As promised last week, I caught up with Arthur Bradford, the director of the new How’s Your News? doc series on MTV. The show is having a premiere party that includes a screening, a State Radio concert and plenty of partying on Monday night, February 16, at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC, so get on down!
It’s been close to ten years since you debuted the How’s Your News feature film at the Toronto film festival — could you describe the journey the doc has taken from there to MTV?
Arthur Bradford: It’s been a pretty roundabout journey really. We had a great debut in Toronto and felt a lot of excitement. But that was September 10th, 2001, and by the next morning people had more important things on their minds. But the doc got picked up for broadcast by HBO/Cinemax and was later released on DVD; it also played on several local PBS stations. So it was successful in our eyes. I went on to write fiction and continued working at the summer camp where we all first met. We did a bunch of festival screenings and college tours with the cast and had some interesting offers for future projects. The best one was a chance to bring the team to the Democratic and Republican conventions in 2004. We made a half hour special for Trio, the cable network, and we got surprisingly good access to big name politicians and celebrities like Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Ben Affleck. The special turned out so well it led us to think that maybe we could make a series of half-hour broadcasts. We shopped the idea around and MTV showed interest and funded a pilot in 2006. Ronnie, one of our stars, got leukemia and we considered not continuing, but everyone else felt strongly about it and we found a new reporter, Jeremy Vest, who is a great addition. Ronnie is in remission now, but still too fragile to travel with us. Anyway, after a huge amount of deliberation on the part of MTV, they picked up our show for a series and we got to work, very excited about the opportunity.
Not many doc filmmakers get the chance to have their work shown to such a young, wide audience—can you talk a little about what it feels like?
AB: I’m very happy at the chance to reach out to this audience. Our previous docs were shown in traditional documentary venues — festivals, art house cinema, specialized cable — and it is exciting to think that so many more people will see this new version. Over 1 million people watched the first broadcast, that’s like 10 times more than ever saw anything else we’ve done. I’m very familiar with the reservations many people have with showing material like ours to this type of younger audience. Our project has experienced all kinds of reservations even when we were just showing the films to festival crowds and I always felt we shouldn’t restrict who sees How’s Your News?, so I think this is a meaningful and logical next step. Why not give these kids some quality programming which allows them to make up their own minds about something? Why must we assume that this younger generation will be unable to discern what is going on in our films? I think those who would have us keep our show off MTV because of the demographic are doing a huge disservice to both the kids who watch mtv and the people with disabilities in our show who are very proud of their work and not at all afraid of a little laughter from impressionable teenagers. In the end, we hope to win over far more kids than could ever mock us into hiding away from the public eye.
What has it been like sitting down with MTV execs — do they get what you’re trying to do with How’s Your News?
AB: I truly think that one of the huge strengths of our show is that it is difficult to tamper with. The MTV execs are not stupid. They knew from the start that any appearance that they had altered our program for profit motives or whatever would come back and bite them in the ass. We all agreed that the show had to maintain an autonomy or it just wouldn’t be appealing. We wouldn’t have signed any contracts with them if we didn’t believe this was going to be the case. And, to MTV’s credit, they gave us the freedom we needed. I always felt like I could make a strong case for doing something a certain way and they would listen. I’m fully aware that MTV puts out some crappy programming, and frankly, I think they are too. But this is what I mean by our show having a unique strength. We are able to rise above all that in a way, because our reporters can’t be made to act fake and degrade themselves even if we wanted them to. They wouldn’t even know how to do that. I think we were actually kind of lucky as well with our timing, because MTV is currently trying to reinvent itself a bit, trying to re-gain that edge they had throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Whatever one thinks of them now, there’s no denying that MTV has a long tradition of groundbreaking programming. I’m hoping we can be part of that tradition now.
How do you respond to concerns that the differently-abled folks in HYN are being exploited, or laughed at (rather than laughed with)?
AB: This is the question most often asked about our show and I can go on and on in response. I think it’s an incredibly important issue and it’s part of why I think HYN is such a worthwhile project. We’ve been doing this for over ten years now and I have never once felt that “exploitation” was an appropriate word to describe How’s Your News?. It’s in fact, the exact opposite — I’d say it’s “empowering.” Our reporters and their families, are very involved in every step of the process and extremely proud of the work they’ve done. They fully comprehend where the humor is coming from in our films and they embrace it. We should never be so condescending towards people with disabilities as to deny them the chance to be in on a joke and be humorous like the rest of us. I really believe that. I noticed, Tom, that in your write-up of our show you wrote, “Is it OK to laugh at people with disabilities? A new documentary series, How’s Your News?, that premiered this Sunday on MTV asks that uncomfortable question,” and I want to correct you by saying we don’t really ask if it’s okay to laugh “at” people with disabilities, because it’s not. We are truly asking if it’s okay to laugh “with” people with disabilities. Sure, some of the humor comes directly from their actions and missteps, but let’s not deny them the opportunity to laugh at themselves as well, just like everyone else. We are very careful not to include material which would simply result in the audience laughing without the concurrence of the reporters. It’s my hope that anyone with exploitation concerns would watch the show first, before passing judgement.
Have any docs or doc filmmakers inspired you?
AB: Yes, of course, tons of them. I’m a big documentary buff. I like Frederick Wiseman — Hospital and Titicut Follies were pretty influential for me, and Ross McElwee, Sherman’s March is an all-time favorite — I’ve seen it like 20 times. I love the Maysles Brothers, especially Salesman, and I like a lot of recent docs too, like Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s Memphis Three films, and Ondi Timoner‘s Dig. I loved Roger and Me — it made me want to go out and make my own films right away.
Have you heard back from MTV about how Sunday’s premiere went? How are the numbers, as they say?
AB: We were really lucky to be included in a highly promoted programing block so our numbers were pretty high for MTV, incredibly high for us. We got a .97, which means over a million people tuned in. I have no idea if MTV was happy with that, but it kind of blows my mind. You know, I was even happy to see that our show was sponsored by Taco Bell. I had no idea. We never once made any effort to get corporate sponsorship while shooting and it makes me very happy to think that any mainstream entity would actually view our show as worthwhile to sponsor. Buy Taco Bell, they aren’t afraid of us!
What has been some of your favorite reality-based programming on TV?
AB: I like reality TV when it sticks to the documentary form. Cops does a great job of just letting things play out. The first half of Wife Swap is always pretty fun to watch, but then the second half sucks because they go in and try to force a neat and tidy narrative onto it. Just let things play out, please! PBS has great reality TV. Frontier House</em and that one about the families living in an authentic old New England town — those were great. But again, I would've liked to see them try to make it through the winter. Let ’em starve in the cold for a bit, that would be interesting. I like Antique Roadshow too. It’s great when the items are worth a bundle and someone cries.
If we dropped in on you on a Thursday night, would you more likely be watching The Hills or Grey Gardens?
AB: Honestly, I wouldn’t be watching either. I love TV, but I don’t watch it at home. We don’t have cable. Whenever I’m in a hotel or flying an airline with TV I stay up until 3 a.m. watching everything I can. If I had that option at home I’d never sleep. But to answer your question, I guess I’d flip between the two shows. Both of them have their merits in my book.