ATTACK OF THE REALITY-EATING CLONES
MTV is one of the most potent symbols of American youth. MTV influences how millions of people worldwide shop, talk, dress, dream, and define themselves. Young Americans, near-or-at voting age, watch MTV News more than any other news program. And to maintain this popularity, MTV carefully crafts an image of rebellion, freedom, individuality, and confidence. MTV's viewers demand authenticity, honesty, and autonomy; not bogus adult insincerity or selling-out. And yet...
On June 2, 2003 the FCC will decide whether to drastically deregulate ownership of TV, radio stations, and newspapers. This means the corporate interests of MTV are at odds with the interests of MTV's audience and the music we love. ``I find it very disturbing that one company could end up owning all radio or TV stations in one town, and all the promotion companies and venues across the country,'' says Mike Mills of the band REM. ``That sort of cross-boundary monopoly makes it very threatening for any band.''
MTV is owned by Viacom-- whose video monopoly is even more complete than Clear Channel's radio monopoly. Viacom = the original MTV, as well as MTV2; MTVi online; plus VH1; and the country music video channels CMT and CMT Canada; MTV en Espanol; all the overseas MTVs like MTV Europe; MTV5 (Russia) - even a 24-hour video channel in South China. And don't forget, BET is no longer Black-owned. It's now part of Viacom.
But music videos are just the tip of the iceberg:
Viacom also owns the cable channels Nickelodeon, TNN, Showtime, SciFi channel, Movie Channel, and Cinamerica. And they own half of Comedy Central (The other half belongs to AOL Time-Warner which owns CNN, HBO, Court TV...World Championship Wrestling... the Atlanta Braves... and even 53.75% of cable TV in Hungary, among much much more.)
But back to Viacom-- they absorbed CBS in 1999, so Viacom includes CBS News, CBS Radio Network, Face The Nation, 60 Minutes, CBSMarketWatch.com, Sportsline, and SonicNet...and The Price is Right, Late Show with David Letterman, Everybody Loves Raymond, as well as Daytime Emmy Award-winning soaps such as Guiding Light and As the World Turns. Did I mention that Viacom also owns the Daytime Emmy Awards?
Viacom owns some theme parks, too. So it's fitting that their their corporate headquarters has a big presence in the corporate theme-park takeover of Times Square. And if you go down to Ground Zero, you'll see that the scale-model showing what the new WTC will look like-- already has a big MTV logo above the main entryway. What's with that?
Oh yeah, I almost forgot that Viacom is also Paramount Pictures. So they also own the UPN network. And-- by owning Paramount Television-- Viacom owns Star Trek & all it's spin-offs. Viacom literally is The Borg.
...and Viacom owns Blockbuster, the largest video store chain in America, notorious for all the movies they choose to not make available for rental.
Viacom owns print publishers Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, Free Press, Macmillan, and Scribner’s.Viacom owns a bunch of magazines, and I don't even know which ones.
Viacom, like rival Clear Channel, controls massive territories of billboards. Viacom's outdoor ad empire includes "exclusive advertizing rights on buses, subways, trains, kiosks, billboard and other venues in NYC, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, Philly, Detroit, Houston, Atlanta and 82 other US cities, and cities in Mexico, Canada, Britian, Ireland and throughout Europe."
AND-- speaking of Clear Channel-- Viacom also owns Infinity Broadcasting (now Infinity Broadcast Operations). A lot of Infinity stations carry Rush Limbaugh. It's hard to say how big Infinity is (no pun), because their FCC licenses don't necessarily divulge ownership in a straightforward way. Similarly, many Clear Channel radio stations are listed under the shell corporation AMFM, rather than the name Clear Channel. So Viacom (as Infinity) does claim WJFK-FM of Maryland and WPGC-FM Washington DC under one name, as well as other area stations. But they own WBZZ Pittsburgh, which has an overlapping broadcast range, under another name. At one point, Viacom was reportedly denied ownership of Washington D.C.'s UPN Channel 24 TV by the FCC-- because they owned too many radio stations in the Capitol area. But after massive deregulation in 1996, the FCC punked out, and gave it to 'em. Along with -- WBMD, WBGR, WHFS, WLIF, WQSR, WXYV, WWMX, WJZ-DT in the same area.
Firsthand, I can report that MTV has a creepy corporate culture. At one point, I had a friend working at the indie record label Caroline Records, and another who was running an entire sub-division of MTV. I was a bike messenger at the time, so I'd hang out with each guy when I visited their buildings. At first glance, the staffs at both offices were young hipsters.
But one day I realized the Caroline employees dressed in distinctive styles-- showing personal taste and affiliation: the punk girl, the rockabilly king, the big-pants raver. Over at Viacom, there was a well-groomed non-specific 'youth' look-- like a back-to-school shopping mall ad in the newspaper. Pod people. Allegience to any specific youth-tribe or subculture is a bad career move at MTV, where Identity is for sale-- packaged as fad, demographics, marketing, ratings. Employees knew not to personally associate themselves with anything 'hot', because soon it would be obsolete.
In the 90's, you couldn't fall off a bar stool in Manhattan without bumping into a half-dozen Generation X'ers in negotiations with MTV to 'develop' something, or who did a pilot that was shelved, or sold an animated short that was never aired. MTV feigned interest in _everybody_, but mostly they were just trying to cover all their bases. So they just wasted everybody's time in countless useless meetings.
A buttload of bands can tell you about how their video only showed on MTV once or twice, in the middle of the night. (My former band included.) That way, MTV could avoid complaints that certain musicians got heavy exposure and constant rotation, while other bands were 'never shown'. Once is better than never, but barely.
Tellingly, my MTV-exec friend once explained to me that, at MTV, 'Drugs Don't Exist'. Meaning that there's a conspicuous silence about the presence of drugs in Rock & Roll. It's a carefully constructed blind spot, to maintain MTV's advertiser-friendly image. And to let them target a child audience. Yet, such blind spots are not an MTV-specific phenomenon. Ever notice that there are certain criticisms of President Bush that get only perfunctory airing on major-media? Come to think of it, his history of drug use is one such forbidden topic.
Speaking of reality; MTV was a pioneer in 'reality' TV shows, which -- as you all know -- are amazingly devoid of Reality. Of course, it was a quest for low-cost programs that drove MTV's interest, not an interest in Reality. The Real World is in it's umpteenth season. It's the grandfather of the 'force a bunch of strangers to live together' sub-genre, such as Big Brother. Syndicated 'dating shows' are knock-offs of MTV's versions. MTV's Road Rules came before Survivor-- but that's not surprising, since Big Brother and Survivor are on Viacom's CBS network. That surely explains why the song 'Survivor' by Destiny's Child was constantly pushed on MTV; while Survivor (the TV show) was aiming for ratings on CBS.
MTV's 'reality' strategy extends beyond the obvious, however. There's VH1's Behind the Music-- which is emblematic in that it was seemingly a true glimpse behind the scenes-- but once VH1 found a formula, Behind the Music quickly degenerated into cookie-cutter product. Making musicians' stories fit the template; with no room for reality that didn't fit the tabloid mold.
Then there's "The Osbournes", which I like quite a bit. But I am well-aware it's good _despite_ MTV's bland house-style; not _because_ of it. Look how many sucky shows were inspired by The Osbournes, in a foolish quest for copycat formula, instead of originality.
There's a strange feedback effect on all these reality shows; where the people who appear on them after the show is a hit-- start behaving the way they have previously watched others behave on the same shows. These days, cops who appear on Fox's COPS, for instance, know the script. They know what generic cop-stuff to say while driving around.
But, I digress. What I wanted to say was-- that MTV features a sickening amount of fake behind-the-scenes/fake-reality programming. Such as MTV Cribs, where celebrities lead a camera crew on a lame Lifestyles of the Rich And Famous type tour of their homes. Yet it's all canned. There's rarely any glimpse of the entertainers' real lives.
There are endless 'Making of' shows that are just infomercials for other MTV programing. It's odd to stumble across the out-of-date 'Making of' a Sisquo video that is really a commercial for that Godzilla movie that flopped a few summers ago. Or a 'Behind the Scenes' of Beyonce Knowles' made-for-tv-movie; also conveniently an MTV product.
It's a suffocatingly self-referential pseudo-reality, which cannibalizes it's own marketing hype. It's very George W Bush. His handlers keep him in a plastic cage, where he breathes his own farts & no fresh air can intrude.
Sadly, even my favorite MTV reality program-- JACKASS-- is enjoyable mostly-because it is a refreshing break from the unreality of other reality shows; and the fakery of corporate TV in general. It's the exception that proves the rule. I like it because I'm desperate for anything good. And JACKASS is another example of MTV's "Drugs Don't Exist" blind spot, judging by the offscreen antics of the show's stars. Damn-- just more pseudoreality.
All of the above describes the the mediascape as it currently stands. If the FCC gives in to corporate pressure on June 2, the worst parts of this situation will be ripe to multiply like zits. Youth media--along with every other variety of media-- will quickly become much more centralized, generic, boring, narrow, and repetitive. Maybe dangerously so. A relentless hunger for American pop culture was our best defense against Soviet propaganda, from WW2 until the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall fell-- because oppressed masses wanted their MTV. But that was back when MTV was small, and less entangled. Instead of winning the world over with our great pop culture, next time WE could be the dreary monoculture the world's masses are fighting to escape from.
Fewer than 1% of public comments to the FCC about the June 2 ruling have been in favor of the change. And yet there's a very real chance that 99% of the public will be ignored. FCC Chairman Michael Powell (son of Colin Powell) has refused to reveal the specifics of his proposed changes, until AFTER the vote. Does that sound like he really cares what the majority thinks?
And yet we are not powerless. Find out how you can Take Action!: http://www.reclaimthemedia.org/
And when voting time rolls around, you know what to do.