Advocacy television for teenagers used to mean dowdy after-school specials and didactic video tapes. It was fodder for parody rather than an engine of real social change. That's until MTV development executive Lauren Dolgen came up with the idea for 16 and Pregnant. The riveting reality show, which was an immediate hit when it premiered in 2009, follows a different expectant teenager during each week's hourlong episode. The show 16 and Pregnant and its spin-off Teen Mom, which documents the lives of girls after they've given birth, don't shy from depicting the often grim day-to-day lives of young, sometimes single moms: They struggle to stay in school and pay their bills, they deal with abusive family members and boyfriends. At the same time, these programs treat their struggling subjects with dignity and respect by letting them tell their own unvarnished stories: Each episode is narrated by its heroine. The shows aren't merely great television; there is evidence that young women who watch narrative drama about teen pregnancy are more likely to use contraception, and research shows that viewing these MTV shows is positively correlated with support for abortion rights.
It's no surprise that Dolgen managed to come up with a complicated, often difficult show that still manages to hit a nerve with MTV's audience. She's spent her entire 13-year career at the network, which started with a college internship. She's not just the brains behind 16 and Pregnant—she's also worked on a diverse set of shows ranging from the daredevil slapstick of Jackass to the competitive energy of America's Best Dance Crew. As Dolgen puts it, "Although the audience is very specific—young adults and teenagers—the playground is quite large."
While 16 and Pregnant just wrapped its third season, Teen Mom's third season has just premiered—to record ratings. The shows promise to be staples of the reality genre for a good long while, and Dolgen's impact on advocacy television will continue to be felt—another Teen Mom spin-off has already premiered to an even larger audience. *
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Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy
Tina Fey, comic genius
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Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of The Book of Mormon
Correction, July 26, 2011: The original version of this article did not make clear that Teen Mom 2 has already aired. (Return to the corrected sentence.)