The 90’s was an American independent documentary series created by Tom Weinberg and Joel Cohen that ran for four years on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). It premiered on June 25, 1989. The show generated an audience of 25 million and PBS aired it on 160 stations at its national, prime-time peak. Throughout its run, it received praise from outlets across the nation and Billboard described it as “All the things Television was born to do but never does.” The show included politics, talk segments, and interviews. Each hour-long episode featured the work of dozens of different independent video producers who mailed tapes for submission, as well as the work of about a dozen “camcorder correspondents” working under contract for the show. It came to an end in 1992.
The 90’s can be seen as a continuation of the 1978 series Image Union, also produced by Tom Weinberg and aired on WTTW. With new technology opening up video for the masses, Weinberg and the broadcasting channel felt it was necessary to broadcast independent producers and their unfiltered views, or “real perspectives on real life.” Similar to Image Union, The 90’s was made up of these compiled clips and submissions, and had no host or narrators, only transitioning between clips with title cards or the occasional voice over by Weinberg. The largest difference between the shows was that Image Union was local, while The 90’s had a more national focus and broadcast. In addition, it had video correspondents (6 or 7) in charge of creating and soliciting video content.
Although the earlier episodes were videos from people Weinberg and Cohen knew, as the series aired, they received more national and global submissions. To foster this environment, Weinberg and Cohen emphasized for their producers to not get in the way of the content, in order to truly let audiences make their own judgements. For contributors, the incentive besides exposure was a payment of $125 per minute aired.
Doubtful of its potential for success, Chicago Reader wrote in 1992, “it’s hard to imagine—a commercial network being built around [this] program.” One reason given was the show’s topics, such as an episode about marijuana and its legalization.The Chicago Sun-Times wrote that another episode stood out for its “obvious anti-war slant” and “disturbing… collage of comments and images” in addition to its Memorial Day airdate across 257 PBS stations.
The series was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS Program Fund, Rockefeller Foundation and Instructional Telecommunications Fund (which later became “Free Speech TV” and Voqal TV). The show ended after 51 episodes, in 1992, when PBS chose not to renew funding.