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A GREAT STORY, WELL TOLD When you peel away the intricate layers of a memorable PBS documentary, what you often find is a simple concept. A great story, well told. “When we get it right, it’s about the story and the character. It doesn’t matter how long you were in the field, how many interviews you gathered, if it was high-def…it’s all for nought if you don’t have that fundamental underpinning,” says John Wilson, PBS senior VP and chief TV programming executive. With a growing on-air and online presence of 124 million viewers a month, PBS is ever-conscious of its audience’s expectation for high quality programming. “We don’t dumb it down to the lowest common denominator,” says Wilson with

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IMAGES COURTESY OF WQED PITTSBURGH

Rick Sebak crafts his newest PBS documentary with laughter, enthusiasm and surprise. By Cally Jamis Vennare


pride. “We really do adhere to the principles of fairness and accuracy [by] approaching the subject with an open mind and respecting the viewers’ intelligence.” After seven locally-produced documentaries and years of being “very nicely turned down,” filmmaker Rick Sebak finally piqued PBS’ interest with Pennsylvania Diners and Other Roadside Restaurants (1993). Since that first moment of PBS glory, this veteran writer, producer and talent from Pittsburgh’s WQED (one of PBS’ 356 member stations) has successfully produced 14 national PBS documentaries. His newest, Breakfast Special, airs this spring. The making of a PBS documentary involves months of planning and precise, efficient execution. It begins quite simply enough with a

than ever? “It’s invisible competition,” explains Sebak, who is now a known commodity at PBS. “I’m competing with myself to come up with something good enough that they say yes.” Working in Sebak’s favor is the fact that his documentaries are relatively low-cost in comparison to the million dollar budgets associated with many PBS specials. At $300,000, Sebak considers his budget to be at the “high end of low” for a documentary that will be precisely 56 minutes and 46 seconds long. He prefers to work with a small production team of no more than four individuals—the writer/producer/narrator (Sebak), a camera person and a sound person. If the budget allows, Sebak adds an associate producer. The timeline from start to

moment, he is strongly considering Detroit, Charleston and even Hawaii, where he is anxious to reexperience Loco Moco, a savory breakfast featuring a bowl of rice with hamburger, gravy and eggs on top. The eclectic nature of this dish reminds me of my own favorite breakfast treat: Huevos Motuleños at Santa Fe’s Café Pasquale. Not surprisingly, both the dish and the spot are already on his hit list. Since Sebak’s budget lacks dollars for location scouting, he often takes cues from friends and, increasingly, fans that follow him online. Social media gives Sebak an opportunity for interactive dialogue with his growing fan base. To date, almost 100 recommendations have surfaced as possible Breakfast Special destinations through his Facebook page

HIS EYES TWINKLE. HIS FACE RADIATES WITH PASSION AND EXCITEMENT. HE DRAWS YOU IN AND, BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, HE’S SHARING STORIES ABOUT FOOD, FAMILY AND FRIENDS.

To order any of Rick Sebak’s shows, visit shopwqed.org

series of ideas—some brand new, others slightly re-crafted for reconsideration. Such was the case with Breakfast Special, which was originally conceived years ago as Breakfast Anytime. After tweaking his original breakfast concept, Sebak confidently added it to his “laundry list of ideas” and headed to Washington, D.C. for the all important meetings with PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Is the market more competitive

finish: 6-9 months. The mode of cross-country transportation: a WQED van. “We’re like a rock band!” Sebak says. “Out for a while, come back, rest and go out again.” Our first interview takes place (over breakfast of course) at one of Sebak’s initial location shoots—the Square Café in Pittsburgh. Yet Sebak is still choosing the remaining spots for Breakfast Special. PBS demands “geographic diversity” so he will eventually travel to 14 other national destinations. At the

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and his blog, “A Breakfast Blog.” Is there anything that Sebak doesn’t like about his job? The long days of traveling? The extensive hours of shooting? The lengthy editing process of taking hours and hours of video down to only 56:46? “I love it all!” he says with enthusiasm. “But I particularly love being surprised. I want to share the pure joy that we all get learning this stuff. That’s always my goal: to capture some aspect of that unexpected moment so the viewer can be surprised too.”


A Great Story Well Told