Originally published in Current, Sept. 10, 2001
By Karen Everhart
Giving a weekly slot to American Masters this fall, PBS execs hope that viewers will detect the qualitative differences between the series and Biography, the powerhouse daily series on the A&E cable network. Heavy promotion of A&E's signature show has imprinted its brand on viewers as the place to go for bios.
Observers and contributors to American Masters say there are many elements that distinguish PBS's bio showcase from A&E's celebrity-centered hit — notably the subjects and production values.
"We think having these in-depth biographies that touch on our cultural heritage is very much what PBS is about," said Jacoba Atlas, co-chief program executive. As PBS programmers reviewed and revamped the primetime lineup for 2001-02, giving American Masters a "bigger and more prominent presence" was the "easiest decision" to make, she said. "We can all agree this is one of our best icon series." The series resumes next month and runs through December, when the American Experience season begins.
"What's great about American Masters is that it's so diverse, so eclectic," said Anne Makepeace, producer of a recent documentary on anthropological photographer Edward Curtis. Executive Producer Susan Lacy commissions films on subjects that may be obscure, offbeat or mainstream, but the treatment developed for any portrait is not formulaic, said Makepeace. "That's what I like about it — the subject matter and filmmaker's own style determine what the final program looks like."
Library with pull
Through most of its 16 years, American Masters has been something of a stepchild of PBS's National Program Service. PBS committed limited funding to it — and in the early '90s even withdrew its backing — but Lacy persevered through several lean years, building both a library of cultural documentaries and a track record for delivering distinctive work. The series appeared so sporadically that installments were billed as specials.
The series is up for its third consecutive Primetime Emmy for nonfiction series, and numerous installments have won or been nominated for Academy Awards, Emmys and Peabodys, or been cited by the writers and directors guilds.
"Not having a regular presence is a bit of a handicap" ratings-wise, but American Masters often draws a strong audience despite its infrequency, commented John Fuller, senior director of research at PBS.
"So many series got their biggest ratings 8 or 10 years ago, when television ratings overall were higher," he said. But in the last couple of years, American Masters has come through with its biggest hits." A 1997 biography of late-night TV pioneer Jack Parr earned the series' highest rating, a 3.7.
Seven American Masters documentaries that aired in 2000-01 averaged a 1.5 Nielsen rating, slightly below PBS's season-to-date primetime average of 1.9. The audience drawn to each show varied according to the subject — the most-watched were bios on Clint Eastwood (3.0) and Gregory Peck (2.3); the lowest-rated was a portrait of Norman Mailer (0.6).
Biography pulls a smaller percentage of the total viewing audience — an average of approximately 1.1 in the season to date, according to Fuller. (If it reached all TV viewers instead of just the 79 percent with cable or satellite TV, its audience would be larger.) Biography's best draw was a profile of James Garner with the equivalent of a 1.9 rating among all TV households; several others pulled similar ratings. The lowest rated shows (0.5-0.6) were pics on boxer Joe Louis and rock has-beens Rick Springfield and Peter Frampton.
Though American Masters will have more consistent scheduling, the airings will be restricted largely to the fall. Eight of the 12 episodes will be new productions this year (up from seven a year during the past three years), and four will be popular shows from past seasons.
A biography of filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn leads American Masters' 16th season on Sunday, Oct. 7. Come January, American Experience takes over the Sunday night slot, although an American Masters on Ralph Ellison airs during with Black History Month, and a film on Gene Kelly is slated for March pledge.
"I hope we live up to it"
Lacy described herself as "very, very, very pleased" with PBS's new commitment to American Masters. "They kind of doubled our funding, but we were so miserably funded before, that doesn't mean we've got a windfall." PBS provides about one-third of what it costs to produce a season of American Masters. American Century Investments dropped its underwriting for the series, so financing continues to be a concern.
Sundays at 9 p.m. is a "wonderful" timeslot, but it's also "tough," Lacy noted. The networks typically roll out high-profile movies and made-for-TV dramas on Sundays. "I hope we live up to it."
Observers describe weekly scheduling of American Masters as a breakthrough for the series, and a somewhat gutsy move by PBS.
"This is everything Susan's been working towards her entire time here," said Karen Bernstein, former series producer, who recently relocated to Austin and launched her own independent production company. "It's a giant commitment on PBS's part to the work Susan is doing and an affirmation of that."
"Now that I'm out in the independent documentary community, it strikes me as a really smart move on PBS's part strategically," she added. "When you're competing with the multiples of cable programs out there, what better way to distinguish yourself than through a really strong biography strand?"
Cable networks don't spend as much production time or money on their bio strands or commission the work from the same pool of "top-rate" filmmakers, she said. American Masters distinguishes itself in all these ways. "I hope they follow up with good publicity and promotion."
PBS's weekly scheduling of American Masters is somewhat "daring," observed Dalton Delan, national production exec for WETA in Washington, who has worked in cable. "When cable competitors strip their clones such as Biography across every night of the week, that goes much farther in today's channel surfing environment to attract an appointment audience."
"Even to be weekly today without heavy promotion, which PBS can't afford, is fairly hard," he said. None of PBS's signature series receives the amount of branding support that they merit, he added.
Nevertheless, a regular primetime presence for American Masters is "long overdue," he contended. PBS "deserves kudos for saying 'it's never too late to improve our branding and to promote our work — even when there are all those clones out there.'
Although American Masters may blend in viewers' minds with its cable competitor Biography, the differences are greater than the similarities. By several accounts, they cover different subjects and aim for different levels of production values.
"The big distinction is that our parameter is much more limited," commented Lacy. "We're interested in the cultural world, defined pretty broadly. They're more interested in people of the hour and do people we would not do."
American Masters "has some other attributes that speak to artists and cultural work, and it reaches an audience that's interested in artistry and creativity," said Delan.
Lacy doesn't have a formula for choosing profile subjects, but she draws from her academic background in American studies, as well as advice from scholars. She described herself as a "huge fan" of Time's list of the 100 most important figures in American culture during the 20th century. "Thirty-five percent of that list, we've covered." She also selects from the various artistic disciplines that shape American culture — art, theater, cinema, literature, photography, dance and music.
"It's about having a major cultural impact and a sustaining body of work," she explained. "A really fabulous new artist on the scene who is declared the next Picasso will not get a program. There has to be a sustaining mark. The definition of a master is influencing people who come after."
Practical considerations also influence her decisions. "We will not make a program about someone without their cooperation or the cooperation of their estate," she said. "We have just found that we get much better material. We get the A-list interviews. Cable shows don't get the A-list."
Cooperation doesn't mean that subjects or their heirs have editorial control over the final program, she insisted. "It says very clearly in our agreement they have no editorial control and they do not see it until it's finished — on my word. I know people find that hard to believe, but it's true. Some projects have been dropped because we couldn't get that agreement."
Lacy admitted making an exception to that rule for her 1993 film Paul Simon: Born at the Right Time. During production Simon was "always teasing me about having no editorial control," recalled Lacy. "He talked about it all the time." Knowing his sensitivity about his toupee, she offered to show him the almost-final cut. "If there was anything you really hated — we could deal with it," she remembered saying.
"He said, 'I can't do this. I really hate looking at myself, and that's all I'll be able to see. If I didn't trust you, I wouldn't have agreed to make the film.'"
"People who work with us trust us," Lacy continued. "These are not valentines, but they're not Hard Copy. Their body of work deserves recognition and explication, and they know it's about their work and not their sex life — unless their sex life is something you can't get around in dealing with their work."
Three seasons ago in 1998-99, American Masters delivered films on conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, New York Times illustrator Al Hirschfeld, and painter Robert Rauschenberg. Producers nodded to popular tastes and multiculturalism with bios on less recognized artists such as singer Paul Robeson, writer Lillian Hellman and the female composers of Tin Pan Alley.
Documentaries on popular musicians and Hollywood stars and producers now appear more frequently in the series. The new season features two new programs on Hollywood figures, two on legendary pop music producers and one on Broadway composer Richard Rogers. Films on choreographer Merce Cunningham and authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ralph Ellison round out the season.
In comparison, Biography this month is profiling popular TV series or long ago, such as Love Boat, Laverne & Shirley and That Girl. Documentaries on accused wife-murderer Claus von Bulow and embattled Rep. Gary Conduit add titillation to the lineup.
American Masters is stretching the bounds of its usual subject matter, profiling the early rock label Sun Records and bringing in current pop acts to comment on the old rockers. "Those hillbillies could play," says the lead singer of Third Eye Blind. Rapper Kid Rock (who looks into the camera and declares, "I'm de fuckin' man") admits that he admires the Sun musicians' attitude. "You know," he says, "it's like drink a lot, get a good habit, get a model girl friend, wear shades when the lights are on, throw a TV out the hotel window, lose it all and make a come back someday."
Two takes on Ella
American Masters and Biography do occasionally overlap with bios on the same subject — both have presented profiles on the late Ella Fitzgerald. The American Masters bio, aired in 1999 and produced by Bernstein with writer/director Charlotte Zwerin, treats viewers to an extensive set of performance clips, allowing them to run at length. Archival footage in Ella Fitzgerald — Something to Live For was chosen to reflect the story line of her life — a childhood disrupted by the death of her mother and mistreatment by her stepfather, and the loneliness and heartbreaks of her adult life.
"There are sad things, there are bad things, the blues," she sings, in a clip paired with narration of how she escaped reform school and lived on the streets as a teenager. After an account of Fitzgerald's disappointing interracial romance with a Norwegian producer, the producer inserts a TV clip of her singing, accompanied by Duke Ellington at the piano: "Life is lonely again, and only last year, everything seemed so sure. Now life is awful again."
An archival television interview with a tuxedoed Andre Previn provides elements of Fitzgerald telling her own story; contemporary commentary from talking heads is limited to people who knew her well. Celebrities are largely absent from the documentary, except for those who performed with Ella. Johnny Mathis provides an opening line: "Amongst all of us who sing, she was the best."
In A&E's Forever Ella, eight different famous musicians talk about Ella — Dizzy Gillespie, Rosemary Clooney, Al Jarreau and Quincy Jones, among them. Shirley Horn describes her as "a warm person, she was like an aunt. Everyone's got a favorite aunt," a contradiction of the shy, distant and lonely woman profiled by Zwerin.
Nancy Wilson narrates the A&E bio, delivering a chronological treatment of her life and career. Colorful anecdotes — such as when Frank Sinatra dissed her vocal qualities in a Life magazine interview, her fabled rivalry with Billie Holiday, a dance on stage with Dizzy — liven up the documentary. Performance clips are often abbreviated or partially covered by narration.
"We approached this as a definitive film on Ella Fitzgerald," said Lacy. She spent "almost a million" on the bio, and half of that went to acquiring rights. "You come away from that, and you really know her," she said. This is one of the most expensive American Masters bios, according to Lacy. The low end is $150,000 a film, said Bernstein.
PBS's Atlas estimated that $150,000 is the typical budget for an A&E bio.
"I've heard horror stories of people trying to produce a portrait of Elvis" for
A&E and being "offered $80,000 for it," Bernstein said.
Lacy and others described how these high-end values shape the films, beginning with the choice of filmmakers. She "finds the best filmmakers and lets them tell stories," summarized Atlas.
"I pick people who are real filmmakers, and I give them the time to think through the subject, and time to read and listen and come up with a way of telling the story that hasn't been done before," explained Lacy.
"Unless something is going really, really wrong," observed Bernstein, Lacy "is very good about laying out groundwork and leaving the director to figure out what their slant on it is. I haven't seen that before or since in an executive producer" — they generally "dictate how things should happen."
There are so many different producer/directors working for American Masters that this approach casts each program as what Bernstein described as a "very unusual uncultured pearl. Each is slightly different."
Contributors to American Masters typically take nine months to a year to complete a project. "More time is spent in producing the program and in editing the program," explained Bernstein. "The more time devoted to that makes for a much more dimensional look at the person in question."
"Here's the difference: For cable, you're given 10 days for shooting, two weeks for pre-production and preparing for the shoot, and up to eight weeks for editing. This is the average," estimated Roger Sherman, producer of the bio on composer Richard Rodgers airing Nov. 4. In contrast, American Masters has filmmakers spend "a number of months researching and writing, 20 to 30 days' shooting, a month or more to prepare for editing and to write, and editing for three to five months — whatever is necessary."
"You can't compare the quality that gives you to the quality of a three-month cable project." The process is organized to "make a film that's really about the person as opposed to a film that one thinks is about the person," Sherman continued.
Another difference is that American Masters takes a much more generous approach to clip rights, as seen in the Ella Fitzgerald pic.
"The problem that we had and producers are having generally with theatrical or cultural history is that rights to most of the film records are owned by two or three sources," explained Greg Palmer, whose documentary Vaudeville repeats Oct. 28.
Palmer's plan for the film, which first aired in 1997-98, was to "shut up and show the clips." The rights were extensive and expensive. "A&E won't pay that, and they don't show clips."
"I know a producer working on a cable documentary about a boat that sank in World War II with two stills of the boat," Palmer elaborated. "A lot of people are facing that problem. The footage either doesn't exist or it's so grossly expensive that you can't afford to use it. That's why you're seeing so many re-creations now."
"In fairness to Biography — that is a hugely successful show, and people do love those," said Atlas. The series airs every night of the week, and its packagers "eat up material like crazy."
Since American Masters delivers fewer programs in a season, Lacy "can pick and choose, and [give] them a depth that other biographies can't do."
"I don't know that they set out with the same goals," Atlas adds. "With a daily show, it's different."
Thrust for the future
PBS and producing station WNET in New York have agreed to continue drawing from the American Masters library to fill out future seasons of 12 programs. They also seem to agree on the need to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience.
"We're not ever going to be a series about rock 'n' rollers," said Lacy. There is a rash of Boomer-rock projects in the series pipeline — including films on Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash — but she plans to continue delivering programs from the full range of artistic disciplines.
"Susan will rightfully point out that — by the definition of American Masters — some people deserve to be there, even if they don't draw as big of a crowd," said PBS's Atlas.
Everything isn't going to
be an obvious audience-pleaser."
The series needs to maintain a "mix of people so that the mainstream is represented, without ignoring the breadth of American Masters," she emphasized. "We're very sensitive that we need to bring diversity into the tent.... We've all agreed that this is part of the mandate, but it's tricky."
Leaving behind the series' broader cultural mandate to "go for more popular figures" would be a "mistake," according to Bernstein. She believes that viewers who recognize the series as American Masters expect to learn something or see it "for the first time on television" when they watch. They would be angered if the series "turns more to popular culture."
posted July 27, 2005
Copyright 2001 by Current Publishing Committee