Susan Lacy

Producer


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About
About this interview

In her three-hour Archive interview, Susan Lacy recalls her early experience working for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and discusses how she became deputy director of performance programs at Thirteen/WNET (the New York PBS affiliate) where she was a program executive for Great Performances. Lacy speaks about the genesis of American Playhouse, a program which she helped to create at WNET. She discusses in great detail how she came up with the idea for the documentary series American Masters, its early struggles and why she is so passionate about the series. Lacy describes several of the specific subjects the series covered: Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, Charlie Chaplin, Leonard Bernstein, Rod Serling and more. Karen Herman conducted the interview in New York City, NY on June 11, 2011.

"When I was growing up, you'd be able to name poets or writers because they were embraced by the culture in a different way than they are now. So while you knew who Willie Mays was, you also knew who Carl Sandburg was. That has really changed. … part of the idea of ['American Masters'] was that we have to create an archive that will last forever."

Highlights
Susan Lacy on believing in American Masters from the beginning and its success "passion and committment will take you very far"
05:23
Susan Lacy on what makes American Masters unique
01:48
Susan Lacy on the mission behind American Masters and why it's not a typical celebrity biography series
01:54
Susan Lacy on finding the crux of the story in the edit room
Susan Lacy on what she learned about artists from working on American Masters
Full Interview

Chapter 1

On her early childhood; traveling with her parents
On working for the Historic Preservation Program of the National Endowment for the Arts
On her education at the University of Virginia; on editing the newspaper there and being a controversial figure (she required a bodyguard at one point); on how she wound up working for Channel 13 (PBS in New York City)
On the influence TV's Golden Age had on her; on what she saw as a need for arts and culture on television; on the pressure on TV to draw in ratings with celebrities
On her first job at WNET (PBS in New York) in program development and grantwriting; on working with Jac Venza, her mentor, on Great Performances at WNET; on his passion for a drama series on PBS and how that resulted in her developing American Masters
On how television programming at PBS has changed
On developing the American Masters series

Chapter 2

On why she wanted American Masters to air in primetime; on the business model for the series
On believing in American Masters from the beginning and having a passion for the mission behind the series; on the struggles in finding funding for the series
On the funding challenges and negotiating rights for a series like American Masters
On the genesis of American Masters and how the idea for the series came to her; on choosing the artists for the series; on why there is no host on the series
On the title American Masters; on doing episodes about non-Americans; on how the subjects are chosen
On programming changes to American Masters after it was cancelled because the subjects had been too obscure
On where the viewership follows for American Masters; the particular subject matter or the brand's reputation
On the American Masters episodes which one can really learn a lot from, like the Bob Dylan or Judy Garland episode: "it's a history lesson"

Chapter 3

On not being able to realize a vision for a film; such as the American Masters' on Lena Horne; on wanting to go back and revise some of the earlier episodes
On American Masters' subjects she has become close to; Rod Serling, Gore Vidal; on feeling privileged to have the opportunity to tell their stories
On the decision to give first-time filmmakers a chance to develop their talent; on how the subject and filmmaker are matched; on what sort of guidelines they are given
On her management style and her team at PBS; on loving her work
On who is on the shortlist to be featured on American Masters; on advances in technology; on their archival process; on what she's learned from working on the series
On what she's learned about American culture and about artists; on the future of American Masters; on how to measure success
On her advice to aspiring documentarians; on how she's like to be remembered
Shows

American Masters

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Susan Lacy on why she felt the need to preserve America's cultural heritage with American Masters on television
Susan Lacy on how American Masters came about after she left American Playhouse
01:23
Susan Lacy on the vision behind American Masters which she developed while working on a project at Sundance
Susan Lacy on why she wanted American Masters to air in primetime
Susan Lacy on approaching American Masters like independent film
Susan Lacy on believing in American Masters from the beginning and its success with critics; on her passion for the series
Susan Lacy on the mission behind American Masters and why it's not a typical celebrity biography series
Susan Lacy on the genesis of American Masters and how the idea for the series came to her
Susan Lacy on why there is no host on American Masters and how she wanted each episode to have its own voice
Susan Lacy on coming up with the American Masters title
Susan Lacy on how the subjects for American Masters are chosen
Susan Lacy on programming changes to American Masters after it was cancelled and came back in order to keep ratings up
Susan Lacy on what makes American Masters unique and the requirements for their "masters"- having a significant body of work, but "it's not a formula"
Susan Lacy on the American Masters episodes which one can really learn a lot from, like the Bob Dylan episode "it's a history lesson"
Susan Lacy on the feeling of being in the edit room for the "a-ha!" moments; such as "Reaching for the Note" from the American Masters' on Leonard Bernstein
Susan Lacy on having a few regrets with American Masters
Susan Lacy on the American Masters' on Rod Serling which they framed as a Twilight Zone episode, shot in 35mm black and white
Susan Lacy on the American Masters' on James Baldwin
Susan Lacy on the future of American Masters and the measure of the series' success

American Playhouse

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Susan Lacy on how American Playhouse got on the air out of a conflict that arose with the sponsor over Great Performances
04:36

Great Performances

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Susan Lacy on working on Great Performances for Jac Venza
07:38
Susan Lacy on some of her favorite Great Performances and what she learned from the experience
02:50

Omnibus

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Susan Lacy on the impact watching Omnibus as a young girl had upon her
Topics

Creative Influences and Inspiration

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Susan Lacy on passion and committment (with American Masters) and why it's so essential for artists to have both 

Technological Innovation

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Susan Lacy on the improvements in technology for filming documentaries (cameras and AVIDs) since American Masters premiered

Television Industry

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Susan Lacy on the challenges of funding the American Masters documentary series and negotiating rights for such a series
Professions

Documentarian

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Susan Lacy on advice to documentarians 
02:58

Producers

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Susan Lacy on the feeling of being in the edit room for the "a-ha!" moments; such as "Reaching for the Note" from the American Masters' on Leonard Bernstein
Genres

News and Documentary

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Susan Lacy on the challenges of funding the American Masters documentary series and negotiating rights for such a series
Susan Lacy on the editing process on American Masters when working on a documentary
Susan Lacy on the art of documentary: you find the story in the edit room
Susan Lacy on the excitement upon discovering something new about a public figure, like Charlie Chaplin, while working on the documentary series American Masters (they found alt endings for City Lights)
People

Leonard Bernstein

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Susan Lacy on the American Masters' episode on Leonard Bernstein: her favorite

Bob Dylan

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Susan Lacy on the American Masters episode on Bob Dylan and what one can learn from watching it
01:55

Judy Garland

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Susan Lacy on the American Masters' on Judy Garland and why they didn't use all the tapes they were given 
04:59

Sydney Pollack

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Susan Lacy on the choice of Sydney Pollack to direct the American Masters on Frank Gehry.

Rod Serling

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Susan Lacy on the American Masters' on Rod Serling which they framed as a Twilight Zone episode

Jac Venza

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Susan Lacy on working with Jac Venza, her mentor, on Great Performances at WNET; on his passion for a drama series on PBS and how that resulted in her developing American Masters
07:38

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