It seems like a lifetime ago - before Tipper Gore cravenly backed out of the culture-criticism business so her husband could more effectively mine that Hollywood cash - that MTV was criticized for its racy music videos. What began more than 20 years ago as a music channel today is mostly the headquarters for envelope-pushing, teen-driven sex and violence. The "M" really ought to stand as a rating, except the last thing MTV cares for is mature audiences.
How bad is it? A new survey by the Parents Television Council analyzing last season's worst shows on basic cable television found that no less than five of the ten worst shows on basic cable originate on MTV. None has anything to do with music, either.
There's "The Andy Dick Show," a truly weird and unfunny sketch-comedy program from the former co-star on NBC's "NewsRadio." In one skit, Andy plays host of a MTV "dating" show called "100 Percent Sex-cess," which forces contestants to have sex with one another almost immediately. That's not too far off from the attitudes displayed across the schedule, including the infamous weeks of spring-break coverage.
The most representative display of the MTV ethos is "Undressed," the teen-titillating show with an enormous and rotating cast of copulating characters. We're not supposed to really get to know any of them, since perhaps we'd conclude that they are hopelessly adulterous, pathologically afraid of commitment, or worse yet, boring after too much exposure.
Let's be blunt: adults with access to real pornography can easily replace this playground with stronger stuff. This network is not meant for them. MTV is sex entertainment, soft-porn designed specifically for teenagers who can't easily hit the seedy side of town with a fake ID card. Nearly every type of sexual adventure is fair game for the show. If you want to wear a panda suit with leather underwear, go ahead.
But I'll tell you one idea that's too ridiculous for display: Consequences. No one gets pregnant. No one catches a venereal disease. No one is doing anything immoral, wrong. In a very real sense these "reality" TV shows are based on anything but reality.
MTV was a real pioneer in this pseudo-reality genre some years ago when it introduced "The Real World." Here MTV throws a bevy of exotically named college kids into a house so the audience can watch all the pairing and fighting as it happens. Obedient to Hollywood's cultural rules, the show always carries a gay character, sometimes more than one. Also in keeping with the rules of moral relativism it usually features one religious (which is to say, repressed) person who will realize the errors of his conservative ways by the fourth episode. It's not that these characters aren't given some sympathetic portrayal; it's just that this sympathy is expressed because the youngster has been so warped in his upbringing.
But that concept's getting a little old, so MTV made a big splash last year with "The Osbournes," documenting the dysfunctional family of drug-addled rock dinosaur Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy sits around his house mumbling so badly it almost requires subtitles. (The man is so incomprehensible it must take a linguistic specialist in the censorship booth to figure it out.) Ozzy's a passing fad and will serve as a role model for no youngster, so the damage here is minimized. Still, it's rather sad watching some politicians trying to appear hip by praising him because his bizarre family is still intact, as if that's some sort of superhuman accomplishment.
The slate of five terrible timeslots is filled out by "Celebrity Deathmatch," where youngsters get to enjoy coarse clay-animated human cockfights, replete with the mandatory sexual overtones, between caricatures of famous people. Watch "Little Richard" rip off his own nipples and throw them at "L'il Kim!" Hey, how about Sex and the City star "Kim Cattrall" being impaled on a giant dildo? You are probably offended, disgusted reading these words. But not to worry: The show isn't aimed at you. It's targeted to your children.
Any parent who takes a few nights sampling this platter will find the inconsistency in barring children from attending R-rated movies while letting them watch anything unsupervised at home. Eternal vigilance is not just vital for the survival of our freedoms, it's the clarion call for any parent allowing a television set in the house.