The programming gurus at MTV are basing their profit-making strategy on the viewer demographic of 12 to 34 - as if there's no difference in maturity level between 12 and 34. MTV's brand of sensationalistic "reality TV" was easily demonstrated on the night of October 5, when they aired a prime-time marathon (from 7 pm Eastern to 1 am) of their hour-long documentary series called "True Life." Just the episode titles were jaw-dropping.
1. "I'm Out."
2. "I'm Polyamorous."
3. "I'm Bisexual."
4. "I'm Changing My Sex." (This ran twice in a row.)
5. "I Work In The Sex Industry."
Some of these (Polyamororous, Bisexual, Sex Change) debuted in the last few months. Others weren't (the Sex Industry show debuted last year, "I'm Out" in 2006). Recent "True Life" programs without the Behind the Zipper focus, such as "I'm a Sports Fanatic," were somehow not sexual or outrageous enough to be selected for this marathon targeted at 12-year-olds and up. MTV isn't kidding when they tout the series as "remarkable real-life stories of young people and the unusual subcultures they inhabit."
Just for the record, the MTV website advertises these "True Life" programs are not given content ratings, so there was no chance a parent relying on the empty promise of V-chip technology would keep these programs out of their home.
MTV programming chief Tony DiSanto says the new teens and twentysomethings are "the transparent generation," too wise to the ways of "reality" television. "They don't want to see a reality show that feels produced or is film-like," he said. "It's got to be real, authentic."
But MTV is also encouraging these demanding teenage viewers to feel empathy. The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently located Marlena Roman, a local 16-year-old high school student and a big fan of teen reality shows, especially MTV's "The Hills." She finds these shows "addicting. It's exciting to know what happens next. You can think about it, if you were in that person's shoes."
The fair question then becomes: Is MTV encouraging teens to think about being "in the shoes" of homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, the "polyamorous," and porn stars? It certainly pushes an ideology of sexual "liberation" to promote empathy. But it's also obvious that it can promote sexual experimentation and new sexual identities, not just personal sympathies.
When MTV Vice President of Entertainment and gay activist Brian Graden announced he wouldn't renew his contract in June, he and MTV chief Van Toffler wrote a syrupy memo together that said in part: "If you look at the shows we have all created together - especially lately - you can feel a tangible fascination with people on the brink of their next great adventure in life. We have called it aspirational television - capturing people at the moment of transformation into a bold new iteration of themselves."
It would not be daring to guess that shows like "I'm Changing My Sex" fit snugly into that "transformation into a bold new iteration" category.
It's more difficult for MTV to fit into the "aspirational television" category a heterosexual man who is "gay for pay, all the way" in pornographic films. "Aaron" was one of the stars of "I Work in the Sex Industry," alongside "Rachel," whose job was recruiting "hot" women to try out for starring roles in porn films. She says "porn is my destiny." His motto is "Everyone has a price." There was also a third protagonist, "Shawntelle," a college radio host who talked non-stop about her adventurous "sexcapades," on trampolines and elsewhere. Twelve-year-olds could see pixilated nudity and gay kissing and foreplay scenes.
After watching "I Work in the Sex Industry" last year, Ed Baker wrote a column denouncing it for the Arizona-based website College Times, even as he confessed he has not lived a highly moral life. To him, MTV is the Sex Education Channel.
"What makes this so unfortunate is that they target this message to an audience who is still, by and large, afraid to talk about sex. Kids don't want to talk to parents about this stuff. Schools and school districts are fighting over how to educate kids about it. And so, they're left to get most of their education from their friends, who largely learn it from other kids, and the stuff they read, hear and see. And that stuff includes MTV," he wrote. "I know all this because my sex education was basically formulated the same way. And my ideas about sex were incredibly skewed for years because of this."
Baker denounced the MTV documentary as a "BS-filled piece of porn industry propaganda meant to drive ratings." Then he lowered the boom on behalf of America's teenagers: "It's a lie. And that's unfortunate. Because it's aimed squarely at a group of people who could really use the truth."