She has spent her career chronicling real life, but Sheila Nevins’s work is the antithesis of stereotypical reality TV. “I do less-fanciful reality. I celebrate the fat, the ugly, the women who can’t get guys,” she says. “I’m not trying to entertain you; I’m trying to make you passionate.” Famously hands-on, Nevins has overseen production of more than 1,000 documentary programs, spotlighting everything from Nevada brothels to Alzheimer’s. This year’s Music by Prudence, about disabled musicians in Zimbabwe, nabbed the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, adding to her long list of career wins–projects shepherded by Nevins have garnered 21 Oscars, 31 Peabodys, and 47 Emmys. To continue producing successful documentaries, she forces herself to respect popularity. “I’ll suffer through Avatar in 3-D,” says Nevins, 71. “It makes me throw up, but I respect the brilliance of its nowness so I can move forward. Who knows–maybe I’ll make a 3-D doc for the late-night sex franchise.”
I have a respect for people telling their own stories. Holocaust survivors, cancer survivors, sex workers, pimps, they all wrestle with the same things. They want to survive the onslaughts. They have to make a living. They want to be excited and stimulated by life. I think that surviving in this complex, tossed-about universe is courageous, and how people do that is of great interest to me.
When I started in television at the networks, documentaries were part of the news division, she continues. They were about politics, not emotion. I remember seeing something on PBS called ‘Hunger in America,’ and that was interesting to me. I started wondering if I could do that, if there was a job in those kinds of stories. I copied what in journalism is called the back of the book’ and tried to make it bigger and longer.