LOS ANGELES — Tom Yellin, executive producer of the ambitious 12-hour documentary series "The Century," may have uttered the understatement of at least the decade. "We had to leave some things out," he says simply.
Indeed, this is true.
The TV series virtually ignores the struggles and achievements of women for the past 100 years. Nonetheless, the six-part series, which debuts March 29 (9-11 p.m., ABC), attempts to wrap up the past 10 decades in compelling narratives that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings says are geared toward viewers' hearts as much as their heads. "We're not historians," he says, "we're journalists."
With that in mind, the team has set out to illuminate some of the most important stories and themes of our time rather than rattle off the most important "big events."
Average viewers that most of us are, this attempt to track people and stories that "will resonate," rather than events that will impress, should find a wide audience.
The first two hours look at flight as a theme for the transition from the 19th to the 20th century. The show twins the story of man's trip to the moon in the 1960s with a profile of the first great celebrity of the 20th century, Charles Lindbergh.
"We really look at two different sides of technology, two different Americas," says Todd Brewster, senior editorial producer. Lindbergh, as the first solo aviator to cross the Atlantic, is in many ways a throwback to the 19th century. He finances the trip himself, packs five sandwiches, and navigates with his own compass.
"He's a man of traditional values at a time when the nation is caught in the grips of a battle between the forces of modernism and traditionalism," Mr. Brewster says.
How might it have been different?
More than four decades later, in 1968, the Apollo moon landing is the work of an enormous bureaucracy, some 400,000 people, financed by taxpayers' money. "It's not the sort of will and self-initiative [that drove Lindbergh] that was driving it, but politics," says Brewster, "the desire to beat the Russians to the moon."
Documenting World War II becomes a cautionary tale about the rise of a mediocre artist who finds his real "gift" is in manipulating the masses - Adolph Hitler. This is twinned with the story of the race to develop the atomic bomb.
Mr. Jennings suggests that a storyteller's art can help open a window on the overly familiar and make it fresh again. The ABC anchorman says that in making the World War II segment, the production team asked itself a question about Hitler: "What if he'd been killed on the Western front in World War I, where he was a courier? How would the story of our century's middle years have been different?" The rise of Hitler then set in motion the forces that produced the atomic bomb.
Perhaps the most obscure, yet ultimately compelling, thematic choice is the pairing of Martin Luther King and Elvis Presley. Executive producer Yellin tells about an interview the production team conducted with a black minister, who said for a long time he had not understood why people were so fascinated with Elvis. "A white friend of his said to him, 'You know how you think Martin Luther King set you free? Well, Elvis set us free.' "
The series concludes with a look at America's cultural influence around the world, paired with an examination of the hostage crisis in Iran.
Jennings says he believes these issues may represent some of the most important challenges the United States will face in the next century.
A nod to the future
"If you travel the world today," he observes, "there is enormous fear now about the great cultural success in America, which of course includes TV, movies, films, dress, and everything else."
The network TV series "The Century" is only one element of a multifaceted presentation. "The Century" project also includes a 15-1/2-hour documentary produced by ABC that will air on the History Channel, a Web site (www.thecentury.com), an educational outreach program designed for students, and a book, "The Century," by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster.