Unfiltering MTV

Steven Rosenbaum filters grassroots programming to create a different kind of news program.

Every segment of ‘MTV News UNfiltered’ begins with a phone call. About 2,500 a week leave their story pitches on voice mail. Steven Rosenbaum and his BNN colleagues review them, identify the best bets, and send out camcorders to their newest correspondents. It’s grassroots programming for a different kind of news program.


Which is not to suggest there’s no filtering of “UNfiltered.” Today Rosenbaum is reviewing the most recent pitches. There’s an intriguing message from a kid who’s been paralyzed by a gunshot. A message from a woman about multiracial dating sounds authentic, but too familiar. “Been there, done that,” he says. A lot of the messages, truth be told, are from cranks and bores, and Rosenbaum quickly deletes them.

No matter. Somewhere in this queue is the next great “UNfiltered” segment. A while back, for example, BNN received a bunch of calls from heroin users — harrowing stories that could be told only by the people living them. Callers who make the cut send in their rough footage (up to seven hours worth for a four-minute segment). If the footage looks promising — and that can take several repeat shoots — a producer creates a rough cut and heads over to MTV for a screening.

That’s what’s happening now. Rosenbaum, some BNN producers, an MTV News executive, and others are reviewing an episode. It’s the latest version of the heroin segment. Everyone watches without a word. It’s strong material, especially a long sequence that’s utterly un-MTV: a static shot of two girls, badly framed, talking about how the drug has twisted their lives. The tape fades to black; the sense of relief is palpable. Just three weeks from today, the segment will be broadcast more or less as is.

“If I had one wish,” Rosenbaum says after the meeting, “it would be that journalists could listen to our “UNfiltered” line. Our viewers are smart. They get it. And they want in.”