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History Lesson: 'America The Story of Us' Spans 400 Years in 12 Hours

By Bob Fisher

America The Story of Us premiered April 25 on History to a record-breaking audience of 5.7 million-the highest rated program ever for the channel, according to an item in This was the first of six two-hour segments that will air on successive Sundays through May 30.

"American history is a journey we all share and participate in," says Nancy Dubuc, president and general manager of History. "This documentary is a story about people with innovative ideas who helped to build the country from the ground up with ingenuity and determination."

The documentary series was produced by Nutopia. Executive producer Jane Root, founder and CEO of Nutopia, brought an eclectic background to this incredibly ambitious project. She was president of Discovery Channel from 2004 until 2007, and prior to that was controller at BBC2 for five years.

"The seed for this project was planted about 18 months ago when Michael Jackson [senior advisor at IAC New York] and David McKillop had a conversation about American history during an informal dinner meeting," Root says. "Michael is one of our board members and David is a producer for the History channel. We began production around a year ago.

 "It was enormous task summarizing 400 years of history into 12 one-hour segments," Root continues. "You think you know history before you begin a project like this, and then you discover that you don't know as much as you thought you did."

The creative team includes show runner Ben Goold, and Dubuc, McKillop and Julian Hobbs, executive producers for History. The historical consultants on the project are two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of books about American history, Professors Daniel Walker Howe and David M. Kennedy, as well as novelist/historian Kevin Baker.

"The scale was ambitious on lots of different fronts," Root explains. "Hundreds of people were involved. It's about the history of America, but we wanted it to be relevant for today's audiences. America has been through an enormous amount of change during  the past 18 months. This is a time when many people are interested in history."


From Episode 2: Revolution, from the America The Story of Us series, produced for History by Nutopia. (c) AETN. Photo: Charlie Sperring


The content includes dramatic re-enactments, some 360 computer-generated images, archival film, an narration by Liev Schreiber and what Root describes as a chorus of  58 voices of Americans from all walks of life sharing their memories and insights. The short list includes former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, conservative pundit Ann Coulter, Reverend Al Sharpton, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"There were no scripts," Root says. "Some on them spoke for hours. Colin Powell came in, sat down, and the first thing he said was that the great thing about America is the diversity of its people. The co-founder of Wikipedia [Jimmy Wales] spoke about how Silicon Valley was a little like the Gold Rush and oil prospecting."

The 12 episodes cover 400 years of American history, from the arrival of the first English explorers to Jamestown in 1607 to the 2008 election of Barack Obama-who introduced the first episode. In between, episodes cover the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the westward expansion, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, the economic booms and busts, the two World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the digital revolution.


From Episode 3: Westward, from the America The Story of Us series on History, produced for History by Nutopia. (c) AETN



In conjunction with America The Story of Us, History has developed its most ambitious educational outreach program to date. The channel is offering free DVDs of the series to public and chartered elementary and high schools and certified colleges in the United States. The deadline for requests is July 1. For an application, click here. History partnered with the Library of Congress Educational Resources to develop materials in conjunction with the DVD distribution. In addition, History is collaborating with the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities to launch the Student Video Challenge, for middle school, high school and college students. Applicants will be asked to create a multimedia or video presentation, connecting their own stories to the larger story of American history. The winner will receive a $25,000 scholarship. History has also developed a Teacher Contest for Innovation in History Education, which also has a $25,000 prize in the form of grants and resources. For more on the America The Story of Us Educational Initiative, click here.



Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and preservation.