Series Blog

We're officially 25 years old!

Over the past 25 years, American Experience has produced close to 300 films and nearly 400 hours of television. If you were to sit down in front of the television tonight and decided to watch one of our films each night, it would take you nearly a YEAR to consume our entire body of work (probably longer, because we have several five and six-part films)! Which one would you start with first? Which of our 287 films (and counting) do you tell your friends and family they MUST see first? We certainly couldn't choose, but somehow we whittled it down to a much more manageable 16, representing the different genres of films we've produced since 1988. Now YOU can help us determine which AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is the best by voting in our Best of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE bracket. Each round lasts four days, and by October 18, we will have a champion! Vote now!

Emmy Award for Outstanding Research for "Jesse Owens"

We have the pleasure to announce that the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film "Jesse Owens" has won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Research at the 34th annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards.  

The most famous athlete of his time, Jesse Owens' 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 whenthe 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.

"American Experience prides itself on rigorous research for each of our films. We are proud that the production team was recognized with the News and Documentary Emmy Award," said AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Mark Samels. Jesse Owens premiered in May of 2012 and is streaming for free on our website

Congrats to all involved!

How Procrastination Can Lead to a Job...

If you had asked me in 2006 where I saw myself in seven years, I wouldn't have said "working for a television history series". 

In 2006, I was a student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, majoring in nutrition science with the goal of becoming a registered dietitian. That summer, I was taking the first of two Organic Chemistry classes I would have to take to complete my degree. 

During extended periods of procrastination - which were frequent - I would go to the local video rental store and scan the documentary aisle for anything that would further distract me from my studies. One day I came across American Experience's "The Kennedys". I didn't know much about the Kennedy family aside from what was taught in school and what I had read in People Magazine, so I decided to rent it.

I sat through all four hours, riveted by the history of the family and the personal stories told by close friends and colleagues. The use of the family's home movies showed happy, leisurely moments that added a human element to this iconic American family. I also enjoyed watching young JFK trying to make the most of television in outtakes from his 1952 senate campaign commercials. I watched the film a few more times before I returned it and loved it so much that I eventually bought the DVD. 

At the end of that summer, I decided to leave the University of Arizona and take a year off to figure out what I wanted to do. I ended up in Boston, studying film at Suffolk University -- a minor deviation from my original plan! I landed an internship with American Experience, and was hired as a research assistant after I graduated. I have worked for American Experience ever since.

A year ago, our series manager asked me if I would be interested in being the production assistant for a biographical documentary being produced here in our office (most of our films are produced by small outside production companies). He described the details of the job and everything it would entail, and I said "yes." Only later did I think to ask the subject of the biography; it turned out to be an in-depth biography of JFK.

Now I find myself screening footage for our film that was used in "The Kennedys" and smiling when I see familiar shots. I can still remember sitting on my bed, chemistry textbooks strewn around me, eyes glued to the television screen.

 In a way, "The Kennedys" changed my life. That is why it is my favorite American Experience film.

Lauren Noyes is the Production Coordinator for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and is an Associate Producer for our upcoming film "JFK," premiering November 11 & 12 on PBS.

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.