“American Masters” is the kind of PBS program even a die-hard congressional critic of PBS can love.
Series creator Susan Lacy has no agenda, political or otherwise, other than to serve up in-depth profiles of celebrated artists. The personalities chosen for the skein are often (though not always) beloved figures in American culture, such as Ray Charles, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Willa Cather, Julia Child and Bob Newhart.
And, while taxpayer dollars make up a big chunk of the “Masters” production budget, when it comes to finding funding for the series, Lacy has demonstrated the financial savvy normally associated with a network bean counter.
Case in point: this week’s 19th season premiere of “Masters,” which marks the show’s return as a weekly skein rather than as a monthly series of specials. The episode, an hour devoted to James Dean, is a co-production with Warner Home Video, which is using the film to help hype the release of a new box set of Dean’s films that mark the 50th anni of his death.
“We’re being very creative in how we put the financing together,” says Lacy, who has also directed some of the skein’s more high-profile installments. “We’re always trying to think of anniversaries and other ways to ease our financial burden.”
“American Masters” was one of TV’s first bio-focused series when it bowed in 1986. Since then, cablers have flooded the marketplace with every imaginable offshoot of the bio skein, from “The E! True Hollywood Story” to half the shows on VH1.
“Masters” has remained above the fray because it doesn’t try to dish out instant pop-culture profiles or hastily assembled clip jobs. Lacy won’t even consider doing a profile of an artist unless she can get the rights to a big chunk of that person’s body of work.
“Half of our budget is getting rights,” she says. “We did a show on Ella Fitzgerald that had a budget of $1 million, and half of that went for rights (to music and film clips).”
Lacy says the DVD revolution “has opened up a whole new business model” for “Masters,” since congloms are keenly interested in high-quality profiles of thesps, directors or musicians that can be tied to the release of movies or CDs.
For example, when Turner heard Lacy was developing an idea about John Ford and John Wayne, it became interested in participating since sister studio Warner Home Video is planning a reissue of “The Searchers.” Likewise, Warner gave Lacy huge access to rare Dean clips in exchange for what she describes as “a little bit of cash” and the right to release the “Masters” profile of Dean on DVD.
Equally as important to the equation for Lacy is having the cooperation of subjects or their estates. While she’ll never give away editorial control, Lacy feels it’s essential to have access to an artist’s body of work in order to paint a full portrait.
“We’re not trying to do an informational program. We’re trying to get under the skin of the people we profile,” she says.
That’s why Lacy spent more than a decade persuading Bob Dylan’s camp to participate in a “Masters” film about the music legend. Once he agreed, Lacy says “the floodgates opened” — and not long afterward, Martin Scorsese agreed to direct the film (which will air over two nights in September).
Lacy’s strict standards also explains why “Masters” usually produces fewer than a dozen profiles a year, compared with the 100 or so similar bio skeins churned out. Emphasizing quality over quantity has allowed the series to collect no fewer than 16 Emmys, including winning the primetime nonfiction series award for five of the past six years.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing is that we’ve made a great program that will stand the test of time,” Lacy says.