was definitive, that one could always go back and tell what you didn’t have time to deal with originally.” Crichton says she tried to plan several documentaries of the same event (“a real ‘Rashomon'”). “You would need hugely talented people,” she says. “It was often under consideration but we never pulled it off.”

“The Kennedys,” a coproduction with Britain’s Thames Television, required two years to complete. David Espar, one of the producers, has said that while there was an enormous amount of material, the best narrative thread was difficult to find. “It was the kind of thing you can only do as a filmmaker if you have plenty of time. You sit there with these images and sounds for quite a while, figuring out how you’re going to put the pieces together to make the connections and tell the story,” citing the moment when JFK doffs his hat to his father at his inauguration: “It distilled that moment for which the elder Kennedy had labored so long.”

Here is Adrianna Bosche who, with Austin Hoyt, produced “Reagan”: “We had to cut through his optimism and rosy recollections to discover a nomadic childhood, an alcoholic father, a religious mother and the defining moment of his youth — summers spent as a lifeguard on the Rock River, where he rescued 77 people. That role as rescuer combined with his youthful optimism played itself out on ever larger stages as Reagan defined his political agenda.”

Hoyt, a veteran WGBH producer, reflects that “it takes time for themes and a story to emerge. All the while you have to be open to new traits, unexpected turns, that send you back to reconstruct what you thought you knew, so that in the end you get the story right.”

“Producers need to have a kind of generosity,” says Crichton, “that allows them to move past their own assumptions. It’s absurd to think that anyone old enough to produce a film doesn’t have an opinion. But the responsibility is to accept the fact that you have an opinion, and that it might be wrong, you might be misinformed, you may not know enough.”

As The American Experience rolls into its second decade, virtually all criticism that it didn’t present history chronologically has long vanished — it disappeared largely after the second season. The series’ historians and program producers continue to tell disparate stories. And many of the stories seem to ask, implicitly, “Why bother? Why do we care, why should we care, about history?” Toward the end of a Current interview with Judy Crichton in 1997, she gives an answer: “All the boring things that everybody tells you are absolutely true, which is there is no way you can know yourself if you don’t know where you come from. That is true both of your psyche and your cultural and political background . . . You can say you don’t like your own background. You can shift, you can charge, you can reject it, you can do anything you want with it, but in order to make any of those decisions . . . you have to know where you came from and where your folks came from.”

Few would disagree that history is, certainly can be, immensely compelling. David McCullough supplies an explanation for this in his introduction to the series’ fifth season: “It is the very unexpectedness that draws us in. What happened . . . and then, of course, what happened next, and why? Our need to know is as real as gravity. But then life is about change. So perhaps we have the essence of it; the pull of history is life.”

Or as a friend of mine once said to me — ironically, because it was shortly before his untimely and unexpected death — “The thing I’ll dislike most about dying is not knowing how things turned out.”

The writer,  David Stewart, is a former director of international affairs for CPB.

Q&A with Judy Crichton, the series’ first executive producer. Despite shaky funding, historical docs hit new highs, 1996.

Margaret Drain becomes executive producer in 1997 and Mark Samels in 2003.

Ric Burns produced major series within AmEx such as The Way West and New York.


Orlando Bagwell produced Malcolm X: Make It Plain and other films for AmEx.

With New York, AmEx began profiling cities, including Chicago, Las Vegas and New Orleans.

Historian and longtime AmEx narrator David McCullough said public TV was just scratching the surface of the history that needs telling on television.


Series website.


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