Meet Judith Vecchione ~ Acclaimed PBS Documentary Producer

Judith Vecchione, acclaimed public television producer

Bedford resident Judith Vecchione’s renowned career in video production shows no sign of deceleration. “When people ask, ‘How long have you been in this business?’ I say, ‘Decades,’ and leave it at that,” she laughed.

Vecchione was senior series producer for the first six episodes of the acclaimed PBS series “Eyes on the Prize.” She was executive producer for several national PBS documentary series, including “Americas,” “De Gaulle and France,” “The China Trilogy, Discovering Women, and “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues.” She has won an Emmy, a Red Ribbon at the American Film Festival, a George Foster Peabody Award, the DuPont Columbia Gold Baton, three Christopher Awards, and four CINE Golden Eagles.

Her most recent work as executive producer was “Blood Sugar Rising: America’s Hidden Diabetes Epidemic,” which aired beginning in April 2020.

An executive producer with WGBH for the past 21 years, Vecchione said she and her family moved to Bedford in 1993 because of the quality of education. “We loved the way they presented the educational philosophy, and the school system’s diverse population.”

She is grateful for her professional opportunities, explaining, “The glory of my job is that I have learned from so many different communities in this country.”

Vecchione is co-executive producer of WGBH’s upcoming four-part PBS series, “American Veterans,” which examines “the experience that creates a veteran, and what that means. This has been a big, exhausting project, and I lived every moment of it. It is a very complicated and, we think, rich presentation.”

The programs, Vecchione said, will be available through three platforms. Besides the four one-hour segments on television, scheduled to start Sept. 26, there are 10 digitized episodes, which begin Sept. 7 weekly on YouTube, and nine weekly podcasts, scheduled to begin on Oct. 9. “So this is the moment when everything is happening.”

“This has more arms and legs than any project I ever worked on,” she exclaimed. Producers interviewed some 60 veterans and supervised technical teams for each of the platforms. “Making this big a project is like building an army,” she said.

“We have been working on the content for two and a half years,” Vecchione continued. “We were enormously lucky that the majority of the filming was in 2019 and early 2020. So many of my colleagues have had their productions terribly disrupted. We were editing at the time everything shut down after conducting almost 50 interviews nationally.” She has been working remotely since then.

“This is not a series that’s about today only. It addresses veterans’ experience across the arc of American history,” Vecchione said, including testimony from veterans of World War II. “We are also researching and including quotes from veterans of early years.”

“There are enormous commonalities of the veterans’ experience between the past and today, and also major differences,” Vecchione observed, adding, “Everything in the project on all platforms is entirely told in veterans’ voices.” Each segment is narrated by a host whose story is woven into the film. All five branches are represented by men and women.

Part One, “The Crossing,” is about “the experience of being molded into a soldier, a sailor, a Marine, an airman.” The host/narrator will be the actor Drew Carey, who served in the Marine Corps. “The Mission” is Part Two, “about being in service, in combat or peacetime, behind the lines or Stateside, and how this has changed over time.” The host is U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-IL, a disabled veteran.

Part Three, “The Return,” focuses on “coming back from military service to civilian life. It is almost the inverse of episode one.” Vecchione said the segment addresses “how it can be complicated, and rewarding.” The narrator is Wes Studi, the Cherokee American actor and activist who served in Vietnam.

Concluding the series will be “The Reckoning,” which Vecchione said is “about what does having something like 18 million living veterans mean, what we need to be hearing from each other.” The episode addresses “the way they have been treated, the way military service is considered, always anchored in personal experience.” The host is J.R. Martinez, the actor and motivational speaker who was seriously injured just weeks into his Iraq War tour.

Vecchione said the project is “an opportunity to open the society to the veteran voice. We are seeing the military-civilian divide as a real issue in America. This has nothing to do with politics but is about a major institution in a democracy. Having a healthy, respected military is especially important and another part of the democratic project.” Fewer members of Congress are military veterans, and many regions are without military families, she pointed out.

The timing of the series is opportune, she added, coinciding with “we hope the closing of the Middle East war presence for American soldiers.”

One experience that significantly sparked the project was a visit to the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio, Vecchione reported. “We were really taken with their efforts to present veterans stories in a number of complicated ways. Out of that, we developed our concept of what we would do.”

What’s next for Vecchione after “American Veterans”? “I have some ideas — but whatever I do next, it will take some time,” she said.

Asked if she identifies a particular project over the years as a signature achievement, Vecchione, after some thought, commented, “I am very proud of “Vietnam: A Television History.” Vecchione directed the opening segment of the series, which was broadcast in 1983. That documentary “was the first time that these stories had been told,” she said. “It’s a bookend to what I’m doing now.” (The PBS Vietnam documentary by Ken Burns aired in 2017.)

She reflected on her role in the production of “Eyes on the Prize,” the award-winning documentary that traces 30 years of the Civil Rights Movement. “That was a critical piece of work in which I was very proud of participating,” she said, noting that episodes are currently reappearing on various networks “because it’s so relevant.”

“I was very proud of ‘Eyes on the Prize,’” she testified. “I remember an early screening and watching the audience – which is what you do when you have a screening – and feeling the hairs rise on the back of my neck and saying, ‘I think we got it!’”

As an editorial adviser for World Channel, Vecchione related, “One of the pieces we are looking at now is around Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the guiding lights of the Civil Rights Movement.” She said she never met Hamer, who died in 1977. However, Vecchione filmed two other pivotal figures of the movement who died more recently, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Robert Moses.

Does she compare the current environment with the context of “Eyes on the Prize”? “I’m sometimes very discouraged and sometimes I’m astonished at how things have changed. I am also encouraged because of the new voices, the activists who have come up over the last few years. We may never get to the finish on any of these things, but we do have to keep trying and make progress.”

Another career highlight she cited was executive producer for “Medal Quest: American Athletes and the Paralympic Games.” “We went to the London (2012) and Sochi (2014) Paralympics. When we did the London Paralympics, they let us do it because NBC said they were not going to cover it. The next games, CBS said, ‘Yeah, there’s an audience for this.'”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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