The number of new TV series competing for audiences—FX Research counted 487 new series in 2017—might lead to the conclusion some TV shows are pushed out with reckless abandon. Not so for PBS. While the public television network will produce dozens of new episodes for its Masterpiece, Nova, Great Performances and American Masters series, the broadcaster will only unveil two new series in its spring schedule: We'll Meet Again, Civilizations and The Great American Read. When Idaho Public Television gets around to launching a new series, it's practically historic.
"Eight years? Nine years? Let's just say that we've been working on this idea for a decade," said Jeff Tucker, IPTV director of content services. "Yes, we've aired a number of specials over the years exploring some of Idaho's history. It's practically in our DNA. But this is big."
"This" is Idaho Experience, which premieres Thursday, March 8. The show is modeled after American Experience which, coincidentally, is celebrating its 30th anniversary on PBS this year.
"I think it's fair to say American Experience is the touchstone, but we wanted Idaho Experience to appeal to a broader demographic," said Ron Pisaneschi, IPTV general manager. "We did a lot of experimenting on social media with short videos and fun, catchy quizzes that instantly caught the attention of a young, more digital-savvy audience. Whereas American Experience really started as a legacy show and has only recently moved into the digital arena, that's really where we began with Idaho Experience."
As an example, several months ago, IPTV producers asked, "Where were you when the Challis earthquake struck?" referring to the historic 1983 temblor that shook central Idaho and caused the death of two children.
"We had people responding, talking back and forth, writing, 'I was there,' or 'I was in the bathtub,' or 'I was in the kitchen.' Suddenly, we had this moment when people across Idaho were reminiscing about a common experience," said Tucker.
"More recently, our Marcia Franklin was working on a story about Annie Pike Greenwood (author of We Sagebrush Folks) and Marcia sent out a couple of pictures and some questions—and she got 48,000 responses. Some time ago, we found some archival footage of a Model A tractor in New Meadows with giant snow skis strapped beneath its front wheels. We had over 100,000 views. People love it when they get a chance to say, 'I was there. I grew up there.'"
So, Idaho Experience was born—not in the traditional fashion of an on-air pilot episode but via Facebook. Meanwhile, IPTV took painstaking care in building a commitment to a broadcast series.
"Quite frankly, we kept asking ourselves, 'Are we really ready? Do we have the right people in place?' Let's face it, we've set the bar pretty high for ourselves," said Pisaneschi.
The best example of how high would be IPTV juggernaut Outdoor Idaho, which began airing in 1983 and has received every possible broadcast TV award.
Much like Bruce Reichert, the Emmy-winning host of Outdoor Idaho, this new show needed its own unique voice. IPTV reached out to Rachel Martin, current national co-host of Morning Edition on National Public Radio and a fifth-generation Idahoan.
"My family goes way back. My dad's family first set foot in Idaho in 1884," said Martin.
The Idaho Experience series premiere, titled "Titans," visits the town of Wallace in the so-called "silver valley." In the 1970s, as a nationwide interstate highway threatened to slice the town of Wallace in half, local businessman Harry Magnuson took on the United States government to get the super highway built over and around the northern Idaho community. Magnuson's fight with the feds is just a slice of his infamous story, which will be fully explored in the Idaho Experience debut episode.
"I know what my experience was like growing up in Idaho and returning year after year, but there are so many stories out there, and Idaho Public Television hopes to bring those stories to you in the months and years to come," said Martin. "There's this really special feeling that comes when you hear the word 'home.' For me, home has always meant Idaho."