Mark Samels was named executive producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, PBS’s flagship history series, in 2003. Produced by WGBH/Boston, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is television’s most-watched and longest running history series. Under Samels’ leadership, the series has been honored with nearly every industry award, including the Peabody, Primetime Emmys, the duPont-Columbia Journalism Award, Writers Guild Awards, Oscar nominations, Sundance Film Festival Audience and Grand Jury Awards, and the Eric Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians.
A documentary about hearing-impaired children produced while he was a college student launched Samels’ filmmaking career. After forming his own production company, he produced an environmental series for children and a wildlife film about endangered species of cranes around the world. Samels also documented how residents moved a small town in Wisconsin away from a perennially flooding river and rebuilt it as the nation’s first solar powered town. River Town was shown on PBS stations across the country.
Samels next worked in Austin, Texas as an editor on several PBS documentary series that focused on minority teenagers before moving to Tokyo, where he was one of the first Americans to work within a Japanese television production company. He served as senior producer of Japan Today, a weekly hour-long news magazine about Japanese culture, business and society that was broadcast on the USA cable network.
Returning to the U.S. in 1985, Samels joined WNPB, the PBS station in Morgantown, West Virginia, as its executive producer. There he co-produced a number of programs with the BBC, including Revelations, a controversial look at a state trooper and his worries about America’s decline, and Different Drummer, a provocative 13-part series profiling individuals from outside the mainstream. The series pilot was Dancing Outlaw, a portrait of Jesco White, an Appalachian mountain dancer with a split personality, that became a cult hit. He also executive produced States of Mind with the BBC, a seven-part series about communities in crisis across the United States.
In 1992, Samels began work on a film history of West Virginia. Over the next three years he produced, directed and wrote West Virginia, a six-hour series that explored the inspiring and often heartbreaking story of a poorly understood place and its indomitable people. When it premiered in 1995, West Virginia broke all audience records for a public television program in the state, and was incorporated into the curriculum of schools throughout the Appalachian region.
Following a year as vice president for production at PBS station WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Samels joined the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE team at WGBH Boston in 1997. As senior producer, Samels played an active role in developing and supervising films for the acclaimed series. He also co-wrote and directed A Brilliant Madness, a biography of the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and schizophrenic, John Nash.
Since being promoted to executive producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE in 2003, Samels has overseen the production of more than 50 films for the series, including the first two co-productions between American Experience and PBS’s award-winning public affairs series, Frontline. The collaboration between the two series on the four-hour mini-series The Mormons and the six-part series God in America underscores Samels’ commitment to presenting stories from America’s past that are highly resonant in the world today.
Samels has expanded both the breadth of subjects and the filmmaking style embraced by the series, allowing for more contemporary topics and more witness-driven storytelling. Notable in this genre is Two Days in October, the powerful story of a simultaneous ambush of an Army platoon and an antiwar protest on a college campus that won the Primetime Emmy, the George Foster Peabody Award, and the Grierson Award, Britain’s highest documentary honor; and Jonestown, the riveting account of Jim Jones and the largest mass suicide in history.
Under Samels’ direction, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries are now seen on more platforms than ever before, allowing the stories to be shared with increasingly diverse and younger audiences. Several AMERICAN EXPERIENCE films, including the Academy Award-shortlisted Jonestown and acclaimed documentary Earth Days, have had successful nationwide releases in movie theaters. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE films are regularly screened at national and international film festivals, and many are available through free online streaming on the series website and as digital downloads through sites such as iTunes.
In addition to his public television work, Samels is a founding member of the International Documentary Association and has served on the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Nonfiction Peer Group.
Mark is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has worked as a steelworker in East Chicago and a seaman on the Great Lakes. He and his wife Debra Carbarnes have two children and live outside of Boston.