MTV Launches New Documentary Division Led By Producer Sheila Nevins

May 7, 2019
Originally published on May 8, 2019 8:23 am

The global youth brand MTV has chosen Sheila Nevins to head a new documentary division. Nicknamed the "doyenne of documentaries," Nevins, 80, was the president of HBO Documentary Films. With some 1,500 credits to her name, Nevins has executive produced numerous Oscar, Emmy and Peabody Award-winning films, and received several lifetime achievement awards.

Nevins says she feels "lucky" to have landed the MTV job. "At my age, most people would think that I would be out to pasture, or that I would be gardening, or that I would be taking pictures of my grandchildren — of which I have none," Nevins says. "But I'm really not. I'm engaged in making a difference and will be until I lose it — and I haven't lost it yet."

Nevins brings an extremely broad palate to MTV, for both subject matter and style. She's executive produced biographical films on creative figures such as Robin Williams and Stephen Sondheim and true-crime dramas such as The Jinx about real estate heir Robert Durst and Paradise Lost about the West Memphis Three.

After years of declining ratings and ad revenue, MTV is undergoing a turnaround under president Chris McCarthy who hopes Nevins will bring up the next generation of filmmakers on his network.

He tells NPR he was a fan of Nevins long before he started working in media; he remembers watching HBO's unscripted, cinema verite-style series Taxicab Confessions as a kid growing up in Levittown, Pa.

"You really got to see true human stories," McCarthy says. "Even the theme song itself was quite brilliant. It helped you to understand there's another world out there more than the small worlds many of us were living in."

He also praises Nevins' interest in "underdog stories."

Nevins would like to see MTV's documentary division tackle topics like addiction, race, the legalization of marijuana and climate change.

"The world is changing and the world is hurting itself ... in ways that matter to a 14, 18, 25 and 39-year-old," Nevins says. "We have to show that, and we have to activate that person to think that they can do something about it."

Pressed for more details about how she plans to do that, Nevins jokes: "It depends on how much money they give me."

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From its hit show "Jersey Shore" to the Video Music Awards, MTV is all about youth culture in its many forms. And now, it's branching out. The network has announced a new documentary division. Sheila Nevins will lead it. She is 80 years old, and she is an institution in the world of documentary film. NPR's Elizabeth Blair joins us now with all the details. Hey, Elizabeth.


CHANG: So - OK, for people who may not recognize her name, tell us more about who Sheila Nevins is.

BLAIR: Sheila Nevins was the president of HBO Documentary Films, and she started there in 1979...


BLAIR: ...So before MTV was even born. She grew up in New York City. She went to Barnard and the Yale School of Drama in the early '60s. And as an executive producer, she's got a very broad palette. She's overseen documentaries about artists and entertainers, but also serious topics like addiction and global terrorism. Some of her credits include "Citizenfour," the Edward Snowden documentary; "Paradise Lost" about the West Memphis Three; and more recently, she produced the true crime drama "The Jinx" about real estate heir Robert Durst.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The family of Kathleen Durst, from the beginning, had said they believed Robert Durst was responsible.

BLAIR: Now, that documentary, which seemed fairly traditional, had an ending that really threw people for a loop. And that unexpected edge is something Nevins is really known for - finding subjects that appeal, but also experimenting with the form.

CHANG: Well, I mean, MTV - you know, it already has reality shows. It has news. So what's the thinking behind adding a whole other documentary division? What's the goal here?

BLAIR: Well, first and foremost, they need to attract and keep young viewers on whatever platform they're on. And while they've made some award-winning documentaries over the years, they've been in a ratings slump until about a year ago. They're looking for something fresh, and docs are very popular right now. MTV has also long projected its brand as being very civic-minded. Think Rock the Vote.

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

BLAIR: And it produced the documentary series "16 And Pregnant," which looked at different issues facing a teenager who gets pregnant, from adoption to graduating high school. And so now it's looking to Sheila Nevins to bring her gravitas and formidable skill to helping a new generation of filmmakers explore different platforms and stories.

CHANG: So I'm just going to say it out loud. Nevins just turned 80. MTV obviously caters to teens, young adults, young people. What is the thinking behind hiring someone like Nevins?

BLAIR: She's 80, and she has got a lot of experience. I spoke with Chris...

CHANG: (Laughter) That's fair.

BLAIR: Yeah. I spoke with Chris McCarthy, president of MTV, about this question. And the fact that Nevins is 80 years old does not seem to concern him in the slightest. In fact, to hear him tell it, her experience is her superpower. McCarthy, who hired her, said he's admired Nevins ever since he was a kid watching HBO's "Taxicab Confessions," which is a gritty, unscripted series of conversations between cab drivers and their customers. He said he loves that Nevins is committed to stories about the underdog, and he wants his team to learn the craft of documentary filmmaking from her firsthand. He wants her to help elevate the storytelling to a new level on MTV.

CHANG: All right. Well, that's NPR arts correspondent Elizabeth Blair. Thanks.

BLAIR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.