To a casual observer, Jane Root’s 30-year television career seems a classic tale of success. She rose from being a freelance to founding a successful independent producer, then sold out to move to the BBC, encouraged by her longstanding mentor and friend Michael Jackson.
She then joined an exclusive group of British broadcasters – including former BBC colleagues Jackson and Jana Bennett – by moving to America for a spell, where she ran the Discovery Channel.
But after that she took a different route from her peers. Instead of returning to a UK TV executive job, she left the corporate broadcasting life in early 2008 – and despite a tilt at the Channel 4 job last time round – she has since tested her creative and business vision by returning to independent production. The plan was to make and sell costly mega-documentaries – which would act as standout marketing events – to US cable channels. The problem was that by 2009, recession had arrived. Surely TV channels wanted bargain basement shows, rather than to blow 10% of their budget on one big gamble?
Root says she just wanted to apply an amalgam of lessons from her career. As BBC2 controller she’d found “if you had three big things a year you were talked about” – she cites Restoration, Great Britons and The Big Read, all relying on audience participation.
At Discovery, she says, “we wanted programmes that worked around the world”. She also was astounded at the way the BBC’s epic Planet Earth, which Discovery screened under her watch, was embraced by American viewers of all ages. When she discussed it with Jackson over dinner in New York, the gap in the US TV market for mega-docs just seemed obvious – to them.
So after leaving Discovery, Root wanted a UK production company staffed by British producers, to make these shows for Americans. “I think Britain is the world leader in premium, high-end, factual programmes,” she says. “It’s to do with the culture here. The Americans are very good at drama series and movies.”
But she recognised that she needed a business partner in the UK to free her, as chief executive, to dream up projects in America for her new company, Nutopia. A producer friend introduced her to Laura Franses, who worked in the sector, and had done an MBA at Harvard Business School. They now seem joined at the hip.
“It sounded such a crazy, crazy idea, I thought it was slightly lunatic,” confides Franses, who helped write Nutopia’s business plan, and is now its managing director. “But Jane has a visionary instinct about what the market wants.”
This was shown in late 2009, when Root called Franses to confirm she had landed a huge deal with Nancy Dubuc, the president of the History Channel, to make America: The History of US, a 12-part series costing three times the average budget an hour.
Screened in 2010, the series did what Root promised. The History Channel gained sponsorship from Bank of America, which booked every advertising slot as well. Forty million people watched it, and the icing on the cake came when Barack Obama agreed to contribute an introduction.
The History Channel then followed this up with an even bigger order for Mankind: The Story of All of Us, which will run for 12 hours later this year. The archaeologist and historian Ian Morris who penned Why the West Rules – for Now is series consultant. It is designed to show what made humans the dominant species, to have global appeal, and features the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Easter Island statues, technology breakthroughs, and even a super-volcano. It is said to be costing around $36m. Production started a year ago.
This first mega-deal with the History Channel was enough to set up the company, and recruit some of the leading British factual producers Root had previously worked with – and start developing “taster tapes”, visual treatments of proposed new series she stores on her iPad. She has no investment bank breathing down her neck, as no startup capital was required.
In two years, with a core team of 15 staff, Nutopia’s turnover has doubled from £10m annually to £20m. Root owns a controlling stake, in excess of 50%, in the UK-registered private company, with shareholdings distributed around several key executives, including Ben Goold, showrunner of The History of US, the current affairs expert Phil Craig, and her non-executive directors, Jackson and Peter Bazalgette.
She and her team have created a distinctive style for their mega-docs, which is not to everyone’s taste. They mix computer-generated imagery – to recreate events such as the building of the Hoover Dam or New York – and dramatic reconstructions for, say, the discovery of oil in Texas. The programmes are paced for audiences who also watch superhero films – “we make our shows visceral, exciting”, says Root.
Root wants series with “emotional warmth”, and defends The History of US’s use of celebrities, including Donald Trump, Michael Douglas, Meryl Streep and Colin Powell, commenting on American achievements, on the grounds that “you have to work for your audience. Not make a big British production for Americans. They are very patriotic.”
Sky Atlantic, staffed by former BBC executives Root worked with, was last month the first broadcaster outside America to announce an order for a version of The History of US, titled Great Britain: Our Story, sweeping across the centuries from Stonehenge to the second world war. Versions are being considered for three other territories.
Discovery has ordered How We Invented the World, about great engineering and science breakthroughs, designed for global broadcast later this year, with 16 versions and sets of local presenters. But, as Franses notes: “Making mega-docs is stressful. It is good to have some other things.” So Nutopia made a documentary about people from the West Country (as it happened) who cover their houses with Christmas lights, broadcast by Channel 4 last month. It also has programmes about rogue sharks, and topical current affairs.
“On TV there’s a place for lots and lots of programmes,” says Root, “not only big and expensive. We’re keen for things that become part of a network.” She has had one semi-disappointment: The House That Made Me, in which celebrities go back to their reconstructed childhood home, has so far not been reordered by Channel 4.
But Root has already moved on. Nutopia is embarking on a big historical drama/doc project. She points to a 2004 BBC2 series, Dunkirk, which recreated the 1940 evacuation, as a template.
In explaining her decision to order a second mega-doc, the History Channel’s Dubac said: “Mankind is a brutal fight for survival.” That could also describe the struggle most British independent producers face. Nutopia seems to have found a way through, creating a company that may work in television but almost has something approaching the ambition of film.
However, when you are responsible for programmes with budgets of $36m, it is imperative that the hits keep coming too.
• This article was amended on 10 January 2012. Barack Obama’s name was deleted from this subheading: “The former controller of BBC2 is now producing multimillion-dollar mega-docs with Barack Obama”. That wording gave an impression of collaboration significantly beyond how the article portrayed Obama’s role on a series for the History Channel – entitled America: The History of US – where he contributed an introduction only. The name of the History Channel’s head has also been corrected to Nancy Dubuc, instead of Dubac.
By Maggie Brown