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American Experience – A Celebration of Three Decades on PBS

A Timeless Tradition in a Category of its Own

Call it the power of the proven and the familiar.

With over 500 scripted series (a new record) competing for eyeballs across all platforms this year, not to mention the rise of reality-themed programming, the value of historical documentary anthology American Experience on PBS lies in its stability, consistent quality, and the loyalty of an audience both upscale and educated.

A Diversified Experience

With 7 to 10 new films per season, some one-hour in length, some two-hours and others in a miniseries format, what started as an acquisition series in 1988 has evolved into almost exclusively content that American Experience conceives and commissions filmmakers to create.

“Our goal is for a relatively high concept title like ‘American Experience’ to represent the complexity of this great experiment called America,” explained Mark Samels, who as executive producer of “American Experience” uses the latest technology to combine compelling narrative, dramatic re-enactments and expert commentary to create powerful storytelling. “We try to represent diversity of viewpoint, subject matter, geography, time period and topic.”

The result is a stronger performance for “American Experience” in primetime in the key demo of adults 35-64 than the cable competition (including, and not limited to, Fox News, History Channel, ESPN, TBS, USA, HGTV, TNT and Discovery).*

A Milestone Next Season

Celebrating 30 years on the air in 2018, the immediate advantage for “American Experience” is the lack of viable competition in this era known as “Peak TV” — clearly the exception to the norm at present.

“All of us have had to get accustomed to talking to aggregated smaller audiences because what used to be a hit on television 15 years ago is unreachable for most series today,”
said Mark Samels. “We all face that challenge. But for us, much of the competition in the historical documentary field, at the in-depth and quality level, has largely gone away because of the advent of reality television. Aside from PBS, there are just not that many outlets focused on dramatic historical storytelling.”

From “Roots of Resistance: The Story of the Underground Railroad,” “America and the Holocaust,” “D-Day Remembered,” and “Malcolm X” to “Walt Disney,” “Earth Days,” “Freedom Riders,” “Last Days in Vietnam” and the next in the illustrious list of subjects, “The Great War,” American Experience enriches, enlightens and entertains. The list of accolades for what is commonly known as the “finest documentary series on television” includes…deep breath…30 Emmys Awards, 17 George Foster Peabody Awards, 4 duPont-Columbia Awards and, most recently, an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 2015 for “Last Days in Vietnam.”

“Simply put, the program itself, American Experience, is in a category of its own, mixing storytelling and education in a forum where families can still gather together,” noted Robert Russo, President of RNR Media Consulting. “American Experience is exactly what the History Channel should be. Nothing else comes even close.”

An Endless Well for Storytelling on TV and Beyond

On air and online, “American Experience” is the backbone of the PBS experience. “We are no longer just making a film,” explained Samels. “Now our films are the hub of a wheel that has many elements. We also do short-form digital video pieces for our website and and social media. We live tweet during each of our films. And we have commissioned articles that are posted on Facebook and other digital repositories. The film is still the central component, but far from the only component.”

Respect, Intelligence, Quality, Excellence and Appreciation for Sponsors

The immediate value of “American Experience,” according to audience research, is a brand that respects their intelligence, makes them smarter, sets the standard for quality and excellence, and addresses important issues.**

“When you are a sponsor of American Experience, you are aligning your brand with quality content,”
said Suzanne Zellner, Vice President, Sponsorship Group for Public Television. SGPTV is a national sales organization for iconic PBS series like “NOVA,” “Masterpiece,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Frontline,” “Arthur,” and “American Experience.” “PBS programming reaches a premium audience, and American Experience is the prime example of that.”

Specifically, “American Experience” viewers over-index against the research category of “superinfluentials” in Politics (Index 197) and News (158). They are 73% more likely to have an investment portfolio worth over $250,000, and 67% more likely to be involved with a group that influences public policy.***

Additionally, 41% of the American Experience audience prefers to buy a product or service from a company because they sponsor the series. This compares to the purchase preference of just 18% for cable viewers and 12% for broadcast viewers, further solidifying the value of the American Experience brand to a sponsor.**

“American Experience viewers are intelligent, affluent, engaged, influential, and they like to know what is going on,” added Zellner. “Reaching that audience through sponsorship of American Experience, or any other PBS program, is a good marketing decision, And, PBS sponsorships improve brand preference. It makes sense from a business perspective.”



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Uninterrupted and Uncluttered; Higher Recall

Sponsors of “American Experience” (or any PBS series) receive two 15- or 30-second on-air spots per broadcast. The sponsor messages are embedded at both the beginning and end of the show, which airs uninterrupted, offering a superior viewer experience. And sponsorship messages are limited to a maximum of four non-competing national sponsors, giving that sponsor’s message more opportunity for recall.

“If you look at a typical hour of network or cable primetime programming, you would see something like 30 or 40 spots that would run from 30 or 40 different companies,” explained Zellner. “In that same time, if you were to watch one hour of PBS programming, you would see between four and eight spots from between two and four companies. If you think of it in this perspective – 40 companies versus 4 companies – the odds of you remembering a spot from a sponsor is going to be much higher on a PBS program.”

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A Multi-platform sponsorship opportunity

What a sponsor puts on air is just the tip of the iceberg. “A new, revamped American Experience website on PBS.org has just launched, featuring additional content, original short-form video and the opportunity to stream full episodes, said Zellner. “Sponsors receive large format display ads, in stream messaging in videos, and live logos throughout the site.”

And there are great opportunities for sponsor alignment at events and film festivals across the country. “Many events feature influential audiences, giving sponsors visibility in front of these important attendees,” explained Zellner. “Sponsors benefit from the halo effect of being present at all these prestigious events around the country. ‘Oklahoma City’ on American Experience, for example, was shown at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.”

Coming Up on American Experience

The three-part “The Great War” from April 10 to April 12, which is airing in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into the war, tells the story of World War I through the voices of nurses, journalists, aviators and the American troops who came to be known as “doughboys.” Films in 2018 will include “Into the Amazon,” the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s journey into the rainforest; “Sealab,” the submersible that pushed the limits of ocean exploration; “Bombing of Wall Street,” which recounts the first act of terror in America in 1920; “The Gilded Age,” set in one of the most transformative eras in American history; and “The Circus,” a four-hour event that follows the rise and fall of the traveling circus.

A Look Ahead at PBS

There’s a large slate of exciting new programming ahead on PBS. “Third Rail with Ozy Media” returns for season two, now in New York City, with seven new half-hour interactive episodes premiering in fall 2017. Hosted by Carlos Watson, the focus is on impassioned yet civil point-counterpoint discussions about critical and provocative issues facing our changing American landscape.

P. Allen Smith, the author, television host and conservationist, will be featured in two weekend shows: “Garden Home” on PBS stations (season 17 premieres in February 2018) and “Garden Style” in first-run syndication. This joint package of programming on syndication and public television delivers increased reach and creative flexibility.

Animated “Pinkalicious & Peterrific,” based on the wildly popular book series, will join the PBS KIDS line-up in February 2018. It explores the arts across dance, theater, music and the visual arts, celebrating the value and pleasure of self-expression.

In spring 2018, PBS will launch six-part “NOVA Wonders,” from the producers of the highly acclaimed science series NOVA, that will go in search of answers to some big science-themed questions. Each episode will take viewers to the frontiers of science to tackle questions about life and the cosmos.

“Several of our series are also launching podcasts,” noted SGPTV’s Zellner. “We are offering podcast sponsorships as part of a multiplatform package that can include broadcast, digital, events and now audio, by way of podcasts. Launched initially with Masterpiece, there is a now a much bigger effort afoot and we will have more podcasts aligned with national programs like ‘American Experience,’ ‘NOVA,’ ‘Frontline’ and ‘Antiques Roadshow.’

“There is only one PBS,” said Robert Russo. “And the brand is synonymous with a quality label.”

For information about corporate sponsorship of American Experience, or other PBS programming, contact Suzanne Zellner at 617.300.3725, [email protected], or visit sgptv.org.

*NTI Live+7 Nielsen National NPOWER, Jan-Nov 2016 (networks only: M-Su 8p-11p)
**Nielsen Consumer Insights Harris Poll, Feb 2015 (SGPTV)
***GfK Doublebase 2016

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Written by Marc Berman

Marc Berman has been writing professionally since 1999 and is the author of weekly column “Mr. Television” for Campaign US (www.campaignlive.com). Most recently, Berman was the creator and Editor-in-Chief of website and newsletter TV Media Insights for Cross MediaWorks. From 1999-2011, he was the Senior Editor for Mediaweek and has also written for The New York Daily News, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Emmy Magazine, among others. Berman has also appeared on “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra,” “Access Hollywood,” “Inside Edition,” “The CBS Evening News,” E!, CNN, CNBC, Fox News and MSNBC.

2572 posts
  • renamoretti1

    I will call into the question the idea that there’s more scripted material out there than there used to be.

    First, what they call a “series” nowadays can have 8, 6, 4, or even 2 episodes.

    Furthermore, how many foreign imports that they’re sticking the network’s name on and calling “original programming” are counted that weren’t. For instance, I bet that Sherlock with its 3 episodes produced in the UK is counted as one of those American series because it is “produced” by Masterpiece theater (it’s an acquisition and they get to put their name on it).

    Last, with the quasi-death of TV movies and miniseries, we are comparing apples to oranges (or 36 episode seasons with 3 episode seasons).