Breaking the Social Documentary Mold

Last spring the Bay Area UPN affiliate asked Uth TV, a new youth media company that I helped start, to produce twelve half-hour shows in a little over three months. Given that we had just opened our doors, this was both a huge opportunity and a challenge. Uth TV’s goal is to be the leading outlet for the nation’s youth voice, and we knew this could be a critical first step in establishing our bona fides.
We wanted people to find our shows compelling. We hoped that when they discovered the programs were put together entirely by young people under 20 years old, they would be blown away. In order for this to happen, we needed to create a professional atmosphere for the youth crews and to hold them to high standards. We figured if we held the bar high enough, they might struggle a bit but eventually find ways to jump over it.
We chose to work with youth media groups with a reputation for holding teens to exceedingly high standards, including Youth Sounds, also in the Bay Area, which has created a supportive yet demanding environment for its young producers. (Youth Sounds recently merged with the Bay Area Video Coalition.)
We assembled a team of youth crews and told them their shows could reach millions of Bay Area residents. We paid our youth staff well, and offered them support and editorial guidance. We never told them what they should or should not include in a piece, but we asked critical questions that forced them to think through their decisions.
At the end of the summer, we delivered all twelve episodes on time and under budget. The youth staff took tremendous pride in the work, and although I’m a bit biased, I thought the final product was excellent. It confirmed my belief that under the right circumstances, youth-made media can consistently be of top-notch quality.
But too often, it’s not.
When it comes to youth media, high-quality content can sometimes seem like the exception. As programming director for Uth TV, I watch a lot of youth-produced media, and frequently I’ll see a piece that has great intentions but poor execution. It’s hard to find fault when a young person is pouring out her heart and soul, using video to find her voice.
However, I’m usually left with a profound feeling of “what coulda been.” If only the young media maker had been asked to critically look at the piece (or have her peers offer constructive criticism), she would have realized that it required her to re-record the voiceover track, or shoot some more b-roll, or find a better way to construct the narrative. But instead, it’s left where it is, which is often the difference between a powerful and well-constructed piece and one that is, well, just okay.

Are we allowing youth to get by with mediocre work? Are we giving them enough freedom to experiment with storytelling techniques?

I would also apply this criticism to the way stories frequently get told in the field. Rarely do I see a youth-produced piece that isn’t a social issue or personal documentary. As someone who started his career as a documentary filmmaker, I have tremendous fondness for the format. However, I also believe that to maintain young people’s interest and feed their creativity, youth need other mediums to express themselves. Youth are pulled in many different directions, with lots of activities—sports, friends, after-school programs, and MySpace, to name a few. If we don’t allow them to tell stories in ways that connect and resonate with their peers, then we’re going to lose out to other competing interests. We’re also going to limit the kind of experimentation that can result in innovative media.
But a growing number of youth media makers are recognizing that it doesn’t have to be this way. High-quality, compelling youth media that pushes the envelope can be the norm, if we expect it.
Before coming to Uth TV, I was executive director of Just Think, a Bay Area youth media nonprofit. The decision to leave Just Think was difficult, but Uth TV represented an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Its focus on producing high-quality media on a for-profit model offered me a chance to explore two central questions that had been on my mind: How do those working in youth media build a culture of expectations that brings out the best in youth creativity? And how do we empower youth to tell stories that move beyond the social issue documentary paradigm?
Restated through a more critical lens: Are those of us in youth media allowing youth to get by with mediocre work, and are we giving them enough freedom to experiment with storytelling techniques?
Encouraging participants to experiment with different forms of making media and an array of narrative concepts is a significant part of how Youth Sounds gets quality work. In addition to documentaries, young people at Youth Sounds are also producing narrative films, flash animations, music CDs, and soon video games. Even when they’re telling nonfiction stories, there’s a level of experimentation and innovation that permeates their work, and it shows in what they produce.
The show that Youth Sounds produced for us this summer, Elements, demonstrates how the envelope can be pushed. Shot against a stark white background, youth look directly into the camera and speak candidly about music and other topics. The editors took footage involving multiple characters and wove it into a coherent and entertaining whole. The end product immediately captures viewers’ attention and keeps it throughout the duration of the short pieces.
Those groups serious about producing high-quality content like this also make a point of identifying high-profile media-distribution outlets. These distributors understand that when media makers know their work is going to be watched by a broad audience, they’re more likely to hold themselves to a higher standard. This summer’s Uth TV shows are a case in point. Because the UPN affiliate has the largest teen audience in the Bay Area, the youth working on the shows knew that they needed to bring their best work to the programs.
The Media That Matters film festival produced by Arts Engine, and the Beyond Borders project by Listen Up! are other good examples. Thanks to a distribution deal with the cable channel IFC, the work of the twelve youth producers for Beyond Borders will potentially be seen by an audience of millions. It shows; the pieces are well-produced and tell compelling stories. For certain, youth media makers received support and guidance from Listen Up! staff to make high-quality pieces. However, because the paricipants knew a lot was being expected of them, they scrambled that much harder.
I believe expecting high standards eventually won’t be just a choice for youth media groups, it will become a necessity. As the national funding climate continues to constrict, foundations and others increasingly look to support groups that are not only engaging youth in innovative and effective ways, but that are also finding ways to expose the work to a broad audience.
And it’s not just funding we need to worry about. Groups that don’t adapt the core principles of organizations like Youth Sounds—creating high-quality youth-produced work that is widely distributed and a diversity of expression that moves beyond the social documentary format—may ultimately lose not only money, but the interest of those they serve.
Above left: Uth TV media makers on set.
Dave Yanofsky is the programming director for Uth TV, a new media company. Before coming to Uth TV, he served as executive director of Just Think, a youth media nonprofit. He also produced and directed the award-winning film
Poetic License, broadcast by PBS and accompanied by a national curriculum used in schools across the country.

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