NEW YORK — At this time of patriotic fervor across the land, it's ironic that a television series celebrating American creative genius should meet with difficulty finding a home on public television.
But such has been the recent history of "American Masters," a weekly series of documentary profiles premiering Monday on public television stations around the country, including KCET Channel 28 in Los Angeles (at 9 p.m.).
The reason? According to Susan Lacy, the mastermind behind the series and its executive producer, "The arts are not a priority, either for corporations or for public television stations."
Hosted by Joanne Woodward, the series consists of individual films about the life and achievements of American "masters" in the creative arts, both living and dead, native born and adopted. The first documentary in the series is "Private Conversations," a 90-minute, behind-the-scenes look at the filming of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," starring Dustin Hoffman, for network television.
On subsequent Monday evenings through mid-September, the series is set to profile Charlie Chaplin, architect Philip Johnson, writer Katherine Anne Porter, jazz great Billie Holiday, Metropolitan Opera artistic director James Levine, composer Aaron Copland and painter Thomas Eakins.
Scheduled to be broadcast later in the fall, as specials, are documentaries on Georgia O'Keeffe, Eugene O'Neill, Truman Capote and George Gershwin.
The series was completed and due to be broadcast last fall. But there was no room then in public television's prime-time schedule for a new weekly series, and no corporate funding for the all-important promotion of such public television programs. There is still no corporate underwriter for the $3.5-million series, produced at station WNET here.
"It's not that they (the television audience) aren't interested," said Lacy, seated the other day in the busy Manhattan office that doubles for "American Masters" headquarters and the New York office of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. "It's just that there is little air time available for this kind of cultural programming because it's been difficult to build a body of good, quality work that would sustain a continuing kind of presence. And, of course, the reason for this is that the arts are so badly funded."
Lacy recounted her three-year effort to get the series off the ground, initially with a $500,000 development grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In the end, the series was made possible by applying a formula found to be successful in financing public television's "American Playhouse" drama series.
Co-production deals were struck with independent producers, public television stations and foreign broadcasters. The result: The producing partners have found a place for their films, and the series has found programs that it could not otherwise afford to produce.
Lacy placed "the real value" of the series, including funds that some of the individual producers raised on their own, at approximately $8 million.
She expressed the hope that "American Masters" will become a continuing presence for cultural documentaries on public television, in the way that "American Playhouse" has for drama, that "Frontline" has for public affairs and that "Nova" has for science documentaries.
"Hopefully, when we start to build an audience, public television stations will put up more money," Lacy said. She still also hopes to interest a corporate underwriter for the series, even though she said 30 to 40 companies thus far have been asked and have declined.
Apparently convinced of success, Lacy is at work on a second season of "American Masters," with projects already set or in development on William Wyler, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Aretha Franklin and Merce Cunningham, among others. She said Joanne Woodward is personally overseeing a documentary on the history of the Group Theater.
By all accounts, Lacy has been the driving force behind the arts project. She has remained with the series, even after coming to head the New York office of Sundance Institute in 1984. And she said she plans to continue to balance her time between the series and developing projects for the institute, such as an eight-part series on the impact of the movies on American culture, now in development and also aimed for public television. In addition, she said, she is developing two feature films for her own newly formed production company.
"I'm tired, I don't get much sleep and I don't give dinner parties like I used to. I may find I can't do it all. After all, I'm not superwoman," said Lacy, a mother of two young children.
"But I'm interested in what makes Americans tick; I always have been," she said in explaining her motivation, adding with a smile, "I'm of a dual nature. I'm intellectually oriented, interested in ideas, and in trying to find ways to bring these ideas to the screen. And I want to make movies."