The ABC’s of PBS: American Experience

Seasons: 10...
February 1, 1998

Seasons: 10

Producing Station: wgbh

Viewership: Seven million per episode

Demographic: Male 25-49, but with growing female audience

Budget per hour: us$400,000-500,000

New programs a year: 8-12

The American Experience explores the events and people who have helped shape the destiny of the u.s. The series now has a library of over 135 hours of programming, and has won 120 awards.

While senior producer Mark Samels is open to submissions from outside producers, he warns it’s ‘a small eye of the needle to jump through’. One of his main concerns is maintaining a balance of shows -geographically, chronologically and area of interest; putting producers coming in cold at a disadvantage. His other warning: no one owns history. It’s unlikely he hasn’t been pitched any specific idea before. Topics which come into vogue in the press are guaranteed to be pitched to death. Producers should be innovative in subject matter and their approach.

The shows originate from a blend of sources. ‘Many are generated from the unit, and are developed in cooperation with a producer we select. Some are in-house at wgbh. Most are independent producers. Sometimes ideas come from the outside, but the rarest combination is an unsolicited idea from an unknown producer. Because we tend to produce shows at what I would call a high-quality level, we give people the resources – time and money – to produce first-rate shows, and we can only do a limited number every year. Each of them is what we perceive as a high-risk investment. We try to minimize our risks by knowing as much as we can about the story, and having confidence in the story and production team.

‘The thing we would be most interested in, and very seldom see, is a story with a compelling and taut narrative which really leaps off the page. It’s sort of the Holy Grail.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.