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So What Do You Do, Lauren Dolgen, EVP of Series Development for MTV?
'16 & Pregnant was a really big risk for us'- June 12, 2013
In the past year, alumni of MTV's reality shows have made headlines for everything but their starring TV roles. 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom star Amber Portwood has been locked down in an Indiana prison since June 2012, serving a five-year sentence stemming from a parole violation, her co-star Farrah Abraham is currently enjoying her new status as a certified porn star, and Jenelle Evans of Teen Mom 2 was arrested in April for heroin possession and assaulting her husband. Meanwhile, the network was left with the difficult decision to cancel its promising Jersey Shore replacement, Buckwild, when star Shain Gandee was killed in a car accident.
It's uncomfortable but familiar territory for MTV development exec Lauren Dolgen. The fact that the Teen Mom girls have become regular tabloid fodder is an unfortunate byproduct of Dolgen's calculated risk to get folks talking about the staggering rates of teenage pregnancy, she says, and it's that aversion to the status quo that she believes makes for great TV -- and successful executives. Here, the newly promoted Dolgen discusses the behind-the-scenes drama, the components of a great TV pitch and what really happened to all the music on MTV.
Name: Lauren Dolgen
Position: Head of West Coast reality and EVP of series development for MTV
Resume: Began in 1997 at VH1 as a production associate. Went to MTV production in 1998 and became a development coordinator in 1999. Quickly moved up the ranks to manager of development, director and VP, and was promoted to her current position in May.
Birthdate: March 10
Hometown: Los Angeles
Education: BA from Pitzer College
Marital status: Single
Media idol: Her father, Jonathan Dolgen. "They don't make them much tougher, smarter or more sweet and loyal than him."
Favorite TV show: "I am a true TV junkie. I like it scripted; I like it unscripted; I like it all. I consider it unfair to all the shows I love to pick just one."
Guilty pleasure: Trashy autobiographies and the ID Channel
Last book read: Tina Fey's Bossy Pants
The TV business is notoriously difficult to break into, especially at a popular brand like MTV. What can someone who is mid-career do to get a foot in the door? Is it even possible to get a job on the programming side without interning?
I think there's so many different ways to break into the development side. I do actually think internships are such a great way; MTV has such an amazing internship program. I actually was an MTV intern, like, a gazillion years ago, but it really sparked my interest in television, really sparked my interest in MTV in general. And just because MTV's such a young company, I think there's so many great opportunities for people in college who are getting the intern experience. I also think that production assistant work and getting in on the production side is a really great experience, and I think that it has helped me, as well, in my career. Especially on the development side, knowing production a bit really does help, because when you are asking your producers for things, you recognize what you're really asking for and will help strategize to get those things and accomplish them.
|"I think people hear [about] 16 & Pregnant or Teen Mom and get one idea, and then if you watch the show you realize that it is nothing like what you expected."|
Critics have accused two of your most successful shows, 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom, of "glamorizing" teen pregnancy. How do you respond to the backlash?
My response to that is, I don't think we glamorize it at all in the show. I think people hear [about] 16 & Pregnant or Teen Mom and get one idea, and then if you watch the show you realize that it is nothing like what you expected. It is a very true, very real portrayal of what these girls are going through and how challenging it is to be a teen mom. And I think if you watch the show you realize there's nothing glamorous about being a teen parent. And the truth is that when I do see the girls in the tabloids or [hear] people asking about the glamorization, I really do say, "At least people are having the discussion now." I mean, they were not talking about teen pregnancy at all when we first created the show. So, I say bring on the criticism, because we are actually dealing with it in a very real way, and at least it's being talked about and discussed now.
So what was your initial mission for the show? Was it just about creating that dialogue?
Well, I had read an article that had this statistic that was sort of like getting punched in the gut a little bit. It was [that] 750,000 girls get pregnant every year in the United States, and I was like, oh, my gosh! That's our audience. That's happening to them; it's happening to their friends; it's happening to girls in their school and we need to address this issue. And, when we started developing the show, our public affairs department got us in partnership with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, who are the experts on the issue, and they were really able to educate us as producers and storytellers on the issue to make sure that we really tell the story in a responsible way and that we send the storytelling path in education. We have a lot of contraception guides that we do; we have a lot of extra stuff on It'sYourSexLife.com and on the MTV website that is a resource for our audience to gain education.
One of the downsides of reality TV is that the stars become famous and less of the everyman/woman figure that initially got them casted. How does that affect your job as a producer?
You know, I feel for some of the girls and the kind of attention that they get. A lot of these girls did not get into this -- I would say most of them did not get into this -- to be TV stars. And we certainly don't use the word "star" or "celebrity" when dealing with them. When we first did 16 & Pregnant, these girls thought they were going to be a part of a one-off special that focused on their experience during a very fragile and very serious time in their lives. And a lot of them got involved in this to actually help educate other girls. So, I do feel for some of them that are portrayed in a negative light, and I think it's always hard for someone to put themselves out there on television [and] to accept the criticisms and all that comes with having the attention on them.
You must get more than your fair share of pitches. If you had to break down a good TV show pitch into two or three ingredients, what would they be?
I think something fresh, something that people haven't really seen before, something that's still relatable, that a variety of people can connect to. I think, if you look at 16 & Pregnant, not everyone can relate to being a pregnant teen; however, they can relate to being in high school, trying to graduate, dating, parents… But then throw a baby in the mix, and it amplifies the stakes a lot. So, I think that relatability is always really important to us. But I think really vibrant, energetic personalities are always very key, and then I think you have to take risks. So 16 & Pregnant is the example I keep bringing up, but, you know, that was a really big risk for us. I mean, we knew what our intent was on the show, and, while we knew that we were going to add the level of education and be responsible about our storytelling, it was edgy subject matter. And, that's what I love about MTV: we are willing to take the risks. And sometimes you win and sometimes you lose on that, but if you don't take the risks, you don't really have the wins.
What is the worst pitch you ever received?
I can tell you a funny story that won't name names or anything, and it really had nothing to do with a pitch. It was a show about a boy band, and they came in and performed for us. That happens a lot at MTV -- people perform and it's always really exciting to see the variety of talent that comes through our doors -- but, in this case, it was actually very funny. They played the track, and they were lip syncing to the track and dancing. So they were trying to prove to me that they were really good singers, but they weren't actually singing in the room.
|"That's what I love about MTV: we are willing to take the risks."|
Speaking of music, it's been said that the music in MTV is all but gone. So how much is music still a priority for the network and for your development team, specifically?
Music is 100 percent a part of our DNA. I mean, it's how we started and it's always part of the development of every show. We're always thinking about the sound of every show. [If] you think about a Jersey Shore, that had a really specific type of soundtrack, a specific kind of story and character that it was telling. The music was a character, and that story really helped amplify the storytelling of the show and the feel. So, I think that the music is always going to be important to MTV. Our music department has come up with this idea where they have guest music supervisors, like celebrities [and] artists, that help music supervise different shows for us. And we're always trying to come up with ways to really keep music very present. But it is our DNA. It's who we are.
If you had to credit one thing for your success, what, or who, would it be?
I don't know if this sounds weird, but I credit MTV. I have totally grown up at MTV. I've learned so much, and I've been part of the company for 16 years, and I've just grown up as a person and as an executive there. I've had a lot of amazing bosses who have helped support me and taught me and that I've just learned so much from. And the brand is so important. To me, the brand and the kind of company it is, the people that work there and the types of shows that we're allowed to do, and the risks that we're allowed to take is why I think I'm successful at all.
Andrea Williams is a freelance writer based in Nashville. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.
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