A standing ovation welcomed “American Forum” host and producer Doug Blackmon as he walked onto the set for the final episode.
After reaching 85 percent of PBS networks nationwide, attracting four 2016 presidential candidate guests and hosting political movers and shakers from across the spectrum, the University’s Miller Center television program will air its last episode March 4 due to a lack of funding.
“There’s been a very affirming outpouring of unhappiness from our viewers that we were going off the air because people appreciated it, and in some respects, it has been a long time since there was that kind of television available in America,” Blackmon said. “There wasn't anyone else doing anything like it.”
Using his experience as a Pulitzer Prize winning author and a multimedia journalist, Blackmon revamped the Miller Center’s lecture style program “The Miller Center Forums” in 2015 to create “American Forum” — a half hour long interview-style show on PBS in which leading political experts and scholars spoke about topics ranging from poetry in politics to racial issues. The show aired on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons on local PBS networks. The goal of each show is to provide in-depth and un-intimidating coverage — something he believes is increasingly uncommon in today’s political climate.
“‘American Forum’ was uniquely suited to the current moment in America’s political life and particularly the fact that we were making the changes we were, becoming the program that did at the very moment that our national discourse was going off a cliff and into a den of vipers,” Blackmon said.
Since its revitalization, Blackmon has interviewed politicians like Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), as well as activists like DeRay McKesson. Before each interview, the production team meticulously researched the guest and their issue.
“The hallmark of the program was that in every interview that we did, it would be the most thoroughly informed interview the subject had ever encountered,” Blackmon said.
The program relied on a larger team than what was seen on air, including Cristina Lopez-Gottardi, a co-producer and assistant professor at the Miller Center, and University undergraduate students, gaining production skills. Alumnus Alex Griffith joined the show his third year as a student editor and became a permanent assistant editor his fourth year.
While Griffith understands the difficulty of reaching increasingly polarized audiences with a non-partisan program, he believes the setup of the show sparked its popularity.
“Guests really liked the fact that they could be given an hour with no interruptions or spin or agendas to just talk about a specific issue,” Griffith said.
William Hitchcock, a history professor and Miller Center Scholar, will be the show’s final guest. He has been on the show once before to discuss his research on U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and appreciated the show’s format and Blackmon’s thoughtful interviewing style.
“It does not lean strongly to one side or another like most of the cable news now does, but it is also not formulaic like, for example, the ‘NewsHour’ which basically always has one person from the right and one person from the left on every single issue,” Hitchcock said. “That’s good, but it gets a little formulaic it gets a little predictable. [American Forum] allows you to go in greater depth.”
In a time of struggling civil discourse, Hitchcock wishes the show could continue informing viewers nationwide.
“I think it is a huge missed opportunity that the University, whether it is the president’s office or the provost office or the College of liberal arts, [decided] to not intervene to not provide financial support for a program that could become a national showcase for civil discourse coming from the University of Virginia,” Hitchcock said.
William Antholis, the Miller Center’s CEO, recognizes the financial challenges the program faced.
“Television is a difficult business, it is a changing business and that doesn’t apply only to public broadcasting that applies to cable television,” Antholis said. “A combination of civil discourse and using video in a new digital environment will remain a priority for us, and we just have to adapt to the times and bring our first-rate content to people’s different viewing habits and patterns.”
As “American Forum” ends, the Miller Center will launch a new series of public events called “The Miller Center Presents” to continue the center’s tradition of pairing national and global leaders with Miller Center and U.Va. scholars. The show will be streamed online, and Antholis hopes it will reach more University students while continuing the same spirit of civility as “American Forum.”
“Coming to the Miller Center to have that civil discourse that Doug has promoted so greatly was one of the real attractions for me, and the scholars that we will be featuring more are committed to that,” Antholis said.
In the meantime, fans can watch past “American Forum” episodes on the Miller Center’s website.
“The show still holds up now since [episodes] were hour long segments,” Griffith said. “They were news of the day. They were real neat, iconic discussions that you could go back to 10 years from now and find really useful insight. People should not be dissuaded from checking out the show just because it is canceled.”
Correction: This article previously misstated the program's title in the headline as "America Forum." It has been updated with the correct title of the program — "American Forum"