PBS’s American Masters
by Del Harvey
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Before A&E’s Biography series, before any other cable channel tackled the biography in any serious form, PBS was doing it and with great style and substance through their American Masters series. The series premiered in 1986, and at the time was the only PBS primetime series committed to developing and producing comprehensive film biographies about the expansive cast of characters who comprise our cultural history. From the beginning, PBS’s focus was to chronicle the process of discovery and evolution in the working methods and lives of our most significant and influential writers, musicians, visual and performing artists, and filmmakers. In their current season, the lineup of personalities is just as vital and classic as ever.
This season’s selection is a vibrant and inspired collection of artists, including musicians, filmmakers, inventors, newsmen, and photographers. In looking through the season’s schedule (see below) I can find no single program which I would not find truly fascinating. From Aretha Franklin to Leonard Bernstein, or Annie Leibovitz to Cole Porter, every single individual portrait holds great appeal. The fact that these are some of the bright lights of our past century is also telling, and even though a few may be considered “overdone” by some (Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Albert Einstein), there is no doubt that PBS’s handling of their stories will likely offer greater import than something presented in the typical weekly series.
American Masters has been praised not only for the consistently excellent quality of its programs, but for the series as a concept. Fascinating in their individuality as well as in the aggregate, the films that make up the American Masters series add to an understanding of our heritage and the extraordinary mosaic of the American character. An artist’s work can capture, reflect and, in many cases, even mold the American experience or at least change our perceptions of it. Without art we would, as a society, lack a soul and a voice. American Masters exists to give life to that voice.
Created in 1984 by Susan Lacy and produced by Thirteen/WNET for national public television, the series is both a celebration and an exploration of creativity in America. Consisting of more than 250 hours of programming to date, American Masters is a growing film library documenting the role important individuals, groups, and movements have played in the formation of our cultural identity.
The series, by selectively balancing program topics and approaches while maintaining, across the board, the highest standards of historical, intellectual and artistic integrity, has secured a high degree of audience loyalty and recognition over the years. Recognized by the industry and critics alike as one of “the best biographical programs ever to appear on American television,” American Masters has received 22 Emmy nominations, winning a primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series, five primetime Emmys for Outstanding Documentary; three Oscar nominations; four Peabody Awards, a Grammy Award and 19 Cine Golden Eagles.
Aretha Franklin, May 24, 2006 at 9 pm
Note:All times listed are Eastern.
Del Harvey is a film teacher and writer living in Chicago.
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