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Attention Span and Awareness Management

By using music, graphics, and fast-paced cuts, MTV has been credited with shortening a generation’s attention span. Do you agree with that assessment?

I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been hearing that for 15 years. Maybe I just have a really short attention span, because to me, the documentaries seem to go at a very comfortable pace. I get bored otherwise. I also feel that pretty early on we tapped into a phenomenon.

So MTV was responding to something, not creating it?

With our viewers, certainly, as early as the early ’90s, I felt they knew how to process information faster than previous generations. They were fundamentally capable of processing information faster, and we met that capability better than other people did.

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The title graphic designed for the Tupac: Resurrection poster. “It’s important to me that our films don’t have a cookie-cutter look or feel.”

Graphic courtesy of Paramount.

Is that still happening? Is there an ever-shortening supply of viewer attention?

I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been hearing that from day one—attention spans are getting shorter. I just think we caught on that our audience was able to process information more quickly. I think viewers today, certainly people in their 30s and 40s, like a lot of stuff coming at them.

Is there a different strategy for programming that takes into consideration multiple forms of media?

Certainly all our shows are supported on a lot of different media. And that, to me, is great. It’s like a bonus feature on a DVD. Especially with a documentary, where you’re so caught up with the characters and what happened to them that you want to know more about the world that they’re in.

The Reality Television Craze

Has reality television affected your programming strategy?

It’s so interesting, this whole reality craze. It’s just hilarious to me, because we’ve been doing this for years and years and years and years. We’ve done straight-up documentaries on a pop channel, and they respond to it. I don’t know how much the whole reality movement is going to change things. My friends are all working on reality shows, everybody’s working on reality TV. And that’s got to have an impact.

Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, it’s a good thing because it’s getting a lot of people work. But it has set the bar very, very high for things to “happen.” So when we do a cinema verité piece, stuff’s got to happen.

Why is that?

Well, it’s really important in True Life that the character go through a story arc, that there’s a beginning, middle, and end—you’re on a journey with them. There’s something they want that they can’t get, or there’s something that they want that they do get. They’re not profiles, there’s storytelling. We don’t do profiles. That’s not what True Life is. It’s story arcs. And it’s tough to do that if you’re not going to live with the character for three years. But that’s the bar we’ve always set for that series.

What impact have reality shows had on your programming requirements at MTV?

When you’re competing with reality shows, you’re up against a highly manipulative setting. Often, characters live together, and they’ve been cast because they don’t get along, and the producers are going to throw things in the way in order to create “drama.” So, it’s a really interesting art form in itself, because it’s a mixture of spontaneity and things that are contrived. And the audience knows what’s contrived and what’s spontaneous, and that’s part of it. It’s an interesting dynamic. But it has really set the bar high; as a viewer you want something dramatic to happen.

But isn’t that always the case?

Some of the best documentaries work because they take a while to experience, to live out. You can’t just enter into someone’s life and say, “Here’s their precious life, and we’re entering into it,” and then try to just get to the dramatic parts really quickly. It’s not fair to their world. You can only be so manipulative in a documentary, from my point of view. But you can be totally manipulative in a reality show, because, to me, the viewers know what the rules are before they watch it. But nonetheless, all audiences want some drama. They want exciting things to happen. They’re used to that now. They’re waiting for that. And it’s tough to get that, and stay honest to your characters.

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