This week the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE staff received word that Earth Days had been awarded the Maeda Prize in the Japan Prize awards honoring international educational media. You can visit the awards website here. Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), Japan’s national public broadcaster, hosts the Japan Prize awards, which have been held annually since 1965.
This isn’t our first film in the past year to gain international acclaim. In November, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer will vie for a Grierson Award for “Best Science Documentary.” The documentary was broadcast in the UK on BBC 4 in 2009, shortly after it aired on PBS. Similarly, other AMERICAN EXPERIENCE programs have enjoyed extensive exposure overseas airing on the BBC and Channel 4 in the UK, RTE in Ireland, Arte in France and Germany, the ARD and Spiegel TV in Germany, Sveriges Television in Sweden, NRK Norway, YLE Finland, DR in Denmark, RAI in Italy, TVE and TV3 in Spain, NHK in Japan, EBS in Korea, SBS and ABC in Australia to name a few. So what explains AMERICAN EXPERIENCE appeal to overseas audiences?
Despite focusing explicitly on American history, many AMERICAN EXPERIENCE titles attract transnational and dare-we-say worldwide interest because they explore people and events in history that have had a long-lasting, global impact. Earth Days, for example, takes a look at the emergence of the modern American environmental movement, telling a story that has international repercussions for people from all corners of the globe dealing with the consequences of rapid industrialization, both positive and negative. Similarly, the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s leadership in the world-changing Manhattan Project tells a story of international importance.
Executive Producer, Mark Samels, believes AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s editorial process contributes to the series’ broad appeal. “Though our terrain is American history, we strive in every film we make to find the universals in a story,” Samels says. “We sift and winnow a great number of subjects, looking for ones that feature compelling characters, inherent drama and historical meaning. In other words, stories that are riveting and substantial. I think that is why our films not only are of interest outside the country; they draw strong audiences abroad and pick up a surprising number of international awards.”
The success of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE overseas reminds us as viewers of media and consumers of history—along with being makers and purveyors—that stories from across the globe can inform our views on things local or national as well. So just as the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer might inform an audience in the UK about how political turmoil shapes scientific research, a similar exploration of the life of the British mathematician Alan Turing might inform US viewers about issues we’ve never contemplated, issues still relevant today. In the end we’d like to think compelling history is important history anywhere and holds its relevance across national borders.
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