Q&A: "American Masters" Executive Producer Susan Lacy on Emmy win

September 18th, 2009

This year, “American Masters” received the 2009 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series awarded by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) at the 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. This is the series’ seventh Primetime Emmy win in this category in the past decade. “American Masters’” winning entrant for this category is Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. Inside THIRTEEN spoke with the creator and executive producer of “American Masters,” Susan Lacy.

Q. This is the seventh time that “American Masters” has won the Emmy for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series, a record for any PBS series … How do you feel? Where are you going to put the statue?

It feels gratifying to be honored so many times by one’s peers. This is our 7th win for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series in the last 10 years, but prior to submitting for the series, we used to submit individual show for Non-Fiction Special, for which we were also nominated almost every year since the series’ inception. We also won many times, although I can’t remember the exact number of wins. I believe this speaks completely to the quality of our films, as well as the fact that our subject matter has always stood out from the majority of television fare. So, our Prime Time Emmy history has been truly unprecedented, at least in terms of public television series. It makes me feel proud on behalf of public television, as well as all the talented directors, writers and post-production individuals we work with who contribute to the high quality of the series.

The Emmy will join the others, as well as the Peabodys, Grammys and assorted other honors on shelves in my office. It’s pretty crowded up there and everyone worries the shelves will cave in someday.

Q. Since you created “American Masters” in 1984, a lot of programs that profile American artists have come and gone … How do you manage to keep your program relevant to today’s audience?

I think when you are focusing your programs on people whose cultural contribution was significant and whose body of work is defining, the films are always relevant. I have always made it a point to balance so-called “high” art with popular culture to reach as broad an audience a possible. Not everyone will be interested in every subject but, taken together, they cross the boundaries imposed by traditional means of measuring demographics. I also feel strongly that if we remain true to the mission of public television and, therefore, not bow before the ratings gods, we will always stand out, attracting a loyal audience not necessarily drawn to reality television and sitcoms, but who will stick with us year after year and, in fact, continually grow.

Q. What are some of your favorite “American Masters” programs, and why?

It’s difficult to pick my favorites, as I choose the subjects, put the teams together and often direct an episode myself, so there are many children in my stable. I can say that my favorite film to direct was Leonard Bernstein. In general, I am drawn most to those films which successfully transcend the traditional straight-ahead, narrative format to achieve layers of complexity and texture. This isn’t easy to do and not every subject lends itself to this, but when we do hit it, I am ecstatic. I would love to hear from our audience what their favorites are.

Q. What artists can we look forward to seeing on upcoming episodes of “American Masters”?

We have incredible subjects in development for future seasons, including John Lennon, Miles Davis, John Muir, Dustin Hoffman, Johnny Carson, Odetta, Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, Mel Brooks, Jackson Pollock, Jessye Norman, Stephen Spielberg, Robert Altman, Helen Keller, Alvin Ailey, August Wilson, Joe Papp, Bill T. Jones, William Buckley, Cachao, to name but some of the films we are working on.

Funding remains our biggest challenge. Everyone loves and values the series, but it is very difficult to raise the money to make these films. The high cost of the rights associated with them, as well as our high standards of filmmaking, makes it impossible for them to be produced inexpensively. But, that’s another story.