Sheila Nevins is widely regarded as the most powerful executive in the documentary community. Often described as the “de Medici of Television” for her unwavering support of nonfiction filmmakers, Nevins is responsible for developing, producing, and acquiring documentaries for HBO and Cinemax. Her advocacy for the genre is legendary, as is her knack for cultivating rising talent, particularly women filmmakers, such as Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien), Meema Spadola (Breasts), and Alexandra Pelosi (Journeys with George). With her unfettered curiosity, a highly attuned social conscience, and a unique eye for the moment of impact between reality and drama, Nevins has consistently sought to develop a slate of programming that represents the full spectrum of human experience. The projects she champions range from the serious (In Memoriam: September 11, 2001, New York City) to the seamy (late-night blockbusters Taxicab Confessions and Real Sex). As she once explained: “We give them titillation, and we give them prestige—very often not in the same show.” For Nevins, both avenues are vital, not only for the survival of the nonfiction canon, but also for the continued growth of HBO as a brand. It is this idiosyncratic approach—a merging of the heartbreaking with the breathtaking—that has come to define her programming philosophy.
Nevins was born in 1939 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her father worked for the post office and sidelined as a bookie, while her mother, who lost several limbs to a cruel illness, worked a variety of jobs to help the family meet ends. A voracious reader, Nevins grew up in a home without a television, was obsessed with dinosaurs from an early age, and spent most of her youth at the Museum of Natural History, quietly honing her devotion to the connection between the past and the present. She studied dance at the High School of the Performing Arts, majored in English at Barnard College, and earned her master’s degree at Yale University’s School of Drama, where she was one of two women in the directing program.
After graduation, Nevins moved to Washington, DC, with her new husband, but found it difficult to merge her performing arts aspirations with the duties of a housewife: “I was actually a very good theater director, but no one was going to hire me, partly because I was married. I married a man from Yale Law School, and he told me there were certain requirements to be married then. One was that I could not work on weekends, and I couldn’t work nights... so, if I couldn’t work evenings and I couldn’t work weekends, then I couldn’t work in theater.” Nevins eventually found work with the Television and Film Service of the United States Information Agency (USIA), a producer of documentaries for overseas audiences, and spent several years trotting the globe as the leading lady of Adventures in English, a popular series of vocabulary-enhancing videos.
Anxious to get behind the camera, Nevins joined up with documentarian Alvin Perlmutter, who was preparing a new series for National Educational Television (a precursor of PBS) called The Great American Dream Machine. For Nevins, working on this show was “probably the seminal experience of my life because it was television without a narrator.” In an inspired touch, she hired direct cinema pioneers Albert and David Maysles (their Salesman remains one of her favorite films, along with Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, U.S.A.) to film man-on-the-street interviews that would bridge each segment of the program. This notion of allowing ordinary people to share their secrets and dreams and lives without interruption or interpretation would play a major role in shaping Nevins’s programming sensibilities.
In 1979, after stints as a producer with ABC News and the Children’s Television Workshop, Nevins was working for Don Hewitt on the CBS news magazine Who’s Who when she was asked to recommend someone for a new position at the fledgling cable channel Home Box Office. Intrigued by the frontier possibilities of cable television, Nevins interviewed for the job herself and was hired as HBO’s director of documentary programming. In her naiveté, she presumed that she would actually be directing documentaries—an anecdote she often recalls with a laugh. At the time, HBO was in the process of expanding its programming (mostly movies and sporting events) from eight hours a day to twelve. Documentaries where looked upon as a relatively inexpensive way to fill air time, and Nevins was given the mandate of finding them.
“It was like being on the back of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin,” she explained to Mollie Gregory, author of Women Who Run the Show. “It was going to change the nature of television, not just technology. . . . I also liked the idea that people would pay for it. That was like the theater, buying a ticket to television instead of getting it for free.” Nevins’s arrival at HBO coincided with the emergence of the home-video market, and she was encouraged to deliver original content that would help HBO retain its competitive edge. She started with historical biographies and consumer reports, but soon realized that everyone—not just the famous or the celebrated—had a story to tell. “If you listen to real people, the resonance and dialogue is way above anything that anyone could recreate,” she says. “The best stories are the real ones and the best people to tell them are the ones who experienced them.”
Nevins was also intrigued with the creative license offered by a pay channel that ran unedited R-rated movies, particularly since such offerings generally garnered the highest ratings. “There was no need to curtail what was happening,” she explained to Real Screen magazine. “That’s when reality began to be as interesting to me as theater, because it meant people could realize their stories to their full extent and where they could take them, whether the stories were happy or sad or violent or tragic or sexual.” It was, for Nevins, a moment of emancipation, and she set about distinguishing HBO as a destination for the most provocative and pioneering nonfiction programming to be found on television. Among the prominent filmmakers she has recruited into the HBO stable: Jon Alpert (Life of Crime 2), Kate Davis (Southern Comfort), Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt), Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy (Pandemic: Facing AIDS), Lee Grant (Down and Out in America), Susan Hadary and William Whiteford (King Gimp), Alan and Susan Raymond (Children in War), and countless others.
Most of these documentaries are broadcast under the banner of America Undercover, which began in 1995 with the aim of spotlighting contemporary issues of strong social relevance and visceral appeal. Among the many highlights of this acclaimed series are: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Murder On A Sunday Morning, Arthur Cohn’s One Day in September, and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. In 1995 Nevins launched Cinemax Reel Life as a venue for independent producers, such as Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman (Born Into Brothels), to have their work seen by a national audience. In the early eighties, she took a brief hiatus from HBO, during which she created television’s first reality-sex show, Eros America, and won a Peabody for producing the children’s show Braingames. She returned to HBO in 1986 as chief of its documentary and family divisions and has remained in that capacity ever since. Her productions have garnered virtually every major screen award, and in 1998 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association. She was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 2000.
Overall, documentaries bearing her imprimatur have won thirty-four prime-time Emmy Awards, thirty-seven news and documentary Emmy Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, and twenty-five George Foster Peabody Awards—including, in 1999, a personal Peabody for being “one of the true independent spirits in television today, whose passion and vision consistently create excellence.”