- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

A T-shirt available in Ocean City this summer proclaimed: "I may have to get older, but I don't have to grow up."

That could well serve as the operating credo for MTV, the cable-TV network that marked its 20th anniversary recently with a spasm of self-congratulatory programming.

People magazine joined in with a retrospective "extra" issue, a special "collector's edition" devoted entirely to the anniversary. In it, People notes how "culturally pervasive" MTV has become, and how it "remains as relevant as ever."

It was eerily reminiscent of August 1991 when, in marking MTV's 10th anniversary, the Associated Press described the network as "the dominant force in popular culture [today]." In an equally sycophantic cover story, TV Guide at the time gushed that MTV had "helped create a new visual language, shaped fashion, defined a youth culture, and just may have saved [the recording industry.]"

That MTV has had an impact on American culture is undeniable, but whether that impact has been positive is an entirely different matter.

Late last month, for example, it was reported that Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores had fallen yet again in several school districts throughout the region. Could there be any correlation between 20 years of MTV and a decline in educational performance that, as former Education Secretary Bill Bennett has said, has put our nation at risk? Excessive TV viewing is typically cited as one of the causes of the academic free fall, and MTV is the No. 1 cable channel for 12- to 24-year-olds, according to Nielsen Media Research.


What began as an outlet for mindless, though mostly harmless, music videos in 1981 has evolved — or, perhaps more accurately, devolved — into an irresponsible amalgam of puerility ("Celebrity Deathmatch," "The Tom Green Show," "Jackass"), promiscuity ("Undressed") and political correctness ("The Real World," "Choose or Lose," "Fight for Your Rights") aimed at impressionable youths.

Last week, the cable channel — a multibillion-dollar cash cow for parent company Viacom available in about 79 million U.S. homes — ran a promo for its annual MTV Video Music Awards show in which sitcom star Jamie Foxx simulated having sex with a sheep. What precisely simulated bestiality has to do with videos or music or awards is not readily discernible (nor, for that matter, was it even clear whether it was with a ewe.)

Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow could not possibly have foreseen MTV when he remarked in the early 1960s that TV had become "a vast wasteland." With MTV, it's more like half-vast, and it's a good thing Viacom never made good on its early-1990s threat — er, um, promise — to spin off two or three new MTVs. MTV2 was launched on the 15th anniversary, in August 1996, to fill the music-video role its older sibling had largely abandoned, but the mind boggles at the thought of the kind of programming the other spinoffs might have offered.

With the moral entropy that MTV seems to celebrate, one wonders how its programmers can outdo its sheep promo — but don't discount the possibility out of hand.

It may be time to do to Viacom what Charlton Heston did to Time-Warner a few years back to protest the vile lyrics of rapper Ice-T's "Cop Killer" recording.

As you may recall, after Mr. Heston read the lyrics aloud at a July 1992 shareholders meeting, embarrassed Time-Warner executives dumped Ice-T from its artists roster, and his career has never really recovered.

Perhaps a quick-cut video of the best of the worst of MTV — set to "Limbo Rock," with its line "How low can you go?" repeated over and over — should be delivered to Viacom shareholders (most of whom probably never watch the channel) prior to the company's next annual meeting.

In the People article, Bob Pittman, MTV's first chief, is quoted as saying that back in the beginning "we had to decide 'Are we going to grow old with this audience, so when they're 50 years old, they'll still be watching MTV?' And we decided: 'We don't want to grow old.' "

Maybe not, but a little bit of maturity and responsibility would be welcome. Otherwise, one cringes at the thought of what MTV's 25th anniversary will bring.

Peter Parisi is on the staff of The Washington Times.

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