PBS fast-tracks ‘American Portrait’ special on coronavirus

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In a segment from the special, Allison, a nurse in Raleigh, N.C., discusses how the pandemic has affected her family.

Producers of American Portrait raced over the past six weeks to finish a special broadcast on the coronavirus pandemic for its May 8 PBS debut.

In This Together: A PBS American Portrait Story features content from more than 100 contributors to the crowdsourcing project exploring American identity. PBS greenlit and fast-tracked the half-hour program from RadicalMedia in mid-March, months ahead of the original timeline for broadcasts created from the engagement initiative.

PBS unveiled American Portrait in January as the signature content initiative celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of PBS’ national program service. RadicalMedia, which began collaborating with PBS in 2017 to develop American Portrait, recruited Target as corporate sponsor.

A web portal managed by RadicalMedia collects submissions of videos, photos and text about what it means to be an American. Under the original timeline, submissions adapted for broadcast were to air in a four-part docuseries early next year.

That miniseries is still in the pipeline for a January 2021 debut, and PBS plans to provide a template for member stations to create specials using user-generated content from their communities.

The portal uses a variety of prompts to inspire contributors to share stories. For In This Together, PBS and RadicalMedia added prompts that indirectly referenced the pandemic, such as “I never expected …” and “When this is over …”

The prompt “I never expected …” generated a spike in submissions when it was promoted on social media, said Bill Margol, PBS senior director of general audience programming and development. Submissions to this prompt and others guide In This Together. Producers also worked with some of the subjects to film segments with longer narratives.

One story in the special features Allison, a nurse from Raleigh, N.C. She films herself reading sidewalk chalk that says “COVID-19 is a myth.” While riding in an ambulance, she talks about the health risks to her family. Her husband also works in health care, and their 6-year-old son is living with his grandparents during the pandemic.

“We had to sign a power of attorney for my parents to have guardianship of my son,” she said. “We also had to arrange our wills and make statements saying that if something were to happen to my husband and I, that my sister and her husband get guardianship. … I never thought I’d have to do this in my lifetime.”

Another segment from the program depicts Mario, a father who worked in a warehouse with confirmed cases of employees with COVID-19 and, at one point, a shortage of personal protective equipment. He and other workers went on strike after learning that the company had delayed informing staff about the first positive case. (The company is not identified in the segment.) Mario quit his warehouse job and started working as a truck driver.

“The only bad thing about it is spending a lot of time away from my family, sometimes four weeks, five weeks,” he said of the new job. “This is a much better opportunity to put me and my family in a better position, so I’m going to do that.”

Other segments feature people who are recovering from COVID-19 or were recently diagnosed.

The American Portrait portal has gathered many more coronavirus stories that were not used in the program. The entire collection now includes more than 3,500 submissions from around the country, with a mix of some small and larger states having high participation rates, according to producers from RadicalMedia.

Years of brainstorming

American Portrait grew out of two ideas that RadicalMedia and PBS began developing in 2017. RadicalMedia was brainstorming on a project about America at the time; PBS programmers were considering how to address the divisions in American society, especially the emergence of white supremacists after the 2016 presidential election. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 magnified the sense of urgency, Margol said.

Margol (Photo: Rahoul Ghose/PBS)

“When I refer back to Charlottesville, a number of us came together and said, ‘As the nation’s public broadcaster, how do we respond to this? How do we respond to the division that is plaguing the country?’” Margol said. They wanted to explore the question, “What does it really mean to be an American today?”

When PBS and RadicalMedia later began collaborating on the project, they agreed that was a “loaded question,” he said. They worked on a different approach.

“We knew there was a way to get to the heart of that question without ever actually [asking] it,” Margol said. They decided to create prompts that “allow people to tell their own stories or the stories of someone they know.”

The American Portrait portal presents more than a dozen prompts to website visitors, including “I took a risk when …,” “I was raised to believe …” and “My Saturday night looks like …” The prompts act as “guardrails” for people who may struggle with how to tell their stories, Margol said.

As the collection grew, user submissions have become increasingly creative, Margol said. Some people submitted videos, selfies, poems and brief manifestos. Many of the posts are serious, but some are humorous, others endearing.

Margol said another inspiration for American Portrait was “The Family of Man,” a 1950s photography exhibition curated by Edward Steichen, a former director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Steichen collected hundreds of images from photographers all around the world to evince universal aspects of the human experience.

Pivot to new special

A RadicalMedia spokesperson said March was a record submission month overall for the American Portrait portal. States that have generated the most engagement so far include California, Pennsylvania and Texas, according to a heat map posted online.

“In some ways I regret that [the coronavirus special] is only a half-hour, because we got such great material,” Margol said. “But given the time to turn it around, we decided to go with the half-hour.”

Craig D’Entrone, director and EP of American Portrait, and Michèle Stephenson, the series producer, have supervised the documentary’s production for RadicalMedia while working remotely. Both said this is the first time they’ve managed a major project like this from home.

“It was a very intense and transformative journey, given the time constraints we had,” Stephenson said. “What was mind-blowing for me was the degree to which people really wanted to share — were open to being vulnerable.”

Stephenson and colleagues reached out to some participants to ask them to expand on their initial posts to the American Portrait portal. “We thought it was really important to have essential workers represented, the people on the front line, first responders and people affected directly by the virus, either sick or recovering themselves or loved ones who are a part of that,” she said.

Future specials, station engagement

In addition to planning for the four-part American Portrait docuseries for early next year, RadicalMedia and PBS are working on a book about the initiative and a traveling exhibit showcasing the content, once it’s safe to do so.

“It’s going to be a very useful, very important and meaningful tool to the purpose and the mission of PBS,” said Jon Kamen, chairman and CEO of RadicalMedia.

The American Portrait initiative also has a significant educational component that’s being developed for PBS LearningMedia. The educational materials draw from the PBS Newshour Student Reporting Labs curriculum, according to a news release.

Latino Public Broadcasting is among the public media organizations involved with education and outreach tied to the project. It concluded a four-part teacher professional development series Tuesday with a virtual event “We Are Witnesses,” or “Somos Testigos.” The series helped teachers with lesson plans for using American Portrait in classrooms.

To expand the broadcast footprint for the initiative, PBS plans to provide a template for member stations to create their own American Portrait half-hour specials. The portal collects state- and county-level data on user submissions, which will help stations track participation within their communities.

“It’s sort of like a Lego set. They can customize parts with local content, bits they can pull out and run in their communities,” Margol said. “The nice thing about American Portrait is that the duration of it allows us to adapt and to change to the circumstances.”

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