Series Blog

This Fall on American Experience

It all started with the Great San Francisco Earthquake.  On October 4, 1988 PBS broadcast The American Experience’s first documentary, looking back at the 1906 natural disaster that destroyed most of the city and killed nearly 3000 people.  Twenty-five years and 287 films later, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has grown to become the country’s most-watched history series, setting the standard for intelligent, critical and compelling review of America's history.

 Along the way we’ve explored issues of Social Justice and War, Exploration and Innovation, Natural disasters and National treasures — and, we have so many more stories to tell.

This fall, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE celebrates its 25th anniversary by observing the anniversaries of some of the moments in 20th century American history, including the 75th anniversary of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's death in a four-hour biopic, JFK.

October 29, 9-10pm ET: War of the Worlds
Shortly after 8 p.m. on the Halloween Eve, 1938, the voice of a panicked radio announcer broke in with a news bulletin reporting strange explosions taking place on the planet Mars, followed minutes later by a report that Martians had landed in the tiny town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Although most listeners understood that the program was a radio drama, thousands of others plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack. It turned out to be H.G. Wells' classic The War of the Worlds, performed by 23-year-old Orson Welles.

Seventy-five years after the original radio broadcast, War of the Worlds explores this legendary but misunderstood event. The documentary examines the elements that came together to create one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history: our longtime fascination with life on Mars; the emergence of radio as a powerful, pervasive medium; the shocking live recording of the Hindenburg explosion of 1937; and the brilliant Orson Welles, the director of the drama and mischief-maker supreme. Forever immortalized in thousands of letters written to CBS, the Federal Communications Commission and Mr. Welles himself, the public's reaction is dramatized with on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night to the broadcast and thought it was rip-roaring entertainment... or the end of the world. 

November 11, 9-11pm ET: JFK, Part 1
November 12, 9-11pm ET: JFK, Part 2 
Scheduled for broadcast on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, this biography provides a fresh look at an enigmatic man who has become one of the nation's most beloved and most mourned leaders. The newest addition to The Presidents collection, the documentary explores Kennedy's childhood years as the overlooked second son of a multimillionaire exploding with ambition, his early political career as a lackluster congressman, his subsequent successful run for senate, and the election victory that turned him into the youngest elected president in U.S. history.

With the benefit of newly opened archives and recently released documents, the film re-evaluates JFK's strengths and weaknesses in the Oval Office and looks at how he navigated some of the most explosive events of the mid-20th century: the Cuban missile crisis, the escalating conflict in Southeast Asia, and the urgent demands of an increasingly impatient civil rights movement. It also provides new insights into his private life -- his relationship with his beautiful, accomplished wife, his obsessive womanizing, his inappropriate friendships, his reliance on his younger brothers, and his deference to the all-powerful father who had helped make him who he was. 

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