Series Blog

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!


Just as the weather starts heating up, many offices start slowing down, but not here at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE! With five hours of new programming, including our epic two-part documentary on JFK premiering in the fall, our staff has been hard at work. In June alone we have already had five screenings for various films in different levels of production. While this has become old hat to everyone here on staff, we realize that our viewers may not always be aware of the process our films go through before they air.

For most of our films we work with independent producers (JFK notwithstanding – more on that later). The filmmakers, along with their amazingly talented teams, are charged with the production, from writing the script to filming and editing to post. Our core staff works with our filmmakers as needed, helping with collecting materials, finalizing budgets and ultimately getting the programs ready to air on PBS.

Because we usually work with outside production companies, the filmmakers make trips to our office in Boston to show their progress to our Executive and Senior Producers. Eventually our VP of National Programming will sit in as well. They do this so everyone can see where the film is going and provide comments and feedback.

The process begins with the Assembly Screening, which is the first attempt to piece together the narrative. At this point the filmmaker may not have all of their footage shot or interviews conducted, just the bare bones. The next step is the Rough Cut. At this stage the film starts to take its final shape. The notes from the Rough Cut are used to guide the Fine Cut. And then, any final changes are made before the Picture Lock. This means exactly what it sounds like, the images in the film are locked and the film is ready for animation, final narration and music.

This year we have had the exciting opportunity to produce a film in house – JFK is being produced by our Series Producer with support coming from members of our staff. With Picture Lock coming up next month, the team has been working diligently to get everything just right. The office is abuzz with activity. And it is great for us here on staff to get a taste of what our outside filmmakers deal with on the day to day.

Keep checking back to learn more about what goes on inside AMERICAN EXPERIENCE!

Julianna is the Production Secretary for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.