Interview with Betsy Forhan, Executive Producer of MTV’s “True Life”
MTV’s “True Life,” has been around since 1998 and it is still one of the most compelling docu-series on TV with topics ranging from drug use, sexual addiction, body image issues, and social behaviors such as visiting the Jersey Shore or getting married. Considering the fickle nature of the MTV audience, it is almost unheard of for an MTV show to be on the air for 12 years and still be thriving. Oh, and did I mention that “True Life,” has won numerous awards including a 2008 Emmy Award for Best Special Class Series and the 2005 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary?
I had a chance to speak with Betsy Forhan, Executive producer of MTV’s “True Life,” about what makes the show so relevant to today’s audience, how she knew she wanted to be a producer, and of course, the scoop on this season’s upcoming episodes.
Betsy, really cool to speak with you as I know you’re super busy. I’ve been watching “True Life,” since it aired in 1998 and it still remains as relevant and compelling as ever. Are you surprised that “True Life,” is still as popular then as it is in 2010?
Well, I mean yes and no. In the TV world, its rare that for anything to last this long on because the medium is so fickle. You gotta keep moving with the times and things change so fast.
Seriously. I mean, I grew up with the show.
You touched upon something that was interesting which is that you were able to grow up with the show. We have a constantly evolving audience and as the older people phase out, we have a brand new audience that is just being introduced to our show. MTV, in general, always has a changing audience but knows how to stay relevant with shows like “I Have Digital Drama.” We could not have done that show a few years ago because it wouldn’t have been as relevant. And you know what, in 3 years, it could be a different landscape. I’m not surprised.
I watched “I Have Digital Drama,” about 4 times already. I myself am addicted to social networking sites like FB, Myspace, Twitter. Its so strange to see all the relationship problems that the Internet causes. Well, it must be exciting to be an EP for a show like “True Life,” that has won numerous awards including a 2008 Emmy Award for Best Special Class Series and the 2005 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary. How do you keep it fresh for the younger audiences?
Well, we have a bunch of people who work on the show. In our office, it’s a range of ages from our executives in their early 40′s to the young people who are just out of college. You know, PA’s interns, brothers and sisters of the interns, and so we have a whole pool of people who are like “What about this?” What about that? Over the course of 200 shows and 12 years, we’ve considered thousands of ideas for shows since we have so many people thinking about it. We’re doing like 30 a year now. We’re always on the lookout for what’s new and what’s happening, new issues, social issues, what’s fun. And certain topics we’ll do repeat shows because people are reall interested in them. Topics like Body image/Relationship/OCD/Tourettes Syndrom, I mean, we sort of zoned in on those types of psychological disorders. We have certain veins to tap into and we think about what would be something that might be of interest to our audience. We’ve repeated a few ones…”I Want a Perfect Body,” and “I’m Getting Married.” The ratings for those shows did really well.
As a former New Yorker, I really just LOVED “True Life: I’m Going to Fashion Week,” because it shows the world of being a lowly assistant in the Big City, and also a glimpse into the exclusive world of fashion. Did you come up with that idea for the show? How did that come about?
That was Cheryl Sirulnick who was really behind that show. She’s a NY girl, lives in Tribeca and had been pitching it for years and finally, one of those years, our boss said yes. Sometimes it can be capricious. I mean, we live in NYC and think Fashion week is really interesting, but we have to be aware of what the rest of America is interested in watching. Luckily, it worked out. Oh, and Kelly Cutrone (in “True Life: I’m Going to Fashion Week) is absolutely hilarious in real life.
She keeps it real. So, when you choose willing participants to be on these shows, what do you look for? How do you know if they’ll make interesting stories?
We look for people who POP, meaning when I’m watching audition tapes, I need to be captivated by them or I’m slightly bored. If my mind is bored, that’s bad. For example, the combination of Nicole/George on “True Life: I Have Digital Drama,” they POP. Also, people need to have forward moving stories in order to be on the show. You can find a million people with OCD and other disorders, but we need people with a forward moving arc. We need to see them go somewhere with their forward moving stories or we don’t have a show. We’ve had to kill shows because we couldn’t cast it. For example, in “True Life: I’m Supporting My Family,” we were lucky enough to find UNIQUE…she’s awesome. She was among the all-time top 5 characters because she’s beautiful, smart and dealing with serious stuff. Yet, she has this cheerful, plucky spirit. Sometimes we cast off our website and other times, we plant seeds, reach out to to doctors if we’re doing a show about a particular disorder. But, you know casting relationship shows are the hardest because you need to have this forward moving arc, and sometimes you don’t know what you’re gonna get.
Very true, and I LOVED Unique in that “True Life: I Support My Family.” She’s got a real positive spirit and didn’t let life bring her down. So, let’s talk about”Jersey Shore,” which was apparently started after the popularity of one of the True Life shows that took place at the Jersey shore for a summer share. How do you feel about starting a Jersey Shore revolution and introducing the world to “The Situation,” Snookie and DJ Pauly D? (Laughs)
How could it be anything but an honor? People can be like oh they’re over the top and say bad things, but they’re so lovable. I’m not close to GTL, but I think they’re (the cast of Jersey Shore) hilarious. I love eccentric people who are just being who they are. We did a teen pregnancy show and it repeated really well, getting decent ratings. This is a topic for our viewers really seemed to connect with and when MTV took a chance for “16 and Pregnant” it did really well.
I’ve literally had “True Life”-a thons with friends where we’ll watch these shows for hours on end. What are some of your favorite episodes?
Wow. Well, I only started in 2005, but I loved “True Life: I’m Supporting my family,OCD, Tourettes, and some of the quieter ones like True Life: I have Schizophrenia. In that episode, Josh wasn’t taking his meds and I just felt for him so deeply. I connected with his story and there have been so many. Its hard to ask me about my favorites because if I went through hell to put it together, well then I don’t like the show… because it wasn’t easy for me. (laughs) If it took me a long time to do it. I’m biased in a normal way. Well, let’s see…in the next season, I hope you’ll like “I Hate My Face,” its about people who have body dysmorphic disorder who obsess over their faces. One of the girls’ realizes she has it and the other one doesn’t realize until the end. It’s fascinating to see them grapple with the issue and as a viewer, you like to see a turnaround by the end. I hope that seeing the show will help them take a step. I hope it pushes them to get help.
Definitely. We definitely want to feel like things will get better for the people in the shows. Well, I actually interned at MTV News and Docs as an NYU sophomore and remember logging footage and working with a lot of the AP’s on “True Life: I”m a Cheerleader.” It was a TON of interesting footage and I remember thinking, “How do the producers pare down all this footage into an hour long show?”
Think of it like a sculpture. We have a tentpole theme, a crazy theme so you think about 2-3 killer scenes that have to do with the topic. Then you figure out A to B to C. Beginning to Middle to End. Paring it down is hard, but you have to start somewhere with an outline, cutting in Edit and asking, is it making me feel something? Make a giant through-line and carve it down. Unfortunately, there are many cool funny moments that fall on the cutting room floor.
Give us a taste of this new season’s episodes. Well, let’s see, there’s “I Hate My Face… I’m Hustling in the Hamptons.” This was an interesting show and we follow 2 characters during a summer at the Hamptons where there’s this ritzy part and Hampton Bay, the working-class part. So we follow Johnny who is from Hampton Bays and Brittany, an African-American gossip blogger who is trying to infiltrate their scene, but knows she’ll be the only black girl on the list. And on May 24th, we’re doing a “True Life: Presents,” a show about what it’s like to be like young in Saudi Arabia. Its very interesting. We acquired it from an outside producer, Loki Films. They pitched it to us because it was youth-oriented and it just fit with us. It was really beautifully shot.
Wow. Can’t wait to see that one. So tell us, how did you get started as a producer? What advice would you give to the young folks out there who are trying to figure out their path?
You know, I wanted to be a news reporter and liked to tell stories, but wasn’t finding jobs that I wanted. I was waitressing after college, but I wasn’t starting my career. I thought “I can’t do this forever.” Finally I saw Tabitha Soren, our first MTV news correspondent in 1992 and said to myself, “That’s where I want to work. MTV News.” I studied Poly Sci, social thought and political economy and would hide People magazine in my bag. It was the whole People magazine side of me. I saw Tabitha and thought that she’s mixing Entertainment and Politics. Soon, I applied for an internship and it was a way to get my foot in the door. I was an intern at MTV News and was like…”This is what I want to do.”
I hustled at MTV because its all freelance here and I kept getting hired, but trust me, no one was footing my bill. I had to work 3 days a week and waitress for 2 days, lived in a crappy East village apt. But you know, I was called to do this. My advice is that internships are the way to get your foot in the door in a competitive career. At the end of your college career is the best time to get an internship…WHERE YOU WANT TO WORK. I worked at “Crossfire,” at CNN, and it wasn’t my thing. I was glad that I didn’t get hired there. Do your internships where you’d love to get a job and WOW them. First to get there, last to leave, work like a dog, and understand that you’re just there to do whatever they need. If you work hard, they’ll want to hire you. What gets you hired is innate intelligence, good ideas, then that attitude that you’re willing to do anything/everything for them. The PA who will do everything and never complain…that’s who will get hired.
Words of wisdom from someone who knows. Betsy, Thank you for your time. And keep those interesting and relevant “True Life” shows coming! Check out “True Life” on Mondays at 10/9 c on MTV. (Special thanks to Allie Wester at Fanscape!)
And check out an episode of True Life: I’m Supporting My Family below.