A drug user in the season premiere of “True Life” on MTV. “I’m Addicted to Crystal Meth” examines the toll taken by methamphetamine
Unsimple Lives on an MTV Reality Show
For a generation that has witnessed Paris Hilton’s sex video and seen photographs of Kate Moss snorting cocaine in a recording studio, a documentary about an unknown 20-something woman prostituting herself to buy crystal meth might seem a bit ho-hum.
And it probably would be if the producers followed the typical documentary style, with stale video clips, voice-overs and talking heads debating morality and offering character analysis.
But that is not how MTV does documentaries, and it is one reason “True Life,” the documentary series that has been a staple of MTV’s programming for nine years, has fared so well.
“True Life” begins its new season tonight with “I’m Addicted to Crystal Meth,” an examination of the toll that methamphetamine can take on lives, loves, family and friends.
In a world where “reality shows” are as scripted as serial dramas, it can be hard to find authenticity when following anyone around with a camera. But unlike many of the narcissists who might answer an Internet casting call, the addicts who are the subjects of the “Crystal Meth” documentary are so obviously beholden to the drug that their ability to act seems short-circuited, to the viewer’s benefit.
“We’re capturing the authentic behavior of our audience in the moment that they are going through it,” Dave Sirulnick, an executive vice president who oversees MTV’s news and documentaries division, said recently in his office at MTV in Times Square. Unlike in mainstream documentaries, which often provide a record of things that had already happened at the time the piece was assembled, “the people in our shows are going through things in their lives that they don’t know the outcome of.”
When people think of MTV today, they often think of shows like “Pimp My Ride,” “Real World” and “Newlyweds,” said Brian Graden, president of entertainment for MTV Networks music group. (The only people who still think of music videos are those who probably have not watched the channel in at least a decade.)
“But there are also people from this generation who are in Iraq, or who are concerned about what is going on in Iraq,” Mr. Graden said. “We are in a unique situation in being able to focus on what is at the top of our audience’s minds.”
“True Life” and other documentary series at MTV are produced by the “news and docs” unit, which grew out of but is different from MTV’s news unit. “It’s a little bit of this hidden gem,” said Mr. Sirulnick, 42.
In the 1980’s, the news division was responsible for covering all developing issues in the music business, producing shows like “The Week in Rock.” The news unit also began covering live music events, like Live Aid and the Woodstock revivals, and was one of the few organizations covering what the network refers to as “music social issues,” like the lyric content of rap music, legal issues surrounding music sampling and the liability trials that were waged over the influence of bands like Judas Priest.
“After doing that for a number of years, we felt we had the credibility to step out and do longer-form shows about issues affecting our audience,” Mr. Sirulnick said. As the operation grew, the documentary efforts were split from the news operation in 2000, although now Mr. Sirulnick says there is about a 20 percent overlap in content. Most things that require coverage of more than a half-hour of television time fall to the documentaries unit.
The MTV news and docs unit produces a style of documentary that would not have been possible even several years ago, when producing hours of television-quality video would mean invading the subject’s home or other space with at least a five-person crew, lights, bulky cameras and other behavior-altering paraphernalia.
“We couldn’t do this if we had to rely on the old equipment,” said Marshall Eisen, a vice president for news and documentaries for MTV. “ ‘True Life’ works because we’re fly-on-the-wall observers. Intimacy is so important to these shows.”
One of the ways MTV maintains both an intimacy with and a distance from its subjects is to spend hours and hours with them. The network will shoot up to 150 hours of video over a period of months to get the 43 minutes of material that makes it into the final program.
About half of the “True Life” documentaries are produced by MTV staff members, and about half are made by outside production companies. While most of the ideas included in the series originate at the network, “True Life” also take pitches from production companies.
The “True Life” series has ranged widely in search of subjects, from the seemingly mundane (“I’m Adopted”) to the bizarrely interesting (“I Have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”). Other recent installments have chronicled the return home of Katrina refugees and the reintegration of soldiers recently returned from Iraq into their former lives.
This season continues those trends, with the first month of programs including “I Have Tourette’s Syndrome,” “I’m a Staten Island Girl” and “I’m Jealous of My Sibling.”
In June, Mr. Sirulnick sat down with Mr. Eisen and Betsy Forhan, a supervising producer for the documentary unit, for a pitch meeting, at which several dozen potential subjects were considered for pursuit by “True Life” crews.
The ideas at the pitch meeting ranged widely, several of them centering around issues of self-mutilation, like cutting or pulling out one’s own hair, or medical conditions like anxiety and autism. Others focused on changes in the world, like a potential look at user-generated Web content and those who produce it.
Some of the topics considered were evergreens, ideas that had been done before but which can be repeated after several years and aimed at a new audience, like those involving money or credit and debt. By the end of the meeting, 50 to 60 ideas had been whittled to about 10 potential show topics that were then sent to the unit’s research division, which maintains a constant cycle of polls and surveys of the MTV audience, for further study and development.
“Sometimes we’re not sure if something we think of is really going on,” Ms. Forhan said, like several years ago when an idea emerged about the drug OxyContin. The docs division did research, “and they said absolutely, we’re hearing about OxyContin all the time.”
The news and documentaries unit has recently commissioned two new series: one looking at marriage among 18- to 21-year-olds, “Engaged and Underage,” and another looking at the social phenomenon of “show choirs,” competitive groups that combine music and choreography.
An intense look at the seemingly mundane world of juvenile detention marks the debut of another series, titled “Juvies” and scheduled to begin later this fall. Set in the juvenile division of Lake County, Ind., Superior Court, the series follows roughly 18 juvenile defendants through their detention and court hearings.
“These shows aren’t about the crimes,” Mr. Sirulnick said. “They are really psychological studies, about who has support systems and who doesn’t.”
While the juvenile court sees cases ranging from murder to shoplifting a pack of gum, the producers focused on issues that are more typical of what the average teenager might face, like underage drinking and its potential criminal effects.
In the premiere episode, Sarah, a 16-year-old runaway, is brought into the Lake County juvenile detention facility after being arrested in Texas. A look of shock settles over her face as she is first shackled to a desk during her admission, then later deloused and issued a set of prison-issue clothes. When her mother tries to sneak a note in to her by stuffing it in the toe of new sneakers that she sends to Sarah, it is confiscated without Sarah’s being able to read it, a development that almost pushes her past the breaking point.
Mary Beth Bonaventura, the senior judge for the juvenile division of Lake County Superior Court, said she agreed to let MTV pursue the idea after being assured that it wouldn’t be just another reality show.
“I didn’t want to trivialize what we do,” Judge Bonaventura said. “But I thought it was important to let kids see what actually happens when you make certain choices in life. We want them to take away something about the seriousness of being locked up. At the end of it, hopefully they won’t want to do something that will have them end up here.”