LORI BERQUAM (University of Wisconsin dean of students from 2008 to present) in a 2009 press release: Unfortunately, it appears that MTV squandered a tremendous opportunity to show one of the most active and engaged campuses in the country. The network’s view of campus life is not reflective of the challenges and opportunities experienced by the majority of our student body.
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DAVID WEXLER (show creator, writer, producer): I think the first documentary I ever saw was “Hoop Dreams.” … It followed these kids in high school playing basketball, and I had ended up re-watching it kind of recently, and I thought this four-year period is really interesting to me, and I had thought of the time when I had kind of changed the most in four years. I thought it would be fun to follow that, to follow that progression.
TRICIA DICKINSON (marketing director, UW Communications): [David Wexler] had sort of an interesting back story. From what I recall he was from the New York area and did not want to come to school here. It was not his top choice, and he ended up coming here and loved it. He really felt like this school was an amazing place and it heavily influenced him, and so he thought it was the perfect place to tell the story of the amazing experience of the University of Wisconsin.
So, he came and pitched us that story. … We certainly agreed with this concept – that Madison is an amazing school that changes a lot of people’s lives. Students come here and do wonderful things and because of the experience they have here, they leave and do wonderful things. So that was the whole concept of the show he was suggesting.
DAVID WEXLER: MTV immediately wanted to go the UCLA, USC route, sort of the sexy, sleek, blonde, everything you would think. And, by the way, I have only the greatest things to say about MTV, I can tell you how I think they handled the whole thing. But I really wanted a raw, kind of, “This is what my college life was like.” I wanted to show it off. … I couldn’t imagine any other place, really.
Unfortunately, what happened is, we kind of got the green light and then the dean switched right when we were about to shoot.
LORI BERQUAM, in a 2009 press release: We understand the power of MTV and were initially honored to be considered for a program that could showcase our unique experience. But the “College Life” they’re selling is nothing more than a stereotype that disrespects our students and harms our institution and the value of a UW-Madison degree.
DAVID WEXLER: I think I can kind of see where this person was coming from, you know, “Right when I come in, is it a good idea to have this thing”?
TRICIA DICKINSON: Right around the time we were getting comfortable saying, “Yeah, I think this could be interesting, maybe it could be a documentary, maybe it could be something cool,” he sold the show to MTV. And that happened without us knowing.
What happened, from our perspective, is that once MTV got involved, the focus of the show shifted. At several points, we said, “We don’t like the way this is going. We’re not comfortable signing a contract.” At that point, things sort of just broke down. … We had a sense of what they were looking for, and that’s why we said, “The university doesn’t endorse this show.”
DAVID WEXLER: What wound up happening is it kind of almost turned into this exploitation film. Almost from the first frame on. We had this slate that said, “This show has not been approved by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” That’s sexy for ratings; that’s sexy for shows. That’s not what I wanted, though.
I didn’t feel like we were allowed – you can’t show classrooms, you can’t show libraries, you can’t show anything on campus, so, what else are you going to see? My hands were tied at this point. So at this point it began gearing toward a little more of the social life versus the academic life. And again, I don’t blame the university.
SUE WITHUHN (mother of a 2008 UW freshman): I know Madison has a lot to offer out and about with the bars and the social scene, but I thought maybe some of the clubs could be highlighted and the whole Union experience could be highlighted. It was mostly, if I recall, house parties.
ALEXANDRA REED (ex-Badger Herald writer), in a 2009 feature about the show: The university has received criticism for choosing not to endorse the show, as without campus footage, the scope of the program would be very limited in what it could depict. Berquam agrees it was a possibility MTV could have chosen to film volunteer work and student organizations, but that’s not what they chose to do. “We struggled with the idea that this was reality TV and what would actually make for good TV,” Berquam said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be cramming at the library for an exam. We have a responsibility of protecting the value of a degree,” she added.
KYRA SHISHKO (UW freshman in 2008): All of the shots are in dorm rooms or house parties. Like, there could be no shots of campus, which is everything here, so they couldn’t show anything. … You know, going to the Farmers’ Market, Rec Sports, there’s so many things people do here, even as freshmen.
DAVID WEXLER: Even if you look at our cast of characters, which I think were great, I mean, we were really trying to showcase the university in the best light. One of them is this girl Andrea, who had never, I think, drank. She was just this kind of religious, straight-laced, powerful young woman. And everyone else, really, I think we tried to stay away from parties as much as possible.
ANDREA ENDRIES (cast member): When UW took their endorsement from it, what happened was I could no longer show my student organizations, I could no longer show that I was in the student library or the fact that I was getting a 4.0, you know, I could no longer show those things, so all my story became about was boy drama and party drama.
And I get that that’s what MTV is interested in anyway, but it’s like I couldn’t really show what I felt like was my story, because the school took away a lot of my story. And so that was frustrating. I understand that not everyone, not all the other characters had the same story, and so they had to be careful.
That was tough, but, you know, what are you gonna do? I get where the school’s coming from.
JOSH HICKSON (cast member): I kind of get where they’re coming from. I would say Kevin’s story with the alcohol and bad grades and stuff is pretty bad looking on UW. But if they would have let us film at UW, we could do the football experience and like all the gameday stuff, and people studying for finals in the right location compared to some random library.
JORDAN ELLERMAN (cast member): The show was about our personal lives, it wasn’t about UW. … I would have loved to film the clubs I was in and some of the really fun things I did in class or some of the things at the Memorial Union. I think it could have been great for UW, and I think they screwed up. I really think they did.
All the people on the show, save for Kevin, all the people on the show were good students. Lindsay Zadra was valedictorian of her high school. Josh and Andrea were really good students. I was getting straight A’s when I was at UW. We all would have loved to show a little more of what UW had to offer and shed it in a positive light. We just didn’t get the opportunity.
JASON SMATHERS (Badger Herald managing editor in Fall 2008): I think that people around here thought, well, this is a great opportunity for us to explain what it is to be a Badger and show how much, just pure fun we have on this campus. I thought people were going to imagine it as, “You get to see life as a Badger,” rather than “You get to see four kids in college.” I think that was the draw. Nobody cares about a bunch of kids in college – if that was the case then we’d still be watching “The Real World” and shit like that.
TRICIA DICKINSON: Wisconsin is a different kind of school. It attracts a different kind of student. We’re nationally known, and what the show focused on was the most mundane, stereotypical things people think about college – basically relationships and bad decisions about alcohol. I understand it goes on here at UW. It goes on at a lot of schools. But seriously, that’s not at all the most interesting stuff that goes on here. Of all the stories – all that goes on here – that’s what they chose to focus on? It just wasn’t that interesting to me as a consumer, someone who watches TV.
The best way I can summarize it is to say that it was a great concept brought to us by passionate alumni, which I totally appreciate, but it was the execution that just didn’t work.
ALEXANDRA REED, in a 2009 feature about the show: Overall, Berquam does not criticize Wexler’s original intentions and said she was optimistic about the possibilities of the show – but was ultimately disappointed. “I think [Wexler] had higher hopes than actually what ended up on screen,” she said. “I worry about these students.” Surprisingly enough, Berquam’s suspicions are false. Wexler says although he would have loved to work with the university, he’s been “pleasantly surprised” with the results of his work.
DAVID WEXLER: I think I remember – I think the university didn’t seem thrilled with it. There was a lot of confusion, and again, there wasn’t really a forum for me to explain it to them. So I remember that being negative.
Again, I just wish that, if we had the opportunity to work more with the school, we could have molded it more into what we wanted it to be. I mean, I was looking at some really entertaining, really PR things, just to really showcase how awesome the university is. I think that once there was that divide, like MTV versus the school, it was really hard to have anything except negative feelings.