If asked to associate a genre of programming with U.S. music cabler MTV, most people would probably mention fast-paced videos or popular reality series such as The Real World, and not insightful docs that deal with the complex issues facing today’s youth. But, things change. While MTV is not about to abandon its rock and roll roots (The Osbournes, an MTV reality series featuring aging rocker Ozzy Osbourne, recently drew more than11 million viewers to the channel), its more serious fare is resonating with an audience reared on video games and Hollywood car chases.
‘We’ve raised the bar on the level of storytelling,’ says Lauren Lazin, VP of MTV news and documentaries. ‘It’s not enough to do a profile of someone, we want a story arc. It’s not enough to get access to a community, we want to see something happen from beginning to end. At the same time, some of the fallout of the reality TV genre is people want a thrilling experience, they want to be moved – it’s not enough to be informed. It’s up to documentary producers to deliver that without sensationalism.’
Lazin’s news and documentary unit produces over 100 docs a year. Some reflect typical MTV programming, which focuses on music and movie culture. The series Cribs, for example, takes viewers inside the homes of rock stars, while Diaries peeks into a day in the life of a celebrity. But, Sex2K takes a more topical approach and tackles young people and sexuality. Vice, a series that premiered in April, looks at, well, vices. The first episodes addressed lying, cheating and gambling.
‘Over the years, we have become less of a specials department and more of a series department,’ says Lazin. ‘The docs come in series of six, eight or 10. Some of the shows are 30 minutes, some are 60 minutes and every now and then we do some that are longer.’
MTV’s hour-long True Life series airs on Thursdays at 10 p.m. and is the main outlet for issue-driven docs. Shot in cinema verité style, True Life programs tackle topics ranging from drugs to plastic surgery to street racing. Filmmaker Cheryl Horner in New York is working on True Life: I’m Going to the Prom and Lucia Engstrom, also a New Yorker, produced True Life: I’m Coming Out, which documents the pain, courage and anxiety young people face when they tell friends and family they are gay. The latter film screened at the Museum of Television & Radio Television Documentary Festival in New York in May.
Lazin says MTV is starting to pursue the festival circuit more aggressively. ‘Normally when we get our shows finished we put them on the air right away, which precludes them from a lot of festivals. We’re just now starting to hold back some pieces to be in festivals,’ she explains. Lazin is also venturing into feature-length projects with an upcoming doc on controversial rapper Tupac Shakur, which she will direct and help produce. ‘That will be our first documentary feature to come out of this division,’ she says. ‘Hopefully it will work out and will be a model for the future.’
One perk of working with mtv is easy access to of-the-minute music tracks. ‘For most of the documentaries, you don’t have to pay a separate licensing fee for music,’ explains Lazin. ‘We have agreements with many of the record companies that allow us to excerpt music we acquire as music videos for use in docs. It saves money and you get a very hip, current soundtrack. For certain topics, that’s critical.’ Lazin notes that MTV license fees for docs are on par with most U.S. cable networks (the 2002 RealScreen Price Guide recorded an average U.S. cable fee of US$150,000 for a one-hour one-off). Rights usually include the U.S. tv premiere and a negotiated period of exclusivity. International coproductions have more room for negotiation, as rights depend on the level of investment from mtv. Lazin also reveals she is interested in doing copros with U.S. pubcaster PBS and is discussing the idea with PBS president and ceo Pat Mitchell.