Each season, particularly early on, generally has had 15-16 episodes, each focusing on such topics as natural disasters, technology, war, the old West, civil rights, crime, politics, and biographies of American icons, among other things (Presidential biographies in particular are this program's claim to fame, with the three-part "Nixon" being the first and the four-part "LBJ" receiving some of the greatest critical acclaim of them all). Until 2007, seasons started in the fall; beginning with the 20th season in 2008, new seasons commenced in the winter (the last season to premiere in the fall was the 23rd season, in 2010). Originally broadcast on Mondays, the program was moved to Tuesdays beginning with its 24th season in 2012, as part of a larger drive towards brand unity at PBS.
For the first several years, the program was hosted by historian David McCullough, best known for his role as narrator of Ken Burns' The Civil War. McCullough narrated several episodes himself, including "The Hurricane of '38" (1993) and "Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided" (2001). The program no longer has a host, but new episodes are typically narrated by actors Oliver Platt and Michael Murphy.
This documentary series features examples of:
- Long-Runners: For 30 seasons, this has been PBS's flagship American history series. Its 30th season premiered in October 2018 with a two-part look at American circuses.
- Precision F-Strike:
- The two-part biography "Walt Disney" includes a speech from Uncle Walt which includes a few uses of "damn". Particularly in the '40s, when the only mainstream Hollywood picture to use that word was Gone with the Wind (and even then just because the original novel also had Rhett Butler's famous parting words to Scarlett O'Hara as "My dear, I don't give a damn"), that was quite shocking.
- This series is itself known for getting away with stronger language than PBS is typically comfortable with broadcasting. The Presidential biographies in particular have a few instances of "shit" (including at least one "bullshit") that were heard unbleeped even in the 2016 rebroadcasts, during a time when British drama on the network didn't get to go much farther than "bitch" (which guarantees at least a TV-PG-L rating), with the only known program to score an L subrating for its TV-14 rating using the word "dick" uncensored.
- Documentaries dealing with the African-American civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s are also typically broadcast with the "n"-word uncensored (not "Negro"; the other one), though it's almost always heard in archival footage.
- Theme Tune: The series' theme music has changed several times over the years but has always been instrumental, with the exception of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, which used an edited version of The Chambers Brothers' psychedelic-rock classic "Time Has Come Today" as an actual Theme Tune.
- Title Sequence Replacement:
- Very often happens during rebroadcasts in the middle of a newer season, especially if the title sequence for the series itself has been updated.
- Several episodes, including "LBJ", have had their titles replaced entirely in newer broadcasts. "Nixon", on the other hand, subverts this by retaining the original episode titles at the start of each part, even in the 2016 rebroadcast.
- Very Special Episode:
- The series premiere, "The Great San Francisco Earthquake", was rebroadcast the week after San Francisco was rocked by another major earthquake in 1989. Reruns of past episodes with relevance to current or recent events have been common ever since, and during the short period when "Time Has Come Today" was used as the series theme song, each episode would begin with a short vignette illustrating the correlation of the episode to a current or recent event.
- It's also common for new episodes to air or for past installments of the series to be rerun to coincide with the anniversary of an important historical event - for example, 2011 saw the premieres of new episodes dealing with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the 1961 Freedom Rides, and the 1998 documentary about the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-20 was rerun in early 2018.
- Presidential biographies tend to get this treatment during election years, with the first known such event being a rebroadcast of "Nixon" during the fifth season.
- In addition, some PBS documentary mini-series produced before 1988, such as Vietnam: A Television History (1983) and Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1987), have been rerun and also released on DVD under the American Experience banner.