A new multimedia initiative, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, which focuses on the history of pandemics and science amid COVID-19, will be accompanied by an unprecedented educational outreach program. The project will examine the medical innovations that conquered some of the world’s deadliest diseases and doubled life expectancies for many in under a century, the initiative’s partners announced today.
Spearheaded by bestselling science writer Steven Johnson (How We Got to Now, The Ghost Map), through a new book, magazine special issue, and television series co-hosted by historian David Olusoga (Civilisations, Black & British: A Forgotten History), Extra Life will explore the lessons learned from previous global pandemics—including smallpox, cholera, the Spanish flu, and others—and reveal how scientists, doctors, self-experimenters, and activists launched a public health revolution, saving millions of lives, fundamentally changing how we think about illness, and ultimately paving the way for modern medicine.
Riverhead Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House) will publish the accompanying book written by Johnson, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, on May 11, 2021. PBS will air a new four-part series from Nutopia by the same title, hosted by Johnson and Olusoga, on Tuesdays from May 11 to June 1 at 8:00pm EDT on PBS stations, and will stream via pbs.org and the PBS Video app.
The New York Times Magazine will publish a special issue on life expectancy on May 2, featuring a lead article by Johnson, that will delve into the larger history of science, medicine, and public health. The issue will also feature contributions from other science writers analyzing the past, present, and future of global longevity, and will include photojournalism from around the world.
The magazine, book, and television series will look at 300 years of medical innovation and go behind the scenes of modern medicine to meet the unsung heroes tackling COVID-19 and other public health threats, revealing how collective efforts around the world can lead to extraordinary outcomes. The research is global in reach and is particularly sensitive to the cultural blind spots that have influenced our approach to health, tracing the origins of inoculation back to Africa, long before the discovery of vaccination in the West, and highlighting the often-overlooked inequalities in access to health.
The Pulitzer Center is developing curricular materials, webinars for teachers, and virtual classroom engagements with journalists as part of its K-12 programming to support engagement with Extra Life. These materials and programs will make use of the long-form article adaptation that will appear in The New York Times Magazine, as well as the new four-part PBS series, and other related materials and events.
“Americans continue to rely on PBS to serve as a credible source for information while we grapple with the devastating effects of COVID-19,” said Sylvia Bugg, PBS chief programming executive and general manager, general audience programming. “With this partnership, PBS will continue to serve audiences with vital programming and multi-platform resources to help them navigate these challenging times.”
“Now more than ever, we need powerful storytelling that captures and explains the achievements in public health and medicine over the past few centuries,” said Johnson. “The fact that we have doubled life expectancy may well be the single most important development in modern history. Because of the pandemic and the unprecedented accomplishments of science and public health, we have an opportunity to educate an entire generation of schoolchildren about the value of fact-based research and science. What they learn today from the history and their experience during this pandemic has the potential to change how we think about and practice health for many years to come.”
“Extra Life is a brilliantly accessible and comprehensive narrative that helps us understand the landmark scientific achievements that have so dramatically improved the life span of most Americans,” said Pulitzer Center education director Mark Schulte. “Teachers will have many choices in how to engage, and the Pulitzer Center education team is eager to offer our support and to build a learning community around these timely and urgent resources.”
Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer is a production of Nutopia for PBS. The series is executive produced by Jane Root, Nicola Moody, Fiona Caldwell, and Johnson, and directed by Duncan Singh, Helen Sage, Tristan Quinn, David Alvarado, and Jason Sussberg. Bill Gardner is the executive in charge for PBS.
Funding for the PBS series Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, CDC Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and the New Venture Fund.
Nutopia is an award-winning television production company known for creating acclaimed, non-scripted series on a global scale. The UK- and U.S.-based company is credited with creating the television genre known as the “mega-doc,” combining epic, motion picture-quality cinematography, action-driven content, and prominent Hollywood actors to produce and star in the projects.
The company, which was founded in 2008 by Root, former president of Discovery Channel U.S. and controller of BBC Two, and co-founder of Wall to Wall TV, has become synonymous with creating high-quality, notable content for buyers that include Netflix, Disney+, CNN, National Geographic, BBC, PBS, HBO Max and A+E Networks. Recent projects include A World of Calm, based on the meditation and sleep app from the billion-dollar tech company Calm; Babies, exploring the key developmental years in life; and the Emmy Award-nominated The World According to Jeff Goldblum.
Nutopia also produced the much-honored National Geographic series One Strange Rock; the BBC/PBS co-production Civilizations; the interactive series The Great American Read; and the Emmy Award-winning series How We Got to Now and America: The Story of the US.
Upcoming projects include Limitless, with Chris Hemsworth, and Welcome to the Earth (working title) with Will Smith for Disney+, and Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer for PBS.
PBS, with more than 330 member stations, offers all Americans the opportunity to explore new ideas and new worlds through television and digital content. Each month, PBS reaches over 120 million people through television and 26 million people online, inviting them to experience the worlds of science, history, nature, and public affairs; to hear diverse viewpoints; and to take front-row seats to world-class drama and performances.
PBS’ broad array of programs has been consistently honored by the industry’s most coveted award competitions. Teachers of children from pre-K through 12th grade turn to PBS for digital content and services that help bring classroom lessons to life. Decades of research confirms that PBS’ premier children’s media service, PBS KIDS, helps children build critical literacy, math, and social-emotional skills, enabling them to find success in school and life. Delivered through member stations, PBS KIDS offers high-quality educational content on TV— including a 24/7 channel, online at pbskids.org, via an array of mobile apps and in communities across America. More information about PBS is available at www.pbs.org, one of the leading dot-org websites on the internet, or by following PBS on Twitter, Facebook, or through our apps for mobile and connected devices. Specific program information and updates for press are available at pbs.org/pressroom or by following PBS Pressroom on Twitter.
About the Pulitzer Center
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is an innovative award-winning nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to supporting in-depth engagement with underreported global issues. We sponsor quality international reporting across all media platforms and a unique program of education and outreach to communities, schools, and universities. Visit the Pulitzer Center online at pulitzercenter.org.
Founded in 1994, Riverhead Books is now well established as a publisher of bestselling literary fiction and quality nonfiction. Throughout its history, Riverhead has been dedicated to publishing extraordinary groundbreaking, unique writers. Riverhead’s books and authors have won or been finalists for Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, National Book Critic Circle Awards, MacArthur Genius Awards, Hurston Wright Legacy Awards, Dayton Literary Peace Prizes, and numerous other distinctions.
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