Idaho Experience: A Year at the Top 

The already-popular series launches a new season Thursday, Feb. 14

It's rare for a series to achieve the status of being a Top-10 television program in its first year. But cracking the Top 10 at Idaho Public Television which, time and again, is at or near the top of the list of most-watched PBS stations in the nation, is formidable. Consider, for a moment, that IPTV's lineup already includes Antiques Roadshow, Independent Lens, Live From Lincoln Center, Nature, NOVA, PBS Newshour, POV, Victoria, a trainload of children's programming led by Sesame Street and IPTV's own Emmy-winning productions of Dialogue, Idaho Reports and Outdoor Idaho. Just wedging any new series into the lineup would be an achievement, but for Idaho Experience to land in the Top 10 so rapidly was quite remarkable.

"Let's face it, we've set the bar pretty high for ourselves," IPTV General Manager Ron Pisaneschi told Boise Weekly in early 2018, just before Idaho Experience's debut.

Twelve months later, the series is a fan-favorite.

Nielsen ratings, broadcast television's long-time standard of measuring viewing households, are only one way of determining a television program's success in the 21st century.

"Facebook gives you a pretty good indicator of who's connecting with your content," said Jeff Tucker, IPTV's director of content services. "One of our early Idaho Experience posts on the [1983] Borah Peak earthquake went crazy. It had something like 400,000 views. And this past Christmas, we shared some rare images of Jimmy Stewart, who was a flight instructor with the U.S. Army Air Force here in Boise back in 1943. That was also very popular."

Stewart's connection to Idaho was part of "Pioneers of the Air," one of many Idaho Experience episodes that dipped into the Gem State's deep well of rarely told stories.

An integral member of the team that produces Idaho Experience is veteran journalist Bill Manny, who knows a thing or two about telling great stories. Manny spent nearly two decades at the Idaho Statesman, and now writes and produces at IPTV. He's still the community engagement editor at the Statesman, but Manny now spends most of his days pairing words and visuals for episodes of Idaho Experience.

"What I'm finding, and what I'm enjoying most, is the detective work. It's my job to find the perfect images to match the words, critical in telling a great story," said Manny. "But when I find that perfect object, I then have to find out where it is, get permission to photograph that object, travel there, and go to some remote area with a crew and two cameras... all for about 15 seconds of footage. It's a challenge, and definitely a new set of muscles."

Manny spoke to BW just a few days before he and an Idaho Experience crew headed to north-central Idaho, where he would explore something called Psychiana, a mail-order religion operating in Moscow in the mid-20th century.

"You'll see that episode in April," said Manny, flashing a grin that said, "I know something you don't."

But up first, Idaho Experience will launch a new season Thursday, Feb. 14, with the broadcast premiere of "Some Lived: An Idaho POW's Story."

"This was a pretty unique circumstance," said Tucker. "This was a completed film, offered directly to us from the director/producer. She came to us 2 1/2 years ago and asked if we would be interested. That was even before we officially launched the series."

The centerpiece of "Some Lived" is Idaho native Mark Calnon, who survived a World War II POW camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Calnon, frail and in his mid-80s, appears in the episode along with some stunning archival photographs and personal documents.

In March, during Idaho Public Television's festival pledge drive, when the station traditionally rolls out some of its most-anticipated premieres and specials, Idaho Experience will broadcast its first-ever highlight program to celebrate some of the series' best moments from its first year of production.

"After that, we'll be offering a new episode every other month," said Tucker. "And we're talking about so many possible shows: for instance, the upcoming anniversary of the women's right to vote and maybe something on Idaho monsters, myths and legends, perhaps for Halloween."

Tucker, Manny and their colleagues at IPTV are preparing to face those challenges knowing that they have already set the bar high.

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