TV News in a Postmodern World
Part II, The Case for MTV

September 2003

by Terry L. Heaton

Prior to launching Music Television (MTV) in 1981, then Executive V.P. Robert Pittman did a little homework. "I love research," he said. "I don't say that too often, because it is something people look down on. But I use research to find out what people like and what they are doing." In his foundational MTV research, he learned the following:

What Teenagers Want:

  • Irreverence
  • Zaniness
  • Instability
  • Chaos
  • A frenetic pace
  • Lots of disjointed thoughts
  • In-depth info about music
And so MTV was born, in part, to feed back to teenagers what they wanted. Can anyone my age look at that list and not recognize MTV? Its marketing success is the stuff of legend, but there's something else going on at Music Television these days that bears analysis as an information conduit for young people. The music of MTV shares the spotlight with a steady stream of useful information offered through the lives of everyday people.

MTV's version of "news" relates primarily to the music and entertainment worlds, and MTV is certainly not a "news channel" using recognized definitions of that term. But it is providing an information service to its audience that is robbing the TV News industry of viewers it used to take for granted.

And I think TV News leaders should pay attention.

MTV's programming lineup is filled with reality programs designed to meet the information needs of the MTV audience. What are those needs? Well, let's take a look at some of the programming.

The Big Urban Myth Show looks at modern-day legends and helps viewers "decipher fact from fiction."

Crib Crashers lets viewers watch as someone gets their "crib" made over in the same style as a celebrity's while teaching people "how we can use a modest budget to turn our domiciles into a full-fledged Crib-dom."

Fraternity Life and Sorority Life teach viewers what this aspect of college life is all about through the sometimes bizarre stories of real fraternities and sororities.

MADE is all about people who desperately want to change their lives and are willing to do just about anything to make it happen.

Newlyweds follows a real life couple going through the ups and downs of just-married life.

Real World and Road Rules have been around for a long time and are based on real people involved in a variety of situations - some natural, others contrived. As the promotional copy says, we "find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real."

Taildaters is all about two people meeting for a date while friends and family tag along behind. It's a primer for dating.

True Life is my favorite, a wonderful documentary show where the drama of everyday life is played out simply because it's drama. It's not about winners or losers. It's about tryers. This program offers the points of view of everybody involved in the theme and uniquely reflects "the state of youth culture at any given moment."

The point is if you are a young person in western culture, these programs meet your information needs about growing up and living life. No lectures. No lessons. No right way or wrong way. They simply express, through the life experiences of others, what life is or can be like for the target demographics of MTV. It's very postmodern and, frankly, it's brilliant. Reality works, because it can't be hyped and manipulated - things these people increasingly see through.

Now, if local news were to take each of these topics and do "special projects" on each, they would miss the mark MTV has hit in several ways.
  1. There would have to be a point to each, a news "hook" upon which to hang the story. MTV viewers are saying, "Sometime there isn't a point. Sometimes its just life."
  2. There would have to be experts and resolution. After all, modernist news organizations believe in expert solutions to cultural issues. Not all viewers do, and this is even more the case with young viewers. Government is often included in news stories for this reason.
  3. Along the same lines, authority would be presented in the form of an outside observer, often the news organization itself. This is a bunch of crap to postmodernists who believe anyone who lives the life is a greater expert than one who observes it or even studies it.
  4. Artificial conflict in the form of 'counterpoints' would be inserted to 'move the story forward' and, of course, this is done in the name of fairness. Postmodernist young people view this as manipulative and another attempt to understand the un-understandable.
MTV's current 'in search of list' looks like sweeps week fodder. Does Your Girl or Guy Flirt Too Much or Have a Body Image Dilemma? Have You Been Unfairly Fired, Suspended, Dumped...? Are You Gay, Lesbian, or Bi-sexual and Starting College? Do You Want to 'Burn' Someone? About to Graduate and Looking for a Job? Do You Want to Make the Cheerleading Squad This Fall? Is Your High School Class Planning a 5-year Reunion? Were You Unfairly Branded a 'Slut' - and Did Something About it? Are you Bicultural and Trying to Date while Stuck Between Two Worlds? Are you on ritalin, GHB, in an interracial relationship, an EMS worker...?

It's sweeps week all right, and it runs 24/7. Think about it. If this channel puts this kind of effort into providing this kind of information, why would its audience need to go anywhere else?

So what can a news director in Averagetown, USA learn from this?

  • The world of information dissemination is evolving. Years ago, the MTV model would've been cost prohibitive. Tiny, hand-held cameras and laptop edit systems make following real life easier and more cost-effective. Maybe, too, it's time to redefine news. Aberration has become the norm, and people are turned off by it.
  • Be honest and especially with yourselves. You aren't nearly as important as you think you are, and that arrogance is projected in your product. Your (potential) audience is a lot smarter than you think, and a great many of them have decided they just donít need you anymore.
  • You don't have to sell so hard. Consider the concepts of attraction and leadership versus promotion and management. The harder you try to "manage" audience flow, the more you push people away. You have at your disposal airtime that advertisers pay thousands of dollars to obtain. Use it wisely. And please, please, please re-think the so-called "art of the tease."
  • Stop assuming you know, and let your audience define their own information needs. Young people, for example, live for the weekend and yet the closest news organizations get to meeting that need is through a calendar of events on the morning show. After all, it's not important enough, right?
  • You don't have to make sense out of everything. This is perhaps the most important lesson to learn, for it is this drive to understand (and especially to look like we do) that special interests have learned to skillfully manipulate. It's also what produces the air of elitism that accompanies much of TV news these days and separates you from people whose lives have taught them otherwise. The need to be authoritative is a death sentence when trying to communicate with people who reject authority.

    I think MTV has earned the right to be taken seriously in the world of information television. Their storytelling methods are provocative and compelling, they understand their audience, they regularly meet the information needs of their viewers, and they do so with a non-judgmental respect that's refreshing. One does not have to like or accept the role they've played in our culture to appreciate the expertise with which they fulfill that role.
  • Mr. Pittman has long been gone from MTV, but his legacy is evident.

    © Terry L. Heaton


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