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. 

Vanessa's Favorite AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Film: The Donner Party

Just a little background - I love horror movies. I've seen every classic horror movie and then some. So I was completely mesmerized by The Donner Party when I watched it in 2009. It's a tragic story about pioneers looking to start new lives outWest. They put their faith in a new route across Utah and Nevada - Hastings Cutoff. Little did they know that the man who created the map, Lansford Hastings, had never taken the trail by wagons.

The group set off in May 1846 with the plan to settle in the Sacramento Valley by September. But they found themselves struggling to make the journey and they ended up stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the winter of 1846. That winter led to starvation and cannabalism. The group of 81 American pioneers had dwindled to 45; they had starved and cannibalized before they were finally rescued in February 1847.

My favorite AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film premiered in 1993. However, I didn't discover The Donner Party until I had to update the film for a PBS repeat. My colleagues had raved about this film, calling it both gruesome and heartbreaking, so I was incredibly eager to see for myself. I watched the entire film in a dark editing room, completely shocked by the horrifying history I had just witnessed.

Vanessa Ezersky is the Post Production Supervisor for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. 

Chika's Favorite AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Film: Freedom Riders

When my colleagues asked me to write about my favorite AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, I was kind of shocked. I mean, I'm sort of the new kid on the team, having joined the production in March as the marketing account manager.  Before March, I was more like most of you — longtime viewer and living room commenter.  Over the years, this series has blown my mind and tugged at my heart strings, raised my blood pressure and caused me to sob uncontrollably with stories that I never knew, or knew enough of.  None had moved me more than the 2010 film Freedom Riders.

Freedom Riders tells the story of the 1961 Freedom Rides, an integrated, non-violent campaign to end segregation of interstate transit stations in the American South.  For six months, over 400 Black and White Americans, most of them college-age young adults, risked their lives by traveling by Greyhound bus through the Deep South, bringing national and international attention to the racism that had long been an intrinsic part of Southern life.  As an African American, I'd long known the history of segregation and racism that the South had been notorious for, but this film helped me understand that so many things about the onset of the Civil Rights Movement of Sixties. I had no idea how much of a political hot potato enforcing civil rights in the South was for President Kennedy's administration.  I had no idea how defiant the states could be and were once the Federal Government felt compelled to protect the Freedom Riders on their dangerous crusade.  More than anything, though, I was completely moved by these brave teenagers and young adults, who SIGNED DEATH WAIVERS to participate in these rides. Seeing the images of the severe beatings, the angry mobs laying in wait with dogs and gasoline, and hearing the first hand accounts of the riders who survived scared me in a way that I'd never be scared before.  I could see myself, my brothers, sister and friends in their faces.  They could have been me…

Or could it?  Could I have gotten on the bus?  I don't think so.  My self-preservation gene would have kicked in once that clipboard with a death waiver got passed to me at an orientation meeting.  Yet, here I am, fifty years later living a life where I've been free to live as I want because they were brave enough to do what I feel I could not.  I'm thankful for what they did, and I'm even more thankful that AMERICAN EXPERIENCE told this story.  I needed to know that young people — people younger than me --  recognized their power in their country and chose to act.  I needed to be reminded that I have power as an American, and I can have an impact.

Chika Offurum is the Marketing Account Manager for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.  

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Receives Two Emmy Nominations

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been honored with two nominations for the 65th annual Primetime Emmy Awards. Announced this morning, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences nominated the series' films Death and the Civil War for "Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special," and The Abolitionists for "Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series." 

Death and the Civil War examines the many ways the staggering death tolls of the Civil War permanently altered the character of the republic, and the psyche of the American people.  The work of contending with death on an unprecedented scale propelled extraordinary changes in the inner and outer life of Americans – posing challenges for which there were no ready answers when the war began  – challenges that called forth remarkable and eventually heroic efforts as Americans worked to improvise new solutions, new institutions, new ways of coping with death on an unimaginable scale.

Bringing to life the intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown, The Abolitionists takes place during some of the most violent and contentious decades in American history, amid white-hot religious passions that set souls on fire, and bitter debates over the meaning of the Constitution and the nature of race. The documentary reveals how ordinary individuals with extraordinary passion turned a despised fringe movement against chattel slavery into a force that literally changed the nation.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is currently in its 25th season and has received over 290 awards including recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, International Documentary Association, Organization of American Historians, Writers Guild, Television Critics Association, National Education Association, Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival.

The Emmy Awards will air live from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, September 22nd at 8pm ET on NBC. 

Casey Davis is the Special Projects Assistant for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

CINE Golden Eagle Award for "Jesse Owens"

We are excited to announce that AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been honored with a CINE Golden Eagle Award for our film Jesse Owens!

The most famous athlete of his time, his stunning triumph at the 1936 Olympic Games captivated the world even as it infuriated the Nazis. Despite the racial slurs he endured, Jesse Owens' grace and athleticism rallied crowds across the globe. But when the four-time Olympic gold medalist returned home, he could not even ride in the front of a bus. The story of the 22-year-old son of a sharecropper who triumphed over adversity to become a hero and world champion, Jesse Owens is also about the elusive, fleeting quality of fame and the way Americans idolize athletes when they suit our purpose, and forget them once they don't.

For over 50 years, the CINE Golden Eagle Award has signified excellence within the film and television industry. From emerging filmmakers to industry pioneers, the twice-yearly CINE Golden Eagle Competition is home to the best of film, television, and digital media.

"We are thrilled to be recognized by the Cine Golden Eagle, an award that signals excellence in our industry. The story of Jesse Owens' triumph at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany is an enduring testament to courage, resolve and the triumph of the human spirit," said Executive Producer Mark Samels. Produced and directed by Laurens Grant and written and produced by Stanley Nelson, Jesse Owens premiered in May of 2012 and is streaming for free on our website

Congrats to all involved!