PBS’ ‘American Portrait’ explores a ‘Generation Nation’

New PBS special is part of an ongoing initiative

With a huge assist from its viewers, PBS is generating an “American Portrait” of the people and history of this country.

Launched at the start of this year, the initiative’s contribution-gathering website has resulted in several public-television specials. The latest — “Generation Nation” — airs Monday, Oct. 26 (check local listings) and examines the experiences of three people of varied ages and locales. Austin, Texas, teen Arwyn prepares for a school year amid the coronavirus pandemic; middle-aged Philadelphian Kat faces job loss while supporting her children, one of them autistic; and Inverness, Calif., senior citizen Marna fulfills her long-desired pursuit of art and photography.

“The web platform is sort of the center of the wheel for all of the other parts of ‘American Portrait,’ ” explains Craig D’Entrone, who has the title “multiplatform showrunner” for the project’s production entity, RadicalMedia. “If you go to the website, you will see thousands of stories from all 50 states and all different territories. That had been planned for almost two years, so when COVID hit, we were already making a self-shot, self-told, crowd-sourced project. It was really just a matter of, ‘How do we put that on TV now?,’ so we were uniquely positioned to be able to do that.”


With a full “American Portrait” series coming to PBS next year, producer Michelle Stephenson adds that even with the pandemic, “Our themes have remained the same. Because we are about what’s happening in 2020, as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of PBS, the stories take on a certain urgency that reflect what’s going on right now and the uncertainty that we are living through.”

Even so, D’Entrone reports that hope has been a common element of many submissions for “American Portrait”: “People may be pessimistic about the state of the country, they may be pessimistic about the state of the world, but they are almost universally optimistic about themselves and their own situation. You hear people say, ‘I believe I can overcome. I believe that I can, or my community can, or my family can.’ And we see that over and over.”

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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