New Ken Burns: Jackie Robinson

Ken Burns’ newest documentary, Jackie Robinson, goes way beyond baseball and can turn anyone (even yours truly) into a fan.

The film – premiering 8 p.m. Monday, April 11 – draws you into mid-century America through sports, the civil rights movement, and an incredibly charismatic, strong ball player named Jackie.

My favorite aspect of Jackie Robinson (and of all Ken Burns’ films, really) is how it shows a deeply human side of this iconic superstar. Jackie’s relationship with his wife, Rachel, is so inspiring. They seem like an indomitable team, and I’m so glad she contributes her voice to the story. It gives a depth and perspective to their experience that I truly appreciate.

This movie also adds another layer of nuance and perspective to my understanding of race relations in the U.S. I can’t help but watch this film and think of how far we’ve come, and how much we still have to accomplish. The resistance to change that shows up in this documentary feels uncomfortably familiar, and some of the frustrations and inequalities that come through in the movie are still being experienced today. Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson serves as a powerful reminder that we can do more, and we can expect more of ourselves.

Streaming Favorites for March

A lot of my favorite national dramas from PBS recently wrapped up, including Downton Abbey (let’s all share a moment of silence), and Mercy Street. In my search for great streaming content, I decided to bring it back home and focus on some of our locally-produced shows. So much of the quality content we broadcast at WPT is also available to watch online, so if you missed an episode – or if you’re a spoiled viewer like me, and only watch shows on-demand – check out some of our great, locally produced shows online.

Wisconsin Foodie
Kyle Cherek goes all over the state in a quest to discover the hidden gems of Wisconsin’s culinary scene. From cheese makers to beer distillers, Cherek shows us why it’s great to be a foodie in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Life
When you feel like you’re in a rut, Wisconsin Life can show you a new perspective and share some of the incredible, adventurous things going on across the state. This show highlights how diverse, creative and fun Wisconsinites truly are!

Continue reading Streaming Favorites for March

Director Stanley Nelson Visits Madison

Director Stanley Nelson’s work — which includes impactful American Experience documentaries Freedom Summer and Freedom Riders, and the unprecedented upcoming documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution — is important, unrivaled and prolific.

In advance of the Feb. 16 nationwide premiere of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, the first feature-length documentary to explore the Black Panther Party in detail, Nelson is taking time out of his busy schedule to visit Madison this week.

While in Madison, Nelson will attend a free screening  at the Madison Central Library, sit down with Wisconsin Public Television Director’s Cut host Pete Schwaba for an exclusive interview about his film, and appear Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 3:15 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Central Time.

Needless to say, everyone at WPT is excited to welcome Nelson to the studios, and we hope that you can take advantage of the opportunity to meet this prolific director while he’s here or tune in to one of his interviews. Check out the details of Nelson’s screening and appearances below, and mark your calendars for the premieres of Director’s Cut: Stanley Nelson and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution Feb. 16 on WPT.

Continue reading Director Stanley Nelson Visits Madison

Exploring Mercy Street: The Uniform

Historical fiction is the first draft of legend. If memorable, stories we tell about our family, friends, ancestors and heroes may gain currency over time and take on lives of their own. Using our shared past as inspiration for parable, potboiler and everything in-between is at the root of spinning experience into imagination.

As entertainment, historical fiction is flexible. Stories are anchored to a point in time and accuracy of setting is a basic requirement, but when it comes to plot and characters, there’s more latitude for how closely they’re bound to what we know about the past. Both imagined and historical figures are standard, but their words and actions can be created whole-cloth or drawn as directly as possible from documented record.

When it comes to the American Civil War, two classic battlefield tales exemplify these poles. The Red Badge of Courage, an 1895 novel by Stephen Crane, tells the fictional story of a Union private overcoming his fears through a series of unnamed battles. In contrast, The Killer Angels, a 1974 novel by Michael Shaara, tells the story of Gettysburg in close detail, mostly from the perspectives of several high-profile participants. But most stories fall somewhere between these two approaches, mixing historical reality with original drama.

Mercy Street offers elements of both styles. Set in Alexandria, Virginia, a Union-occupied former slave-trading hub just downriver from Washington D.C., the story centers around two historical buildings: Mansion House Hospital and Carlyle House. It’s late spring 1862, in the midst of the Peninsula Campaign, when a massive Union force is advancing on Richmond. Several major characters are drawn from historical records, notably Union nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and some members of the Confederate-sympathizing Green family.

Continue reading Exploring Mercy Street: The Uniform

Exploring Mercy Street: The Haversack

Mercy Street

PBS has high hopes for Mercy Street. It’s the first original drama created by the network in over a decade and arrives in a media environment flush with ambitious television. The show is weighted with heavy expectations, its release timed to coincide with the final season of Downton Abbey. The apparent goal: A hit to succeed the British import and perhaps lead to more homegrown productions.

Mercy Street has received a promotional push commensurate to the investment PBS made in developing it, and it’s regularly compared to Downton, despite its creators’ insistence the two merely share their dramatic bent.

There are similarities between Mercy Street and Downton Abbey, though, beyond that they’re both prestige dramas. For starters, they are both simultaneously family and workplace dramas. Downton’s Upstairs, Downstairs-inspired chronicle of the Crawley family and their manor full of servants inspires a tangled web of relationships. Mercy Street also combines family and work, but leads with its wartime hospital centerpiece and mostly Union Army staff. The family element is woven in through the Greens, a Confederate-sympathizing aristocratic clan that owned Mansion House, originally a luxury hotel, before the war. Continue reading Exploring Mercy Street: The Haversack

Exploring Mercy Street: Blood is not Gray or Blue

Mercy Street

Click here to read a recap of the series premiere in part one of “Exploring Mercy Street.”

When American cinema and television turns to the Civil War, the resulting storytelling covers the same ground, over and over again. Ever since the conflict starting fading from living memory a century ago, we walk the familiar dramatic terrain of divided families struggling amidst sweeping historical forces. It’s a setting of belles, battle gallantry, and bullies in blue uniforms.

The latest Civil War story on our screens is Mercy Street, a new PBS series set at a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. Its premiere episode introduced a cast of characters, some of whom viewers may feel like they’ve encountered previously. That may reflect how Civil War storytelling has long drawn from the well of the Lost Cause.   Continue reading Exploring Mercy Street: Blood is not Gray or Blue

Exploring Mercy Street: Series Premiere


Click here to read more on the new PBS series in part two of “Exploring Mercy Street.”

Mercy Street, a new dramatic series presented by PBS, is seeking to offer a new take on the Civil War. Set in Alexandria, Virginia, the program focuses on the Mansion House Hospital, a onetime luxury hotel. Requisitioned by the Union Army, the facility is transformed into a way station for maimed and dying soldiers, and a wartime home to those caring for them.

Much of the program’s dramatic prospects flow from the location. Alexandria was once included within the original boundaries of the District of Columbia, separated fifteen years before  the Civil War. A long-time port in the slave trade and located just down the Potomac River from Robert E. Lee’s plantation in Arlington, it was well within the South culturally speaking, though it wouldn’t be part of the Confederacy for long. Only one day after Virginia’s secession was ratified, U.S. Army troops entered the town, and would remain there for the duration of the war. Continue reading Exploring Mercy Street: Series Premiere

Back to the Future With Wisconsin Public Television

On this Back to the Future Day, everyone is talking about what didn’t come true by Oct. 21, 2015. We’re taking the opposite approach, looking back in time into the archives of Airwaves magazine to see what was airing on Wisconsin Public Television on Oct. 26, 1985 – the day Marty and Doc left Hill Valley for the future.

For the record, we turned to our trusty Sports Almanac to find out that the Wisconsin Football team lost the game against Illinois that closed out our broadcast day, 25-38.

WPT Archives: Exploring Our Past

I spend so much time trying to keep up with this crazy 21st Century (I blame you, Twitter), but when left to my own devices I tend to fall into a much slower rhythm.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to libraries and archives. When I was living in Brussels, it was my art school’s local – and dusty – hodgepodge of old books filled with gallery exhibits, tutorials and biographies. Here, I’m lucky enough to have the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University Archives just across the street.

Visit WPT’s new archive page!

When I was given the opportunity to work with our amazing media archivist, Ann Wilkens, I leapt at the chance. What were our offices like in the 1950s or ‘60s? What ideas mattered to us? What were we arguing about and what were we celebrating?

Our archives have helped me visualize everything we were working for and continue to work towards: sharing quality public education, exploring our heritage and understanding our culture.

Now, you can explore with me. We’re digitizing as much of our archival footage as possible and making it available to watch online. Visit our new WPT Archives page, and start poking around. Click on a newly digitized show that catches your attention, or explore by decade. You can also find the WPT Archives by going to our Watch Page, and looking under “Wisconsin Productions.”

Watch John F. Kennedy announce his presidential campaign. Listen in on a conversation with Richard Nixon. Check out some of our more memorable kids shows like The Friendly Giant and Storylords. It’s all right here. Take a look.

Supper Clubs 101: More Than Just Dinner Conversation

Supper Clubs 101 premiered Thursday, July 23 on Wisconsin Public Television. The original documentary, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the hometown restaurants that are serving hearty meals and a dose of nostalgia, got viewers talking on social media. Check out what fans had to say below! Missed Supper Clubs 101 or hungry for more? Watch it here! Or, keep reading to see some of the great online responses we saw during the premiere! Continue reading Supper Clubs 101: More Than Just Dinner Conversation