Big and brash – and British
Jane Root tells Maggie Brown how a new UK indie got to make a history of the US – in the US – and persuaded the president to endorse it
In her lengthy, high-profile career spanning the UK and US, Jane Root has always demonstrated an enviable talent for reinvention. So it is bang in character that her latest project is making waves. After three years at Discovery Networks (2004-07), and running BBC2 successfully before that, she founded Nutopia, an aspirationally named production company, with offices in Washington DC and London.
The result – and Nutopia’s first commission – is America: The Story of Us, for the History Channel cable network. The primetime series, which was screened for six weeks from late April, won endorsement from Barack Obama, but some critical disdain.
The 12-hour saga also launched with record ratings for the History Channel on 25 April – 5.7 million viewers – although subsequent audiences dropped. Stylistically, it is geared towards young adults.
When pitching the series, which cost around $15m to make, Root says that she drew directly on her experience of running BBC2 between 1998 and 2004.
In Britain, she added, we take it for granted that big factual series come along as automatic parts of the schedules – Blue Planet, Planet Earth et al. But in the US: “Here, they don’t happen.”
Root was at Discovery when it screened Planet Earth, a co-production from the BBC Natural History Unit, and saw the big impact it made and realised that ambitious (US-made) factual series were “one of the last bits of British broadcasting that had not made it to America”.
Her second guiding principle was formed earlier, when working in the 1980s and 1990s as a successful founder of independent producer Wall to Wall, before she switched to the BBC. “When you are an independent you think that little things will be easy to sell. But there is no shortage of delightful miniatures,” she says, and adds: “I always remember Peter Bazalgette pitching Restoration to me at BBC2 [event television in which viewers voted for which crumbling heritage building should get Lottery Funds]. Remember, it is easier to borrow $100m from the bank than $100.”
The danger, of course, is that if a big, primetime series doesn’t work, you are exposed. Root has had her flops: a Discovery version of BBC2’s Great Britons didn’t export well.
The History of Us took 18 months to produce, a dream commission because, unusually, it was fully funded by the privately owned History Channel, which then raced to get it on air.
The icing on the cake was Barack Obama. He was asked early on – as a long shot – to get involved. Then, suddenly, the president became interested in contributing a foreword – an endorsement of the series’s optimistic tone, how Americans are a resourceful people with a talent for reinvention.
This White House input is linked to the extra educational aspect of the series: boxed DVD sets are being sent to every US school – American-style public service broadcasting.
This deal has effectively provided the cash flow to provide Nutopia with a successful start. “In a way, this was the basis of the company,” confirms Root.
So the company has not needed large external backers, though a share stake might be sold at some stage. “I have always believed that if you make programmes exciting and dynamic, people will come,” says Root.
She resolutely doesn’t accept the dumbing-down case of those who think that today’s TV is all about entertainment. “People are interested in knowledge, and the internet has made so much more knowledge available. It was astonishing to me that there had been no big history of the US made since Alistair Cooke’s series [America: A Personal History of the United States in 1972-73].
But part of her pitch to the History Channel was about finding a way to make the series: emphatically “not your dad’s history programme”. That is certainly the case. Teenagers, I can confirm, will sit and watch it.
Show runner Ben Goold and team worked to establish an entertaining style that anyone fixated on playing video games and watching blockbusters would appreciate. The Kansas City Star critic said of the series: “It bounces off the four walls.”
However, Tom Shales of the Washington Post wrote that the programme “has flash but not creativity… Some reasonable amount of conceptual sophistication, and a good deal of huffery, puffery and gimmickry.”
To British ears it does seem over the top. A favourite line of the commentary, from narrator Liev Schreiber, is that this or that event would “transform the world forever… everything changed forever”.
But in making it, Root said she and her team were “really close partners with the History Channel. To do something on this scale, you have to be genuinely collaborative, you take on board what they need for their audience. They didn’t get to see the rushes, it was much more informal than that, but we were on the phone all the time, working together.”
Root says they had a big discussion about where to start the history. Eventually they decided on James Rolfe, who arrived in Jamestown in 1610 with tobacco seeds, to found the colony’s new agriculture. It does not gloss over the sordid treatment of Native Americans. Or slavery. There is plenty of British involvement and two British graphics companies, Jellyfish and Lola, had a big hand in the CGI.
Root remains in the US; her husband is studying at Georgetown University, Washington, and their daughter Molly, five, is settled at school. Perhaps only an outsider would have dared to think that Americans needed an accessible history of their country right now?
Root said: “I didn’t grow up with these stories at school. I come to them fresh. I didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln grew up in a log cabin, although every American child does. The History Channel must have thought ‘Oh my God’ about my ignorance. But it’s like 1066: in Britain you just know about the battle.”
The result is a series, undiluted by co-production considerations. It would probably be impossible for the BBC to screen it because The Story of Us is too American in its relentlessly celebratory approach and lack of a European sensibility. The History Channel will be showing an edited version in the UK.
As for the business side of Nutopia, non-executive directors include Peter Bazalgette, former creative director of Endemol Group, and Michael Jackson, the former BBC executive and CEO of Channel 4. Both men are investors.
“It’s an extraordinary achievement for a first commission,” says Bazalgette. “Jane has always thought big.”
Root herself is keen to stress the importance of her team, led by business partner and managing director Laura Franses, a British television executive who has worked for RDF, Raw, and Film4, and is a graduate of Harvard Business School. She is based in London and handles the business side.
Other key recruits include Phil Craig, the former Lapping Productions documentary maker, who produced the BBC’s Finest Hour, and David Dehaney, formerly of independent Love Productions, whose Baby Borrowers was taken up by NBC. Nutopia employs eight full-time staff, with at present around 50 on contract.
In the works are a new entertainment format show for Channel 4, a 90-minute 9/11 documentary and development projects for BBC1 and 2, PBS and Discovery US.
Root learns as she goes. Her aim now is to roll all her knowledge of television together and work around the globe.
Copyright: Television, magazine of the Royal Television Society, June 2010
Outstanding Cinematography For Non-fiction Programming -
Dirk Nel, Director of Photography
Outstanding Picture Editing For Nonfiction Programming -
Matt Lowe, Editor
Outstanding Sound Editing For Nonfiction Programming -
Phitz Hearne, Sound Supervisor
Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming -
Jenny Ash, Writer & Ed Fields, Contributing Writer
Find the full list at http://www.emmys.com/nominations