How many “scandals” has MTV orchestrated in recent memory? And yet when they erupt, scorn is not directed at MTV, but heaped on the performers. And only the female performers, at that.
After the MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show which saw Justin Timberlake ripping Janet Jackson’s bodice and revealing her breast to a national television audience while singing that he’s going to have her naked by the end of the song, the incident was thereafter referred to not as the MTV halftime show, but as the Janet Jackson incident.
Likewise shortly after this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, Twitter and social media lit-up with “Can you believe she did that?” commentary. But maybe the question people should have been asking is “Can you believe MTV is at it again?”
In fact in the day and a half since the VMAs aired, my guess is millions of words of virtual ink have been spilled talking about what Miley Cyrus did, but very little of the criticism has been directed at MTV, which hosted, directed, and televised the program; or at Robin Thicke, the willing accomplice.
Which is not to say that Miley Cyrus is not responsible for her performance, and it’s not to let her off the hook. But at any point MTV could have pulled the plug on the performance, and they didn’t, which means they are equally complicit and equally culpable for what aired. What is more, it was MTV, not Miley or any of the other performers, who chose to rate the program as appropriate for a 14-year-old child, it was MTV that sold ad spots for violent, R-rated movies and condoms.
It’s time to talk about MTV and their role in this whole big mess, and why cable customers are still footing the bill for a network that would probably soon cease to exist if not for the forced extortion from cable bundling.
Several years ago, PBS aired a documentary called “The Merchants of Cool” that examined how products and performers gain currency in the popular culture. Quite contrary to what television and movie studios, record labels, and video game manufacturers would have us believe, the entertainment industry does not merely deliver what consumers want. They decide which performers they want to promote and then create a closed feedback loop to spur and then satisfy demand for that performer. That’s how artists like Lady Gaga come out of nowhere to become a pop culture sensation, seemingly overnight.
And MTV is instrumental in this process of culture creation. MTV decides which artists or careers they want to promote, MTV tells its pre-teen and teen age fans who’s cool right now, the fans buy their tracks or albums, they flock to the concerts, watch their performances at the Grammys, VMAs, and the cycle continues. Hot one minute, gone the next.
And that’s what makes MTV so insidious. Impressionable young teens and pre-teens are looking to MTV for social cues. They are looking to MTV to tell them what’s cool, how to behave, and what’s expected of them. And MTV knows it. Yet they continue to produce trashy reality programs like “Real World,” “Jersey Shore,” and “16 and Pregnant;” they continue to churn out reckless original programming like “Skins,” and “The Hard Times of R.J. Berger;” and they continue to orchestrate publicity stunts at venues like the Super Bowl and the VMAs.
And MTV is well aware of its influence with young consumers. In a marketing memo MTV at one time sent to prospective advertisers, they boasted that "’MTV has had as far-reaching an influence on many facets of popular culture as any cable television network. It’s (MTV) effects on music, TV and lifestyle fashions have been deep and enduring’ (Daily News, 7/01). Why? ‘Everyone who has a TV knows there is something called MTV.’ (Businessweek, 2/18/02). Since most cable networks typically skew 35+, you could be missing out on reaching valuable young viewers. By adding MTV to your media schedule, you can attract and capitalize on the12-34 year old audience.”
The memo went on: “Our audience is deciding what they want. MTV’s median age is exactly when a majority of young American adults begin to form life-long brand loyalties. Young adults 15-17 are excited consumers and extremely impressionable. Now is the time to influence their choices. 12-34 year olds have higher brand recall and more recognition than 35-49 year olds. In fact 69% make their purchasing decisions based on brand name, not price.”
So they know that children in the demographic they are trying to reach are extremely impressionable, yet they continue to inundate them with messages promoting casual sex, binge drinking and other reckless behavior.
More than half the children in this country to have television sets in their bedrooms. Surveys indicate that 44% of children say they watch something different when they are alone than when they are with their parents, and 25% of those children choose MTV.
The incessant sleaze on MTV presents the most compelling case yet for consumer cable choice. As it now stands, most parents have no choice but to take – and pay for – MTV if they want basic cable in their homes. Given the choice, how many parents now being forced to take and pay for MTV as part of a basic cable package, would continue to do so?
Cable is now in nearly as many homes as broadcast TV. We can no longer afford to ignore the rising tide of vulgar and violent programming on cable aimed directly at our children. It’s time for a better option.