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Urgent Programming, Impacting an Audience

In addition to on-air programming promotion, your department is very active with off-air outreach.

We’ve always made sure our documentaries include heavy educational outreach. We’ve even given our films to schools and libraries.

Why is that important?

One of the things I’ve always liked about doing documentaries on MTV is that the audience is really involved with the films. They’re watching, they’re attentive, and they interact. A lot of documentary filmmakers are motivated by outreach: They want to get their message out, they want to affect people. MTV has been a really direct way to do that.

Can you give me an example of how MTV’s documentaries affect the lives of your viewers?

About ten years ago, I directed a program on child sexual abuse called Fight Back—young people fighting back against child sex abuse. And we had an 800 number at the end of the piece where viewers could call for further information.

Every time that documentary ran they would get hundreds of phone calls from kids, hundreds and hundreds of phone calls. Eventually, we were then able to make the piece available for free from Blockbuster stores. And we heard from a lot of young people who took their abusers to court.

That’s incredible.

Isn’t it? I mean, there are people who took their abuser to court. And when they were asked, “What made you do this?” they said, “Well, I saw this documentary on MTV, and I learned how to do it.” So our programming is a direct line to our target audience.

Does that happen often when you tackle social issues?

Yes. I executive-produced a documentary a couple years ago, True Life: I’m Bipolar, directed by Lucia Engstrom, on young people diagnosed as bipolar. And I can’t begin to tell you how many requests we’ve gotten for that show from people who are friends of people who are bipolar, from parents who are asking, “What does this mean?” The bipolar diagnosis often surfaces when the victims are teenagers, and they don’t know how to handle it. Our documentary shows them: Here’s how other people are handling it.

What about the series you executive-produce, True Life? I know many episodes have dealt with difficult topics from a very personal, first-person point of view.

One episode that had a big effect on viewers was True Life: I’m Coming Out, which was also directed by Lucia Engstrom. It followed several young people coming out of the closet to their parents. We’re very careful to show all sides of it. A lot of young people come out to their parents and the parents can’t accept it. It’s a very troubling, difficult thing. So we don’t whitewash it. We try to show what really happens. I know that’s had a huge effect on our viewers. Still, now, there will be gay kids working here at MTV who’ll say, “I saw that show, and that’s what made me decide to come out. Because I saw someone else do it.”

  • “You never know where some of these films are going to end up.”

That must be rewarding.

Yes, that’s been a really gratifying part of doing documentaries here: The audience owns the channel. They’re really part of it.

I understand that your department is different from MTV News, but do you respond to what is going on right now that’s affecting teenagers? Is that part of your programming charter?

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about being here is, it’s really about capturing the zeitgeist. My background was in sociology, and I still feel like a sociologist. I feel like you have to capture what’s going on today.

How do you do that?

Well, we have a great research department. But a lot of it is just what filmmakers should do: Keep their eyes open to the world around them. Keep their eyes open for good stories. After a while, it’s intuitive. You start to trust your gut feeling.

Can you give me an example of how you were tuned in to a big youth problem before the mainstream media recognized it as an issue?

I’ll give you a really good example. A number of years ago we did a piece with director Betsy Forhan on shootings in high schools. This was pre-Columbine. And we worked in conjunction with the American Psychological Association. It was a great program about encouraging young people to keep their eyes open when they saw signs of depression or violence. It discussed what peer threats to believe. So, when a classmate tells you they’re going to kill themselves, you should know that they might. Listen to that. Don’t just toss it off!

We titled it Warning Signs, so that people could see: Here are actual signs to look out for. When your friends are giving these signs, they might do something serious. It included stories where somebody told somebody that they thought something was going to happen, and hundreds of lives were saved. It was a really strong program about gun violence in schools, and about school shootings.

Well, we finished the piece, and we were waiting to air it, and then Columbine happened. So we rushed it to air, and we had dialogue around it, and it got a tremendous response. People asked us, “How did you know?” And we said, “Well, that’s what our job is. Our job is to know what the vibe is, and what’s important. What’s urgent. What’s urgent programming.” And it was interesting, a lot of those kids who were in Columbine, they were being interviewed on the news programs, and they would say, “Oh, there was a documentary on MTV.” And that captured it for us. That felt like that was the right vibe.

Was it used in the school system?

Well, actually, I wasn’t so happy because since there were warning signs from the American Psychological Association about how to help someone before they hurt other people, a year or so later, some schools were using that program as a way to sort out the bad kids. I wanted to say, “No, that’s the absolute opposite of what the message of the documentary was.” So, you can’t really control how a piece is going to be used. But for the most part we were really happy with it.

MTV has a diverse audience. Have any of your programs addressed race relations?

We made a documentary a number of years ago called Driving While Black. It was an episode of True Life, directed by Norman Green, so it was from the point of view of being black, and being pulled over for no reason other than the color of your skin. It was a really powerful piece. It had some important information in it as well, about what to do if you are pulled over, and how to react and how not to react. That program won an NAACP award, and I know it is being used by police around the country in sensitivity training programs. So, you never know where some of these films are going to end up.

Film and Television Collide

Your programs have high-quality production values, and address serious social issues. However, MTV is not typically thought of as an outlet for bona fide documentaries. Would you agree?

The frustrating thing is, for years when people would write reviews about our documentaries, they’d put documentaries in quotes. When I would read it, I would ask myself, “Why is that in quotes? How is this not a legitimate documentary?” It’s reaching all these people. It’s nicely made. So, it was frustrating. I think, now, people are finally catching on, but it’s been a long time.

Why do you think there was a dismissal of your programming within the film world and the media?

Well, I think there was a little prejudice because it was about young people. So when you’re working outside of that demographic, it’s easy to just disregard it, or not take it seriously. Also, we use music in the storytelling pretty strongly. But I know some people that aren’t familiar with the music, they just heard noise. They couldn’t take the shows seriously because they were so finely edited—almost like a music video, but with content. Plus, the shows were on cable. We used to do very well at the Cable Ace Awards, but it was hard to get an Emmy nod. We finally did, but it took a while. For a long time cable was considered to be lower-quality television.

But some people must have recognized how teenagers were reacting.

The people that were always the most open-minded to us were teachers. We always got a lot of respect from teachers, because they could see, they knew when they played any of these documentaries in the classroom that kids would watch, and they’d ask questions, and they’d get involved. So anybody who actually watched the films became a fan and a supporter. The people who didn’t take the shows seriously were also people who never watched any of them.

  • “I met all these great filmmakers—people who I really admired.”

How did you break down those perception barriers?

I made a concerted effort a number of years ago for us to become bigger players within the documentary film community. We’ve sponsored Full Frame, the documentary film festival, the last couple years. We’ve given an award every year for the best film about young people. I’ve done a lot of outreach to documentary filmmakers that I’ve admired: Liz Garbus, Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Joe Berlinger. People who I’d really like to come make films for us; I’ve invited them to work with us.

You seem to straddle the film and television worlds.

Traditionally, there’s been a real divide between people who work in TV and people who make films. Filmmakers are very precious with their pieces, and they have to run on the festival circuit, and then maybe they’ll come out on video or maybe they’ll be on PBS. And I would say, thanks to people like [HBO Documentaries president] Sheila Nevins, who has broken down that divide, that’s changing a little bit. At the Museum of TV and Radio, there’s Television Curator Ron Simon, he’s someone who really helped break down the divide. And Nancy Buirski, who runs the Full Frame Film Festival, that’s one of the first documentary festivals that would show TV programs. It was great to see them on the big screen, and to have a dialogue. But, for years there were the films that were in festivals, and then there were films that were shown on TV. It was like two separate worlds.

It’s surprising to me that you’re not overwhelmed with pitch sessions and proposals. I would think that for documentary makers, it’s nearly impossible to manage a career outside of television work. Is it financially possible to produce documentaries independently for film festivals in the hopes of securing theatrical distribution?

Well, when I first came to New York in the mid-’80s it was the tail end of the grant-making era, where you could actually write for grants for your film. I had directed a film, The Flapper Story, that was in festivals, and I met all these great filmmakers—people who I really admired, who were my heroes. When I spoke with them, they all would say, “I don’t know how I’m going to send my kids to college. I don’t know how I’m going to get money for my next documentary.” And I thought, “You’re the most famous person I know, who’s made so many great documentaries! There’s got to be a way, there’s got to be a way.”

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Shooting Tupac: Resurrection. Lazin worked with Tupac’s mother, Executive Producer Afeni Shakur, to produce the film. His mom had his photos and his poetry and his albums. I got access to the vault, stacks of phone numbers from girls, all kinds of great things. Then, I had to shape it so it had a dramatic flow, an arc, so that it felt like a movie. But certainly the story was there, and he really held it, he held the story.”

Photo courtesy of Katy Garfield.

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