"History is filled with magnificent stories," says television producer Judy Crichton. "Some of the most exciting stories anyone has ever read are in history books."
She has proved her point in more than a hundred films over the years, from Andrew Carnegie: The Richest Man in the World, to The Donner Party, and Lindbergh. As the founding producer of the PBS series The American Experience from 1987 to 1996, Crichton gave new shape to the documentary by combining visual elements with a dose of historical content, worked out in a collaboration between filmmakers and scholars. She and The American Experience won The George Foster Peabody Award four times, The Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award twice, and the Emmy seven times.
Crichton started her career as a clerk for a newspaper at age sixteen. She moved to television and worked on game shows, and in 1974 became the first woman writer and producer for CBS Reports. In 1981 she became a producer and writer for ABC's Closeup documentary unit.
Crichton remembers the standards of those early days. As she tells it, when she first began working for CBS Reports, she undertook a story only to find it "too flimsy." She approached the executive producer with apprehension and told him she thought
the story should be dropped. Without blinking an eye, he agreed, "You are being paid to drop stories, to lie on the couch, and to read and learn." Later, in public television at WGBS, she would tell her staff the same thing: "You are paid to study."
Crichton laments the fact that this attitude no longer prevails in commercial television. She told NEH Chairman William R. Ferris, "Among the things I am most proud of is working on projects that had enough time to achieve a piece of work in a thoughtful
way. Television underwritten by the Endowment sets an academic standard that allows us to reach for a level of work not possible in the commercial world, especially in television."
Crichton left The American Experience in the mid-nineties, but continues to serve as executive consultant on the series. Most recently she acted as executive director of the NEH-funded documentary New York.
By Maggie Reichers