Exclusive: ‘American Experience’ EP Mark Samels to retire, Susan Bellows upped

Mark Samels, the long-time executive producer of the PBS history documentary strand ‘American Experience’, is retiring after 16 years in the role. Effective this month, Samels (pictured, left) will depart the ...
February 5, 2020

Mark Samels, the long-time executive producer of the PBS history documentary strand ‘American Experience’, is retiring after 16 years in the role.

Effective this month, Samels (pictured, left) will depart the company after 22 years of service. He was only the third executive producer to lead the history-focused strand, which is produced at WGBH Boston and airs via PBS, after Judy Crichton (1987-1996) and Margaret Drain (1997-2003).

“I always felt greatly privileged to work for ‘American Experience’, a series that exemplifies the highest standards of filmmaking craftsmanship, historical accuracy, and journalistic integrity,” said Samels in a statement. “I will deeply miss the many talented people I was lucky enough to get to know and work alongside for so long.”

As a result, series producer Susan Bellows (right) has been appointed as acting executive producer of ‘American Experience’ while a national search for a replacement is underway.

Bellows, who joined the ‘American Experience’ brand in 2003, has been responsible for producing and directing the Emmy Award-winning JFK (2013) and the acclaimed The Bombing of Wall Street (2018). Prior to this, Bellows served as a senior producer for the Peabody- and Emmy Award-winning series Africans in America.

Her additional production credits include the Emmy-nominated The Great Depression and America’s War on Poverty, both produced via Blackside Inc.

During his tenure, Samels oversaw the production of more than 130 films and allowed for “more contemporary topics and witness-driven storytelling,” the company said in a statement.

Under his stewardship, ‘American Experience’ won nearly every major broadcast award, including multiple Emmy Awards, George Foster Peabody Awards and Writers Guild of America Awards, as well as a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the 2015 Academy Awards for Last Days in Vietnam.

Other standout films produced under Samels’ watch include Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, Freedom Riders, Command and Control, Oklahoma City, The Murder of Emmett Till and My Lai, among others.

Samels began his career as an indie doc filmmaker and went on to hold various production executive positions at public television stations in West Virginia and Pennsylvania before joining WGBH Boston. He is a founding member of the International Documentary Association and has served as a governor of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

“Mark brought serious intellectual heft — and a keen sense of entertainment — to every ‘American Experience’ film,” added John Bredar, VP of national programs at WGBH. “He has an uncanny sense of history, what was consequential then, and is deeply relevant now. We will miss him and wish him all the best.”

Bredar continued: “We’re incredibly proud of the leadership and vision Mark and Susan have brought to the series over the years and look forward to building on the skilled historical storytelling that ‘American Experience’ is known for. We are at a time when knowledge and understanding of our history is more important and relevant than ever, and I’m excited about the next phase of ‘American Experience’s storytelling, as it continues to expand the collective understanding of our shared history in new and vibrant ways.”

The forthcoming 32nd season of ‘American Experience’ will include a new installment of the acclaimed ‘Presidents’ franchise in George W. Bush, and the two-part The Vote, which recounts the campaign waged by American women for the right to vote.

(Photo credits: WGBH/American Experience)

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news editor at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joined the RS team in 2015 with experience in journalism following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and with communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.