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Storytelling on PBS with Tech, COVID, and 'American Portrait'
July 30, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

As the year began, PBS launched a sort of national diary.

People could simply send in their stories via video (usually), photos, prose, or, well, whatever.

Eventually, some would be tied into a special – one of which airs at 10:30 p.m. ET this Sunday (Aug. 2) on many stations (check local listings).

Then COVID came and everything changed.

"We could have never expected (what has) evolved over the last six months," Bill Margol, the executive in charge, told the Television Critics Association (TCA) on Wednesday. "More than three-and-a-half million people have visited the American Portrait website, where nearly 8,000 stories have been collected…and millions have engaged in social media."

That keeps growing, said Craig D'Entrone, the showrunner. "There's been an incredible, snowball effect…to the point where now we get hundreds of stories a day."

Why the surge? You could credit COVID; people have more stories to tell, more time to tell them, and to view other people's stories.

But technology is also a factor, Margol said. "The quality of material that you can generate…technically is amazing."

And there's what Michelle Stephenson, a producer for the series, calls a "generational evolution." 
People who grew up taking selfies are used to visually portraying their lives.

For "the younger digital natives, telling their stories and even being able to be vulnerable in their selfie mode is a lot easier," she said.

That's clear in the stories featured Sunday. Mostly, the show just has brief snippets, but it also settles into two longer stories of younger women who are returning home.

One, fresh from college graduation, wants to spend time with her grandfather, who has been sinking into dementia for a decade. Another visits her father, who was exonerated after eight years in prison.

Other stories fill the PBS website.

Margol points to one by a young dad in Alaska who lost his job and decided to start a hometown airplane business. And to a young couple striving for happiness after he's released from prison.

"There is an undercurrent of hope," Margol said.

D'Entrone agreed. People "may be pessimistic about the state of the world, but they are almost universally optimistic about themselves and their own situations."

Anyone can submit and anyone can browse the stories, he said. He would edit out hate and such, but so far there hasn't been any. "We do filter out people who are trying to sell things."

After Sunday's special, there will be another in October (when PBS has its 50th anniversary) and then a series in January. There will also be a book which takes this back to what Margol calls "one of the inspirations of the project."

Edward Steichen sent his fellow photographers around the world, for The Family of Man, a 1955 exhibit that also became a book. "It was an incredible project," Margol said, "but…it put a photographer in the middle."

Now the middleman is eliminated; the people shoot their own stories.

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