[FONT=Times]Who Hates Their MTV?[/FONT]
How the rebel network sold its soul for bimbos, princesses and bucks
by NIKKI FINKE
Let's talk about the end of civilization as we know it, in this case signified by the rise of Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and My Super Sweet 16, the logic-defying successors to the creepy I Want a Famous Face and that scummy Cribs. We feel your pain. We, too, remember when MTV used to be all about the issues — subversive and usually liberal. Now the network is all gab about the glam lifestyles, love triangles, mean girls and staged cat fights on these impossible-to-ignore unreality shows starring spoiled simpletons. We don’t mean to make like the Rev. James Dobson, but we’re certain that the MTV execs who green-lighted these docudramas about socioeconomic excess are headed straight for hell.
Nor are we alone in our thinking. Increasingly, college newspapers everywhere feature angry articles by normal students complaining that the once-worshipped music channel has abandoned its values and is embracing acquisitiveness for the sake of crass commercialism. Consider, for instance, this recent column in the Penn State Daily Collegian: “The saying used to be ‘I want my MTV.’ But for the last few years, all I can say is that I hate my MTV. I wish my friend Holden Caulfield was here. He would tell you how phony, superficial and just plain crappy that network has become. No music and no real substance . . . Does anyone believe money buys happiness? You would if you watched shows like Sweet 16 or Laguna Beach. Gag me with a spoon... MTV has hijacked who we are right now...”
How that writer would have howled had he heard Mr. MTV Network himself (since 1987), Tom Freston, Viacom’s co-president and CEO, boast at a Goldman Sachs global confab on September 21 that his company has created a “hit machine,” which he described as a “consumer-obsessed, terrific, program-development model.” The result is that “We take 25 cents of every dollar that is spent on cable.” Freston may actually believe what he says: that “the philosophy at MTV is constant experimentation, constant pushing the needle.” But to what end? He semi-apologized to the analysts for putting on shows like Cameron Diaz’s Trippin’, which he termed a “pro-environment show essentially.” Said Freston: “We knew it wasn’t going to be a big ratings success. But when we thought in terms of the pro-social part of things we do, and the image part of things we do, it made a lot of sense.” What he didn’t say was the truth: We only ran that show because this really hot celeb who dates Justin Timberlake hosted it. We all know the subtext: Ignore those do-gooder shows MTV throws up as a sop to our audience, and pay attention to our profits.
But MTV’s do-gooder shows are few and far between these days. Once upon a time, MTV meant something. Sure, there was commerce, and lots of it. But there also were milestones, ranging from Live Aid, to Rock the Vote, to the Motor Voter Drive, to anti–status quo news and politics aimed at younger demographics. Meanwhile, one news report this week says CBS boss Les Moonves is considering MTV entertainment chief Brian Graden to sex up CBS News. It's Graden who bears responsibility for all the crap on MTV now, having developed sickening fare like Laguna Beach, The Osbournes, Pimp My Ride, Jackass and Newlyweds.
“I’ll tell you exactly the day the music died on MTV,” former VJ Adam Curry (from 1987 to 1994) told me last week when I called him in London. “It was when the game show Remote Control came on air. It was a tremendous success. People were, metaphorically speaking, running through the hallways because all of a sudden there were major ****ing ratings. That was the knife. And after that, they ran Beavis and Butt-head, and so on. It was an understandable decision from a business standpoint.”
Which is why it’s too bad the buzz around Laguna Beach’s second season, which wraps up this month, has made it the ninth highest-rated cable series, with nearly 4 million viewers a week. What a shame that L.B.’s first season on DVD is doing brisk business. How sad that Journey’s golden-oldie song “Don’t Stop Believin’” became one of iTunes’ most downloaded songs after it aired on this season’s premiere. Kind of pathetic that the MTV Overdrive Web site plugs style news from the beach babes, who advise: “Wear oversized sunglasses, the bigger the better.” (No wonder the girls all look like they’re in the Witness Protection Program.) Clearly, this kind of contrived pablum is more palatable when it’s shot with high-tech digital cameras, made to seem like a movie, features surf wear and skimpy sundresses, and stars peroxide bimbos and six-pack-abs himbos. How we hang on every word of the riveting dialogue, like the wasted way that heartbreaker Jason Wahler (yes, these dimwits have last names) keeps responding to every probing question from his series of lovesick girlfriends with a simple “Dunno.”
Determined to kill off still more of our brain cells, MTV just announced a third season of Laguna Beach. In fact, the producers are in the midst of interviewing prospective cast members. Good luck: There’s something like a 20-page application to fill out. (Note to parents: Lock up your teens lest the cameras catch — as they did with Jessica this season — your daughter saying she’s a slut.) For next season, the producers are lobbying for access to the local high school. Not to worry, though: No one’s tampering with the concept. The old gang will come home occasionally to mingle with the new gang. All will swap spit — that is, when they’re not swapping phone numbers for Hollywood agents and publicists.
Yes, it’s sad but true: The entertainment business has spawned yet another brood of infamous no-talents mistaken for iconic figures. Already they’re staring out from magazines (Kristin Cavalleri on the covers of Seventeen and Rolling Stone, Stephen Coletti in a fashion spread in Teen Vogue), signing recording contracts (Talan Torriero and Alex Murrel) and hanging with Lindsay Lohan (at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel). For now, they are 15 minutes of fame away from hitting bottom and begging to take part in the next Reality TV All-Star Reunion Show for dumbed-down Bravo. What this means is that the L.B. airheads have driven north on the 405 freeway and settled in the Los Angeles area to seek stardom. But who wouldn’t dream big after months on end of being followed around by the two to three cameras assigned each cast member?
Kristin’s flack Jack Ketsoyan says she’s taking acting lessons, auditioning for roles and living in Marina del Rey. Talan is sporting a new rocker image, and his forthcoming album should be out next summer. He also has signed with United Talent for acting gigs. And Lauren Conrad (L.C.) is working as an intern for Teen Vogue, while camera crews follow her around Condé Nast’s West Coast bureau. That footage may mean a possible L.B. spinoff or just inclusion in the third season.
As for My Super Sweet 16, MTV has gone out of its way to showcase the most shocking examples of obnoxious teens and their over-doting parents. The result is a world where a coming-of-age party is imitative of Hollywood Babylon, with red carpet and VIP rooms (which exist solely to distance the popular from the not-so-popular in the nastiest way possible). We’re confronted by foul-mouthed scions demanding that their personal fantasies be indulged down to the last detail, no matter if that means horse-drawn carriages, couture clothing or Mercedes/BMW roadsters. Meanwhile, we’re bewildered by this I-wanna-be-a-princess, I-deserve-the-best attitude they all seem to have for simply existing. Who’s to blame: Princess Di? Paris Hilton? Disney movies?
The first Real World featured seemingly spontaneous angst over racism, sexism and homophobia. Now, MTV’s best-watched series has devolved into nothing more substantive than sordid bed-hopping. And Dubya might have been dumb enough to invite Ozzy to dinner at the White House, but we now know the Father Knows Best image MTV gave us of The Osbournes was complete bull****. Behind the scenes of those palatial digs and those decadent dinners and that compulsive shopping was an entire brood eventually headed to rehab for addictions and eating disorders.
My own disappointment with MTV occurred in 2003 during the run-up to the Iraqi war. That’s when Stephen Friedman, the vice president for public affairs, told me the network was compiling footage both pro and con the invasion for a big hourlong broadcast. It was going to feature young Marines going off to Kuwait, and anti-war activists like Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The old MTV would have gone ahead and made the documentary with a deliberately liberal point of view, conservatives be damned. But again and again, Friedman told me that MTV’s role was to “show all sides” — yet he mischaracterized the anti-war movement as “a small and vocal minority.”
In fact, MTV’s flabbiness on the issues was directly related to the increasing scrutiny that the Federal Communications Commission was giving media companies. No company was a bigger advocate of mergers and acquisitions than Freston’s Viacom at the time, and the FCC had regulatory control over that. But even that paled in comparison to the FCC’s 24/7 decency watch following Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction on that Super Bowl show organized on CBS by — you guessed it — Freston’s MTV. After that mishap, Viacom begged for mercy from the howling right-wing hordes
At MTV, executives like to say, “We worship at the altar of our audience.” But O.G. VJ Curry, who set up MTV.com in the pre-commercial days of the Internet and is now nicknamed the father of podcasting, wants to know “Just who is MTV’s customer these days: the viewer or the advertiser? Some of the great things you’re talking about that MTV did were actually fought for and put on the air by passionate individuals, who themselves were really talented kids who made it happen, then moved on. And there was compassion for it from an executive level.” Curry sighs, “But those kinds of people aren’t there anymore.”
Instead we have Kristin, and Talan, and Jason, and Alex M. frolicking in Laguna Beach. It’s an appropriate time to remember it was Dante who said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality.”