Nat Geo, Nutopia revisit “The ’90s”

Speaking to Realscreen, National Geographic Channel programming EVP Heather Moran and Nutopia founder Jane Root discuss the making of their latest mini, premiering this weekend.
July 3, 2014

The ’90s may have come and gone in a haze of political scandals, dial-up Internet and Prozac, but the decade’s who’s -who has plenty left to say. In National Geographic Channel’s three-part series The ’90s: The Last Great Decade? – a follow-up to last year’s The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us – 120 news-makers of the period get their chance to sound off.

The ’90s – which will premiere on July 6 and air on three consecutive nights – unpacks the relatively peaceful decade wedged between the end of the Cold War and our volatile post-9/11 reality, and features explosive interviews such as one with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, who grants her first televised interview in 10 years and admits she was a “virgin to humiliation” until details of her relationship with Bill Clinton were made public.

It was an interview that took the UK indie Nutopia – the production company overseeing The ’90s and its predecessor – an extensive period to secure, and with good reason.

heather moranSpeaking with realscreen, Heather Moran (pictured, right), executive vice president of programming and strategy at National Geographic Channel, says the prodco spent several months “developing a relationship with [Lewinsky], talking to her about the progress of the special, and the direction of the show before she committed.”

The time invested in getting the interview, however, is what differentiates The ’90s from previous retrospective, pop culture-focused series on the decade, such as VH1′s 2004 series I Love the ’90s.

“Even though we have a lot of celebrity interviews, we also have people who are involved in some of the most interesting and captivating stories of the decade,” says Moran. “What makes our version of the ’90s different is that we have access to the people who truly crafted the decade from a fiscal and economic standpoint, and even an environmental standpoint.”

Indeed, the series unites everyone from comedian Roseanne Barr and Beverly Hills 90210 actor Shannen Doherty to former UK prime minister Tony Blair and former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. At one point, even Rob Lowe – who narrated The ’80s and returns for this series – is interviewed about his experiences on the political drama The West Wing.

Jane Root (pictured, below), founder and chief executive of Nutopia, says producing a series around the ’90s was different because not as much had been written about the decade.

“In the ’90s, the elemental threat was that the Cold War was no longer there and 9/11 was still to come,” says Root in an interview with realscreen. “It’s been called a holiday from history, and there is a certain innocence about the decade. Even the big stories of the time, like O.J. Simpson and Clinton and Lewinsky, in retrospect, hardly look like news now.”

jane rootBut that’s not to say curating the series was straight-forward. Root says the show took 10 months to produce, and her team waded through over 30,000 archive clips.

When it came to selecting which events to highlight, the exec says Nutopia wanted to focus on major events through “the prism of both pop culture and tech.”

“Some stories, like the Gulf War and [Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf’s quote – ‘This is not a Nintendo game’ – were a given from the start. Others came about as we looked into the decade. For instance, we knew we wanted to cover the Macarena in some way, but it was fascinating to find out that the original song couldn’t get played on certain radio stations because it was sung entirely in Spanish.”

When asked if a series on the 2000s might be in the works, Root says “maybe,” adding that the indie is keeping busy with upcoming forensic archaeology series The Jesus Code for CNN and six-part series How We Got to Now for PBS and the BBC, which explores the legacy of ground-breaking ideas.

It’s a safe bet to assume, however, that she won’t need to corral 120 interviewees together anytime soon, although she says this feat turned out to be easier than she thought.

“Our biggest names, like Tony Blair and Colin Powell, were hooked by the scale of the series,” says Root. “Where else could Powell talk about the Gulf War and remind us how he danced the Macarena, or Blair expound on the fall of communism and talk about his relationship with Diana, the ‘people’s princess’?”

Bizarrely, she admits one of the hardest guests to pin down was Kato Kaelin, who acted as a witness during the O.J. Simpson trial.

But as for who was the most fun to work with?

“Vanilla Ice,” says Root. “He even introduced our producer to his pet wallaby.”

The ’90s: The Last Great Decade? premieres on July 6 at 9 p.m. The series will begin rolling out internationally in August in 170 countries and 45 languages under the title The 90s: The Decade That Connected Us.

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