When capitalist-bashing academics do battle with some of the worst corporate cultural polluters in America, for which side should a conservative root? This conservative, after watching that very clash take place within "The Merchants of Cool," the latest installment of PBS's "Frontline" series, wound up unenthusiastically backing the corporate cultural polluters - mostly because, to use sportscasting jargon, they didn't so much win the game as the professors lost it.
Much of the hour-long program dealt with the minutiae of market research into today's 32 million U.S. teens, whose spending power exceeds $150 billion. The five major youth-culture media conglomerates - Viacom, Disney, News Corporation, Vivendi Universal, and AOL Time Warner - naturally are looking for a big piece of that pie.
In the course of exploring the market-research practices of Viacom-owned MTV, "Merchants" presents clips from various MTV programs. Some are disturbing (snippets of the network's spring-break coverage in which girls cavort while "wearing" nothing but whipped-cream bikinis); some are disgusting (a "Jackass" cast member goes snorkeling in sewage).
But serious content analysis, alas, is essentially irrelevant to "Merchants." Its anti-corporate talking heads aren't there to condemn the sleaze these media giants are producing for children. Their complaint, rather, is that these corporations are just too darn powerful.
Mark Crispin Miller of NYU, speaking specifically of MTV, sees mind control at work: "The MTV machine does listen very carefully to children when corporate revenues depend on being ahead of the curve. You have to listen. [MTV has] to know exactly what [the young] want and exactly what they're thinking, so that [it] can give them what [it] want[s] them to have. Now, [here's] an important distinction. The MTV machine doesn't listen to the young so it can make the young happier. It doesn't listen to the young so it can come up with startling, new kinds of music, for example. The MTV machine tunes in so it can figure out how to pitch what Viacom has to sell."
Robert McChesney of the University of Illinois likens the media conglomerates to old-fashioned imperialists. "They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they're colonizing," he warns ominously. "You should look at it like the British Empire or the French empire in the 19th century. Teens are like Africa...[The companies are] going to take over, and their weaponry are films, music, books, CDs..."
Combine these two thoughts and you get a pretty frightening picture. Big, bad corporate America is conquering America's children! And there's nothing to stop them!
Except there is. It's called "parents."
What MTV is offering is utter garbage, to be sure. But like it or not, a great many children enjoy what MTV has to offer. And like it or not, neglectful or lax parenting often is to blame. There is, for plenty of teens, what might be called a parental-influence vacuum, which the media usually wind up filling. For example, as "Merchants" points out, three-quarters of teens have a television set in their bedroom. No way around this: three-quarters of American parents are deliberately refusing to monitor what their children watch. In fact, they are sanctioning these shows.
There's also a parental-influence vacuum when it comes to spending. One "Merchants" expert on the teen market comments that teens are "given a lot of what we call 'guilt money': 'Here's the credit card. Why don't you go online and buy something because I can't spend time with you.'" Note that the parent isn't even going as far as to select the item or items in question. With no one to guide their tastes, of course youngsters will opt for the forbidden fruit.
Corporate media executives know this full well. From time to time a network will launch a wholly ineffective publicity campaign urging parents to watch TV with their children as if somehow that is going to miraculously change that parent's irresponsible ways.
But the public isn't powerless. The industry can be made to change its product if there is a national outcry against it. During the '80s and early '90s, sleazy talk shows dominated daytime programming. There was, finally, a backlash from the public. Some hosts, like Oprah, were forced to change their ways. Others, like Phil Donahue, were forced onto the trash heap of cancellation. Only a handful, whose audiences are minimal, remain.
Parents depending on "The Merchants of Cool" to provide them with clues about today's teen entertainment marketplace weren't well served. The program suggested that there's no stopping the media-generated tsunami of trash. It would have been better for the program to suggest it's time parents started growing up.