The ABC’s of PBS: American Masters

Seasons: 12...
February 1, 1998

Seasons: 12

Producing station: wnet

Viewership: Ten million per episode

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

New programs a year: 6-8

Currently possessing a library of over 80 hours of programming, American Masters is a series of primetime specials examining the.lives, works and creative processes of America’s most outstanding cultural artists.

The difficulty in producing American Masters, explains series creator Susan Lacy, is money. While she has the ambition to create a library of the most important American cultural figures of the 20th century, the amount of money she receives from pbs is relatively small.

‘I can’t take risks on projects I don’t own, because the chances are we’ll never get our money. That’s another reason we started developing our own projects. It’s much easier to raise money for your own project, and control the budget, schedule and total business picture. When you’re not funded, that’s important, because we have to keep a series going.

‘In this series, we’ve learned about pre-selling and distribution, and all kinds of clever ways to stay alive, out of necessity – which has now become a way of life for everybody.’

The average American Masters episode is researched for a year, with over half a year of editing. Because of this long lead-time, the series does not accept unsolicited material. Instead, it matches projects to filmmakers they think will do the best job. They do work with name producers on coproductions, and will sometimes do outright acquisitions.

Lacy suggests three ways to get in the series: the producer should be an experienced filmmaker with an unbelievable track record; have the rights to something unique; or should have seriously developed something tailor-fit to the parameters of the series. With tongue somewhat in cheek, she also claims to consider producers with lots of money, who happen to show up with a relevant project.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.