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Avant-Garde Aesthetics

Music is obviously a big narrative component to the way you tell stories.

Fahrenheit 9/ll is a good example of a documentary that used music the way we’ve used music for a long time. It’s just another tool at your disposal to tell stories. Sometimes we would use music that we would know our viewers would know the lyrics to, and know why we were using it, even though in the documentary we never came up on the lyrics. We work really hard to make the editing beautiful and precise. I’d see other documentaries on television, and I’d think, “It must be so easy to make that film and not have to kill yourself scoring it.” Music is another reason why I think people watch MTV documentaries.

The PBS series Alive From Off Center was an incredibly innovative documentary series. You produced an episode for them, early on in your career. Can you tell me about it?

Oh, yes. That was a great documentary. It was a piece called Seven Deadly Sins. I actually hooked up with Neil Sealing, who was running it from a public television station in Minnesota. But I had wanted to do a piece with PBS. I was a big PBS fan.

Was that when you were at MTV?

Yes. I had wanted to do “MTV Meets PBS.” It was lowbrow meets highbrow.

A surprising combination.

It was great in terms of publicity and press. We got a tremendous amount of press on it because, at that time, people were shocked: MTV and PBS? How could that be? But the thing that was so great about it was, Neil was so open-minded.

What was the subject matter?

It was on how the seven deadly sins are expressed through popular culture today, and how young people relate to them. For example, gluttony was bulimia. I think PBS put up half the money and we put up half the money. And we broke it into two parts, because we had a lot of rights acquisitions. I think MTV ran it as an hour, and PBS ran it as two half hours.

Had PBS and MTV ever worked together before?

PBS had already done something with MTV with the promo department. We had a really avant-garde approach, especially in the early days. That’s where [MTV president] Judy McGrath came from, she ran the promo department. That stuff was beautiful, it was art. And they worked with, you know, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. They had done a piece for Alive From Off Center, a series of MTV promos. So that’s how the connection was originally made. I came to them saying, “Let’s do something with some content, let’s do something that’s about something.”

Why was it a successful collaboration?

They weren’t afraid to push buttons, they weren’t afraid to talk about religion. I remember we had a lot of press, and the reviewers didn’t know how to wrap their heads around the program. Is it MTV? Is it PBS? What is it? Once again, we got our biggest support from teachers and from theologians.

Theologians supported the Seven Deadly Sins?

Yes! All these religious people who worked with young people loved it. Because they thought, “Oh my God, you’re talking to young people about moral and ethical issues, and about how to live your life.” They watched the shows. That’s always the biggest stumbling block, getting them to watch the shows. I know it was a great collaboration, because we both aired it at exactly the same time, and both our ratings were great. We both hit our audience with equal strength. And then we got a Cable Ace Award for it. That’s one of the highlights for me, those kinds of collaborations with different partners.

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