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Public Television's Triple Crown: In Theory

By Ted Barron

A Garveyite family from <em>American Experience: Marcus Garvey—Look for Me in the Whirlwind. Photo: James VanDerZee; courtesy of PBS

Public television's commitment to documentary programming is best expressed by its highly acclaimed weekly series NOVA, Frontline and The American Experience. Each has reached impressive milestones in its respective fields (science, public affairs and history), both in terms of longevity and critical accolades. All three are produced from PBS' Boston affiliate, WGBH, and enjoy a devoted viewership that has come to expect a level of quality unmatched in television.

But for all of their praise, these programs raise striking questions in their respective presentations. Do they go far enough? Have they become restricted by their "accepted" formats? In a competitive television marketplace, do they provide opportunities for new voices in filmmaking to be heard, or do they favor established producers with consistent records of achievement? As audiences continue to be parsed by multiple media outlets, these series face unique challenges in staying true to their long-established missions.

Originated by Michael Ambrosino at WGBH in 1974, NOVA has showcased science adventures and featured compelling studies of the first test tube baby, the development of the artificial heart, the AIDS epidemic and the outbreak of the Ebola virus. In the process, the series has developed a large and loyal audience, consisting of 8.5 million viewers in the US on average each week. Executive Producer Paula Apsell was there in the early days. One of her first producing efforts, Death of a Disease, focused on the World Health Organization's plan to eradicate smallpox. Apsell takes great pride in NOVA's devotion to its mission since those formative years: “to present science as a great adventure, to show our viewers science as it happens, to take them places they have never been.”

She describes the process of developing concepts into programs, noting that despite the wealth of ideas, it is not necessarily clear which ones will make good television. NOVA has a substantial staff of researchers that keeps up on the goings-on in the scientific community. This staff is primarily a tool for making contacts, which provide material for the producers Apsell sees good storytelling as one of NOVA's primary functions. In examining program concepts, she always asks, "What is the story? Does it have a beginning, middle and an end? Who are the characters and how are they transformed? We look for a potential for great visuals. What unique take can NOVA bring to the story? Is this going to make a difference to people? Is this worth the hour that someone is going to invest? I am conscientious of the limited number of time slots available so I treat these decisions very carefully. Ultimately, it is the story which is most important."

She is sometimes faced with an extended development period. Cancer Warrior had its origins over 20 years ago when Apsell first contacted Dr. Judah Folkman of Children's Hospital in Boston about a potential study of his cancer research. At the time, Folkman did not have any major developments to report from his lab. More recently, he has made breakthroughs in examining how blood tumors affect the development of cancer cells. Apsell is particularly proud of his accomplishments, claiming, “Folkman has given all of himself to this experience. He is the essence of what science journalism can reveal—a life's work."

NOVA employs a staff of producers and researchers as well as contracts work from independent producers. Apsell does not feel there is any difference in the process of working with outside producers because most of the independents with which she and her staff work are dedicated to the vision of the series. "We try to make a strong commitment to them," Apsell notes. "Happy producers make good films."

The financial commitments can be a concern, especially if the funding sources are unclear. Apsell is fully aware of these potential drawbacks and makes sure to confront them early in the development process. One of the benefits of NOVA's acquisitions is that most of the productions they acquire often come with secure financial backing from a co-producer, such as BBC (which co-produced the very successful Secrets of Lost Empires), Channel Four and Canal Plus.

With increased competition from cable television, Apsell feels that the show has reached an interesting crossroads. But rather than change format, she recognizes the strength of NOVA's commitment. "Competition from cable has helped us become more comfortable with our original mission—founded on Michael Ambrosino's ideals—of crafting scientific adventures for grown-ups," she says. Among the many recent developments for NOVA is its use of dramatization to explore history (as recently featured in Einstein Revealed), the use of high-definition television and the incorporation of the website in the development process, which allows producers to get feedback on works in progress. Despite all of these innovations, Apsell is more confident than ever that NOVA is doing what it does "better than anyone else" because it has "come to know itself better than it ever has."

WGBH's Frontline has also faced changes in the industry, but has outlasted many of its competitors by sticking to its mission of providing sophisticated, in-depth reporting married to high-quality filmmaking. Since 1983, it has earned great respect as the "flagship public affairs series for American public television."

Of the nearly 1,000 proposals that Frontline receives each year, only 18 programs will ultimately air. Senior Producer Sharon Tiller describes the process as "extremely competitive." Of the hundreds of ideas through which she and the editorial committee sift, they reject many which, although compelling, lack the necessary storytelling elements. “We have a group of approximately 20 independent producers with whom we work on a regular basis,” she says. “Each of these producers has a regular 'beat,' such as Ofra Bikel. She has produced programs about criminal justice with us for the past 18 seasons, such as The Case for Innocence, which focused on the use of DNA in death penalty cases. We trust her with issues of criminal justice not only because she is skilled at handling them, but because it is her passion to work on these stories."

Frontline also relies on these producers because its staff is mainly editorial. In earlier years, the series had a small staff of producers, but has changed its structure somewhat to reflect the more personal style of the executive producers, David Fanning and Michael Sullivan. Tiller notes, "Our familiarity with independent producers allows us to determine if we know the people who can make a program happen and not simply do a survey story with talking heads."

Frontline not only has a stable of producers, but it also works with established news organizations. For its recent examination of The Clinton Years, the series collaborated with ABC News' Nightline. Frontline has also co-produced programs with BBC and Channel Four and formed unique partnerships with The New York Times and The New Yorker, in which a reporter from the respective print news organizations teams up with a Frontline producer to develop a story.

With such highly regarded organizations on its side, the prospects for young producers may seem limited. Yet, Tiller insists that despite the intense competition, there are opportunities for filmmakers to work as field producers with more established producers. "Sometimes a great idea doesn't have the right producer, which is why we need to keep the door open to new filmmaking talent. We are always looking for someone with talent rather than ideas,” she says. “We have plenty of ideas generated in-house."

Frontline has experimented with more vérité styles of filmmaking. The recently aired Real Justice focused on the days in the lives of a district attorney and a public defender. Tiller is proud of the work for its ability to be "both gritty and revelatory" and for taking the series in new directions.

The American Experience rarely takes a vérité approach in its examination of US history. The series, perhaps best known for its presidential biographies, has been on the air since 1988. While that may not be quite as long as NOVA or Frontline, it is currently television's longest-running history series.

Margaret Drain, who was recruited 13 years ago to help start the series, currently serves as its executive producer. In this position, she oversees programs in development. Drain states that she is "basically interested in the program's narrative arc. We try to break the film into an act structure to see how it will look on the air, she says." While this may seem formulaic, Drain notes that the series has cut a fairly wide berth in terms of film style. “We are always looking for new ways to tell a story," she explains. The American Experience has a two-month period in which it takes open proposals. But, like Frontline, the prospects are limited. Typically, over 400 submissions are received in that time, few of which are able to funnel down into the final stages of development.

Most producers for The American Experience are independents who are responsible for the bulk of work in the development phase. Once producers receive a contract, they must develop a treatment that includes locating archival material, determining whether they will need to shoot original material, if they will shoot on film or video and who their main interviewees will be.

Once Drain and her staff agree to a project, she tries to do no harm. "Some producers have an energy which we want to give them the freedom to maintain," she says. Her staff only becomes involved at the stage of the rough cut, at which time they try not to "flatten the narrative line." Although some follow-up screenings may occur, the remaining process is surprisingly hands-off.

Drain encourages the individual stylistic tendencies of her producers, which is apparent in The American Experience's slate of recent acquisitions. Acquisitions are attractive to the series due to secure funding, but they also provide an opportunity to showcase a variety of film styles. Films such as Return with Honor and Riding the Rails, both of which played theatrically, are good investments because their unique stories suit the mission of the series.

Drain takes great pride in the current direction of the series. Upcoming programs include Scotsboro: An American Tragedy, a story of nine black men falsely accused of raping two white women; Steven Foster, a story of the great, yet tragic songwriter; and a study of the city of Chicago, presented in the style of last year's highly touted New York. Drain hopes that the city series can become a new trademark for The American Experience along with its presidential biographies. These films succeed in capturing both the historic moment and the personal story—two elements which Drain feels are essential to the growth of the series.


Ted Barron is a freelance writer living in Southern California. He previously worked in film exhibition in Boston and is currently pursuing his doctorate in Visual Studies at UC Irvine.