'Unfiltered' gives camera to MTV masses


One 19-year-old woman wants to do a story about her life as the daughter of a '60s-era radical in prison for conspiracy and sedition.

A 13-year-old girl is doing a story on a friend who committed suicide, getting wrenching interviews with the dead boy's sister and father.

There's already been a story by a man in Carnegie, Pa., a househusband who complained that men's rooms never have tables for him to change his son's diaper. He's forced to do it on public benches in malls or parks.

This eclectic assortment of personal plights and public problems is what gets shown on MTV's latest program, "MTV News Unfiltered," an effort by the cable channel to chronicle the generation for which it set the tempo. It's also the latest example of a widespread and growing development in communication: ordinary people trying to bypass the establishment press to personally tell the stories and discuss the issues that are important to them.

This is part of what drives talk radio and television, and part of the fascination of Internet chat lines and web pages. It gives people access to the airwaves.

"I was always struck by the arrogance of news people who thought that they knew what was a story, and that there was no way in," said Steven Rosenbaum, 34, the creator of "Unfiltered," who has long put together magazine-type television stories as an independent producer.

Mr. Rosenbaum, who sold the "Unfiltered" idea to MTV and now works as executive producer, said he wants a program that offers ordinary citizens an outlet for their stories without interference from newspaper and network news barons.

To do that, "Unfiltered" sends cameras to people and allows them, with some guidance from MTV producers, to shoot their own stories. The work is then edited and given MTV pacing by professionals.

In addition to Nick Quickle, the diaper changer, the first show included stories by Tina Pavlou, a 24-year-old Indiana woman with breast cancer; John Barber, 22, who graduated from the University of South Florida dressed in drag; Jessica Weiner, a Penn State senior complaining about sexual harassment; and skateboarders who keep being hassled by the police.

Mr. Quickle, Ms. Pavlou and Mr. Barber all said in interviews that their stories, as they finally appeared on the air, captured the flavor they were after.

Although best known as the station that plays rock videos, which is still its main business, MTV, with a news division of about 40 people, has been producing news specials for about six years. Over that period, it has done reports on cults, drugs, AIDS, hate rock, sex in the '90s and the MTV Generation itself. Under the heading "Choose or Lose," it gave extensive coverage to the 1992 presidential campaign, and plans are afoot to do the same next year. There are also news breaks every hour, although much of the news is about the entertainment industry.

Last summer, when MTV asked viewers to submit story ideas for a pilot, there were 12,000 phone calls in six days. Even after weeding out the cranks, the people who really had nothing to say and the callers who couldn't put together a coherent sentence, there were plenty left.

In the spring, another 8,000 people responded after MTV did more promotions soliciting stories for the first show. Since that installment was shown, the station has received about 3,000 more calls.

"The whole trick to the show is volume," said Mr. Rosenbaum. "It's having a stack of phone calls, because 97 percent of the phone calls will wash out."

One proposed story came from a 24-year-old St. Louis man who felt that he was a target of discrimination because most car rental companies refuse to lease cars to anyone under 25. He wanted to interview car rental officials and an attorney in the Missouri attorney general's office.

"That's a good story," said Mr. Rosenbaum. "But we may find that his problem is that he has a crappy driving record. We're sending cameras out, and many stories will wash out."

For the pilot, cameras were sent to 18 people. Six stories were used, including those of a teen-age computer hacker who was arrested by federal officials and a man who collects Marlboro coupons so he can get tents and clothes for the homeless.

The reaction of MTV executives and outside focus groups was strong enough for MTV to commit to four half-hour shows, said Rob Fox, the show's producer. The pilot also helped answer one basic question: Will the cameras come back? They did.

MTV has bought 30 cameras, costing about $1,500 each, and they have been sent by Federal Express to about 60 people so far. They've all been returned.

"In our group, MTV is pretty much down home," said Mr. Quickle, the father who wanted more diaper-changing places. "So the people who are watching MTV, I believe they send the cameras back because there's a mutual loyalty."

There was one call after the first show from the Riverside, Calif., area with an interesting spin on a town with nothing to do. The caller said her town had the second-highest rate of teen-age pregnancy in the country. And she was sure it was because there was nothing else to do.

Mr. Fox said she'll probably get a camera for a future show.

But first she'll have to undergo a fairly elaborate screening process. Callers speak initially to an answering machine, giving their basic story and a phone number where they can be reached.

A half dozen eager and bright assistant and associate producers, all in their 20s, review the recordings and type up a short synopsis of each call. The assistant producers then review the possibilities with Mr. Fox and Mr. Rosenbaum, who decide who's worth calling back.

In the end, there are at least five contacts, each testing the respondent's sincerity and responsibility.

When the camera goes out, it includes a tape from an assistant producer, explaining how to use the camera. The fast forward and reverse buttons are shut off so the reporters can't edit. Otherwise, they are pretty much on their own.

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