The former controller of BBC2 is now producing multimillion-dollar mega-docs – and the occasional feature on Christmas lights

Jane Root

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


See the full piece on The Guardian website!

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LONDON — Nutopia, the shingle formed by former Discovery and BBC topper Jane Root, hopes to cement its reputation for ambitious docus aimed at the international market with its new commission for History, whose working title is “Mankind: The Story of All of Us.”
Greenlit by the U.S. web, the 12-hour show will debut later this year, with different versions made for individual local markets, a first for History.

The channel, which has reinvented itself by screening more reality shows and fewer traditional history programs, claims worldwide distribution of more than 300 million homes.

The new project kicks off with the Big Bang and traces the development of humans on a planet where most species end up extinct, said Root.

She described the show as a “real action-adventure,” encompassing astronomy and geology as well as the history of mankind.

Planned as a 12-hour, six night TV event, the docu is produced by the same team as “America: The Story of Us,” led by executive producers Root and Ben Goold.

Screening is planned for later this year.

Filming is up and running in such locations as China, South Africa, Morocco and the U.K.

Root said: “There is a huge appetite throughout the world for documentaries such as this that tackle the biggest subjects on our planet in an entirely new epic style that combines extraordinary drama, CGI and interviews.”

Nancy Dubuc, prexy and general manager, History, added: “‘Mankind: The Story of All of Us’ has the same spirit of bold storytelling that made ‘America the Story of Us’ such a phenomenal success. But this time we’re going even bigger.”

Nutopia is currently prepping upcoming Discovery skein “How We Invented the World,” a five-part show examining technological breakthroughs such as the automobile and the cell phone, and also localized for individual markets.

By Steve Clarke

Contact the Variety newsroom at

The full article by Steve Clarke can be found here!

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By DAVID BAUDER, AP Television Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — After its successful series on the history of America in 2010, television’s History channel is setting its sights even higher.

The network said Tuesday that a 12-hour miniseries, “Mankind the Story of All of Us,” will debut late this year. History, seen in more than 300 million homes worldwide, will offer different versions of the series in different parts of the world, the first time it has ever done that.

“America the Story of Us” hadn’t even concluded when History executives, impressed by its ratings, began talking about what to do next, said Nancy Dubuc, the network’s president and general manager.

“Rather than take a slice of the America story and do something more in depth on that, we decided to go bigger and broader,” she said.

The “America” miniseries was the most-watched special ever on History, with 5.7 million people watching the first episode and nearly 40 million people in total watching some part of it, the Nielsen ratings company said.

The new series starts with the Big Bang and traces the development of humans on a planet where the vast majority of species go extinct, said Jane Root, the project’s executive producer.

Root described it as a “real action-adventure” project, one that encompasses astronomy, geology and other sciences along with history. It will make liberal use of computer-generated recreations in its storytelling, she said.

The series traces the development of tools and the construction of the pyramids. Root said the production tries to make viewers aware of what it felt like, for instance, to set sail for distant lands on a ship when the common belief was the world was flat.

Root said she was surprised to discover the amount of connections among cultures in ancient times, like when Vikings visited China and fought with people in what is now Canada, each before the time of Christopher Columbus.

“We all grow up in a place where we learn just our history,” she said. “You grow up in America, you learn American history. You grow up in France, you learn French history. To try to bring it all together and yet still make it a real exciting story of how humans made it is a real challenge.”

History will offer companion material to schools interested in the project, although Root said it was “very important to us that this wasn’t an educational mission. This is something you’re going to watch like the best of a Hollywood superhero movie.”

About a third of History’s audience is in the United States. Worldwide, History is available in 150 countries, with India the biggest market, and in some 35 languages. Dubuc said the project would be localized in several markets with the inclusion of interviews with local historians.

Airdates have not been set for the series, which will stretch over six days, but it will be within the last three months of 2012, the network said.

The History channel is owned by A&E Television Networks.

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The AP article can be read online by clicking here

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The cable network, overseen by president Eileen O’Neill, has given the green light to a project exploring the most iconic inventions and breakthroughs of the modern age — from the cell phone to the airline black box.

Click here for The Hollywood Reporter article!

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Nutopia has reached 20th position in the Production 100 rankings, Televisuals annual survey of the UK’s independent sector!
Please click here for the story by Michael Deacon

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The Telegraph previews Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill (Channel 4), a poignant documentary charting the operation that led to the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Please click here for the story by Michael Deacon

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The U.S. effort to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden will be featured in a two-hour television program, including interviews with President Barack Obama and senior counter-terrorism officials…

Reporting by Jill Serjeant

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Read this great review of ‘Targeting Bin Laden’ by the New York Post. Premiering TONIGHT on History US at 8pm!

Click here for the article by Linda Stasi

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US President Barack Obama considered halting the daring special forces mission following an intelligence review that concluded there was less than a 50% chance that the al Qaeda leader was in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, identified by the CIA.

Click here to read!!

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A new documentary about the plan to hunt down Osama Bin Laden, which includes an interview with US President Barack Obama, has been picked up by broadcasters around the world.

For more info follow this link:

Nutopia’s Bin Laden film goes global by Michael Rosser, 31 August 2011

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