National Geographic Channel Takes An In-Depth Look At The Era That Brought Us Televised Warfare, The World Wide Web, Vanilla Ice And Springer.
If the 1980s were America’s technicolor candy land, filled with shoulder pads and parachute pants, MTV and the Brat Pack, the 90s was the decade that grew us up a little and connected us a lot, in ways that both thrilled and horrified us. With television cameras in places they’d never gone before — courtrooms, war zones, emerging crime scenes — the line between news and entertainment blurred and then nearly disappeared, while, in the White House, a president who won over the nation with his Everyman swagger and economic savvy battled his own lusty appetites and deadly missteps on home and foreign soil to keep our goodwill.
Now National Geographic Channel turns its attention to the decade that put us online and on Prozac, and introduced us to Friends and emerging new enemies, with its three-night event The ’90s: The Last Great Decade?
Breaking the era into segments that spotlight celebrity and innovation, mounting domestic and international unrest, and political triumphs and miscues, the miniseries is narrated by Rob Lowe and features 120 original interviews including newsmakers Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich; pop culture punchlines Vanilla Ice, Tonya Harding and Monica Lewinsky; and everyday folks at the center of some of America’s most pivotal crises. Here are some highlights of this intriguing — and sometimes sobering — walk down our collective memory lane.
After a decade of Dallas, Dynasty and other living-large nighttime soaps, Americans are ready to spend their TV time with folks who look a little more like us. All of us. While Roseanne helps us embrace our expanding waistlines and secondhand sofas, Seinfeld makes “yada yada yada” a thing on the way to becoming the decade’s biggest hit.
Elsewhere in TV land …
- 1990 — The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air gives Americans a comically palatable lesson in racial stereotypes and makes a star of Will Smith in the process.
- 1991 — Disgraced Cincinnati councilman Jerry Springer parlays a successful stint as an NBC news anchor into his own eponymous talk show. When legit news stories fail to draw an audience, a new Springer crew taps into the notion that we’re all a bunch of animals at our core. By 1998, Springer is besting Oprah in the ratings and inspiring a host of copycats.
- 1992 — Ushering in the era of reality TV, MTV’s social experiment The Real World debuts, enthralling audiences with its raw examination of racism, economic status, sexuality, homophobia, substance abuse and AIDS. Unfortunately, the show and the genre soon fall prey to more voyeuristic pursuits.
- 1993 — “The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Cold War was over and … we didn’t really know what to be afraid of,” says X-Files creator Chris Carter of catering to American’s fascination with alien abductions. A few years later, allegations such as those in the TV documentary Alien Autopsy prompt the feds to respond to charges of alien experiments in Roswell, N.M. — and the film’s creator to admit he fudged its best stuff.
- 1994 — In the sixth highest rated TV broadcast in U.S. history, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan overcomes a vicious attack masterminded by teammate Tonya Harding’s ex-husband to take the silver medal at the Lillehammer Olympics. Harding finishes eighth and is banned from the sport. Later that year, TV audiences meet their new best Friends and hanker for a Central Perk of their own. By the late ’90s, Starbucks opens five new stores a week.
- 1997 — In April, Ellen DeGeneres and her sitcom character both announce they’re gay. Forty-two million people watch the momentous Ellen episode. In September, nearly half the world tunes in to say a final goodbye to Princess Di.
- 1999 — Aaron Sorkin debuts a tale about life inside the White House from the staffers’ point of view. The West Wing wins nine Emmys in its first season. The real president pitches story ideas.
In The News
- 1990 — Operation Desert Storm marks the first time that Americans get a firsthand look at warfare — and our tax dollars at work — via the smart-bomb technology used against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Much to military leaders’ collective dismay, we think it looks just like a life-size video game.
- 1992 — A bystander captures video of four Los Angeles police officers viciously beating construction worker Rodney King following a high-speed chase. When the cops are acquitted of using excessive force, South Central Los Angeles erupts in violence, resulting in 53 deaths, $1 billion in damages and the equally iconic news footage of Reginald Denny’s near fatal assault.
- 1993 — In February, a truck bomb explodes beneath the World Trade Center’s north tower, killing six and injuring more than a thousand — and America first hears of al-Qaida. Two months later, 75 followers of wannabe messiah David Koresh — 25 of them children — are killed in a fiery showdown with ATF agents at the Branch Davidians’ well-armed Waco, Texas, compound. The botched raid gives rise to antigovernment rhetoric and fringe militia movements.
- 1995 — On the second anniversary of the Waco inferno, 26-year-old Army veteran Timothy McVeigh drives a bomb-laden rental truck to Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, home of the local ATF headquarters, killing 168 people and injuring 600. McVeigh is executed for the crime in 2001.
- 1999 — Troubled Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gun down 12 students and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.
In The (Televised) Courtroom
- 1991 — Twenty million households tune in to C-SPAN to watch U. S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas defend himself against former employee Anita Hill’s sexual harassment charges. Many of us never look at a can of Coke in the same way again.
- 1992 — In Milwaukee, Jeffrey Dahmer goes on trial for torturing and killing 15 men and boys. Court TV covers the lurid proceedings, giving Americans the chance to tune in to hear about this real-life Hannibal Lecter.
- 1995 — O.J. Simpson stands trial for the slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Nineteen channels cover the eight-month spectacle, and 91 percent of Americans watching TV tune in to the verdict, costing the economy $480 million during the most unproductive half-hour in U.S. history. Whether we agree with the verdict or not, we know what happens if the glove doesn’t fit: Attorneys get rich on book deals.
- 1998 — With his job on the line and White House intern Monica Lewinsky’s defiled dress in the news, President Bill Clinton becomes the first sitting U.S. president to testify as the subject of a grand jury investigation. C-SPAN captures the salacious details.
In The Medicine Chest
With our televisions — and psyches — increasingly bombarded with unsettling images, Americans are tense. By 1993, there are 6 million people in a growing Prozac nation. Vicodin usage skyrockets, too — and the mood enhancers aren’t the only way American men experience a lift. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer discovers that its disappointing new heart disease drug Viagra is a big winner in the bedroom. FDA-approved in 1998, the little blue pill gives rise to a host of grateful men — and embarrassing erectile dysfunction ads — and earns Pfizer $552 million in sales in its first six months.
In The Dot-Com Bubble
The era ushers in a real-life revenge of the nerds when the Internet becomes accessible to all, making millionaires of 21,000 Microsoft employees and icons of the company’s chief, Bill Gates, and his main competition, Apple’s Steve Jobs.
- 1991 — America Online makes its debut
- 1994 — A 1MB Internet connection will set you back $4,500 a month
- 1995 — Ousted at Apple in the mid ’80s, Jobs turns his attention to an animation startup called Pixar. Its first feature film release, Toy Story, is a smash and Jobs’ initial $10 million investment is now worth $1.2 billion.
- 1996 — Jobs returns to the debt-mired Apple with a surprising new investor — Bill Gates.
- 1997 — The increasing accessibility of the Internet gives rise to day-trading, the home investor … and the appearance of wealth that wasn’t always there. A bubble burst looms.
- 1998 — The affordable little candy-colored iMac sells 800,000 units in just 139 days. The rebirth of Apple is considered one of the greatest turnarounds in business history.
- 1999 — With a new millennium looming and the world in a collective panic over a massive computer network shutdown, doomsday prophets have a heyday. Code writers go into overdrive to fix the “Y2K problem” at a cost of nearly $100 billion. And when the clock strikes midnight on Millennium Eve … no drama.
The 90s: The Last Great Decade? “Great Expectations” premieres July 6 on NGC, followed by “Friends & Enemies” and July 7 and “Politically Incorrect” on July 8.
Images/video: National Geographic Channel