"Freedom: A History of US," started out as a nice simple PBS series of half-hour programs, based on author Joy Hakim's popular history textbooks for schoolchildren.
But along its five-year journey, the program has taken on a life of its own, spurred on first when actor Christopher Reeve was named creative consultant. With Reeve on board, fellow actors from Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt to Julia Roberts and Whoopi Goldberg signed up to provide voices. In all, 50 actors and actresses are involved in the project.
The project got another big jolt from the patriotic fervor that followed the Sept. 11 terror attacks, inspiring many of those celebrities to join. A companion book and a three-CD boxed set of folk music were added to the project.
"Today" show anchor Katie Couric agreed to narrate, and soon her employer, NBC parent General Electric, was contributing multimillion-dollar funding for the series; the company has also sponsored companion exhibits of historical documents at the New-York Historical Society and elsewhere around the country. The museum was the site of a star-flecked premiere party last Thursday, the second such promotional event for the program, which also got two days of plugs this week on NBC's "Today."
Viewers can see what all the fuss is about starting Sunday in some parts of the country. KCET is airing the eight-hour (two episodes a night), eight-week series at 8 p.m. Thursdays, beginning Jan. 16.
Hoopla aside, Coby Atlas, co-chief program executive for PBS, called the series "really good family viewing." The episodes start with U.S. independence, move through the Civil War, immigration, the Depression and the civil-rights struggle and end with the Sept. 11 attacks.
Kunhardt Productions, a family of producers who specialize in historical documentaries, started the production at the suggestion of an executive with Oxford University Press, publisher of Hakim's 10-volume "A History of US" textbooks. The books have sold more than 4 million copies since publication in 1993 and are widely used in schools, from the fifth grade on up.
The books are popular for their narrative style and focus on personalities. "They don't do history as a bunch of facts to be memorized," said Philip B . Kunhardt Jr., one of the producers.
Likewise, the series, with its use of celebrities and reliance on just one historian, Columbia University's Eric Foner, instead of the usual PBS gamut of experts, has a more popular feel.
"We've had some wonderful history on PBS, a lot of it quite sophisticated," said Hakim, singling out Ken Burns, whose "The Civil War" documentary blended written documents, photographs and music. But she said teachers tell her that "they can't just show that to their kids," without advance explanation and study.
"I see myself as a pop writer," Hakim said. "We're going for the masses." The use of celebrities in the new series "gives us entertainment and ammunition and I hope it will appeal to a large audience" of adults as well as children.
The producers chose "Freedom" as a theme as a way to narrow the material, which otherwise would have been overwhelming. Kunhardt said the issues of freedom have been part of American history since its founding, and particularly became relevant with the Civil War. The idea of freedom, he said, has underscored "the mighty struggles such as the labor movement, the women's movement."
Reeve, a friend and neighbor of the producers, helped choose which voices would be good for which roles, and recruited his actor friends to read the parts; at Thursday's premiere, he called the project "a labor of love."
After Sept. 11, "Everyone suddenly wanted to be part of it," Kunhardt said.
Couric was recruited by producer Nancy Steiner, a longtime "Today" employee. Couric's sixth-grade daughter has used the books in school. "They're very user-friendly and accessible and interesting compared to a lot of history books, which are just plain dull," Couric said.
The actors' voices, the music and film clips, she said, combine for a "great multimedia teacher for kids. All those elements help make these lessons come alive. When we [at 'Today'] do stories about an issue ... we always try to personalize it. The Kunhardts did an incredible job of personalizing these huge sweeping themes that are a part of our history."
As for GE, "They finally came to our rescue," Kunhardt said, following a difficult fund-raising process because the show, which cost upward of $5 million including an extensive Web site, was perceived as being targeted mostly at children, a tough sell in the corporate underwriting community. The series "has the makings for Must-See TV," GE Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Immelt quipped at the party, referring to the slogan NBC first used for its popular Thursday lineup, which will be head-to-head with the PBS series in Los Angeles.
The Kunhardts and production partner WNET, the New York public television station, hope the series will have an extensive afterlife in schools.
In a separate programming initiative this weekend, 325 people, chosen as a random sample of the nation, are meeting in Philadelphia for what's being billed as a National Issues Convention.
Hosted by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, the group will be part of a 16-month "By the People: America in the World" program, designed to stimulate discussion of the country's role in world events.
Community groups including the League of Women Voters and the National Black Chamber of Commerce are part of the ongoing project.
PBS will air a two-hour special Sunday (5 p.m. on KCET), featuring discussions among the citizen delegates, elected leaders and policy experts. Jim Lehrer, anchor of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," will moderate.