Monday, January 14, 2008

Week of 01/14/2008

MTV’s Manufactured Reality
– by David Matthews 2

Once upon a time there was a cable channel called MTV.

Back then, the “M” part of MTV stood for “Music”, as in “Music Television”. MTV validated that by airing non-stop music videos. They didn’t just talk about music, they SHOWED it.

MTV used to insist that cable providers carry their channel. “I want my MTV” was the battle cry of artists turned into pop-culture celebrities. Remember those days? This commentator certainly does. And he wonders where HIS MTV went. They certainly don’t air music videos like they used to! Gone are the days when you could turn on MTV at any time of the day and find a music video. No, you have to switch to MTV2 to see music videos because they simply don’t have the TIME to air them.

Nowadays the “M” in MTV stands for something else. It stands for “Manufactured”.

First and foremost, MTV manufactures an image, not only for itself, but also for its viewers. MTV sells an image of a pop superstar’s life as being glamorous, wealthy, and fun-filled. We get to see their “Cribs” and be amazed by all the really neat things they have. We get to see Escalades and Cristal and flat-screen TVs. They push hip-hop fashion, they pimp out vehicles, and they encourage kids to be reckless and wild and crazy by showcasing crazy stunts, even going so far as to show the gory mishaps of those crazy stunts.

But the other thing that MTV loves to pride itself in is reality-based programming. The “Real World” is probably the oldest-running reality-TV series to date. And, unfortunately, it pretty much set the stage for every other reality-TV show that followed. If they didn’t succeed, then it’s highly unlikely that you would have ever seen “Big Brother” or “Survivor” at all. Even the European shows that those were based on got their lead from “Real World”.

Now obviously there is very little about so-called “reality TV” that is truly “real”. You put a pre-select group of people chosen for their quirky personalities into a heavily controlled situation, you tell those people to really exaggerate their quirky personalities for the camera, and then tape it all and call that “real”. It doesn’t matter if those quirky personalities are relative nobodies or celebrities or even relatives of celebrities, it’s still a glorified rat maze, and it’s still all done for the sake of entertainment.

Now I will give MTV credit for SOME of their “reality TV” programs. Their series “Made”, for instance, helps otherwise hopeless young people make their dreams a reality. They’re usually not the “perfect people”, but they get some help, they get a trainer, they get a makeover, and their lives are much better because of it. THAT is the kind of quality positive programming that people are looking for.

Sadly, though, what has been falling under the category of “reality TV” of late are shows that are narcissistic by nature. For every show like “Made”, you have eight variations of “My Super Sweet Spoiled Bitchy Sweet 16”, which highlights spoiled rich bitches having their heavily-catered “Sweet 16” parties complete with private concerts, horse-drawn carriages, and of course getting that brand new ultra-expensive fuel-guzzling car. Spoiled little primadonnas whose true values in this world are worth less than that of a slug compared to the people who are highlighted in shows like “Made”. BUT they are, by their narcissistic nature, “quirky personalities” that encourage reckless consumerism, so the programming executives at MTV consider them to be marketable. Or you have shows like “Remote Control” where nosy parents blatantly conspire to break up their child’s relationship with an obnoxious jerk or bitch and then the whole half hour is spent insulting everyone before the child (in most instances anyway) stick with their current relationship.

That’s how MTV sees their viewers: reckless, stupid, lazy, narcissistic, eager to party, and having money to burn even when it seems that they really have none.

Of late, though, MTV has really put out some shows that make you question whether or not they are truly real.

First there’s “Laguna Beach” and it spin-off “The Hills”. They CLAIM that these shows are “not scripted”; that these are actual people living “real lives”. But watching just five minutes into either show will cause you to question that claim. Perfect little personalities living seemingly perfect lives full of continual drama and conflict and so much phoniness than you just want to puke your guts out in frustration!

Hey, here’s a clue: real life does not have guest stars! They don’t have “special appearances by”. And they sure as hell DO NOT HAVE “season finales”!

Then there’s Tila Tequila; the former Playboy model who transformed herself into a MySpace diva, and then into a singer. MTV decided to give her a “reality TV” show called “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila”. And if that in and of itself wasn’t enough to get the attention of the masses, they decided to really spice it up and have her announce that she is a bisexual and that the prospective suitors would be both guys and girls!

Sure the moralists threw screaming hissy fits! That was expected! The more they bitched, the more people would want to see the show just to see what the fuss is all about. And to a large extent, it worked.

But then on November 30, 2007, as the series started moving towards its conclusion, the New York Post fired off a devastating bombshell about Tila and the whole show. According to the Post’s “unnamed source”, not only is Tila NOT a bisexual, but the whole concept itself is a SCAM. Tila supposedly isn’t “looking for love”, because she’s had a steady boyfriend that she is unwilling to part with. The story also claims that Tila is a diva that is always late and doesn’t associate or communicate with anyone outside of the cameras.

Let’s drop the whole bisexual part of the accusation and all of the usual accusations of being a “diva” for a moment here. The bisexual thing is pretty much shock value anyway. The core issue here is whether or not “A Shot at Love” is a scam.

Now I don’t know about anyone else, but one of the really cruelest tricks you can play is with a person’s heart. To set someone up, to lead them on, and let them believe that something magical could happen if they just give a little bit of themselves. Let them jump a few hoops and embarrass themselves and built up their hopes of that “something special” that would make it all worthwhile. And then, suddenly, break their hearts and show that they made fools of themselves FOR NOTHING! Or, worse yet, for the sake of ENTERTAINMENT!

That is cruel! It shows a degree of malevolence and just plain EVIL that not even soap opera writers are willing to explore!

So you would think that if MTV and Tila Tequila herself wanted to dispel the accusation that her show is a fraud that they would show the “happy couple” in as many places as possible, right? Maybe a quick video up on MySpace of the two of them happy together? You know, after the finale when the winner is announced?

No such luck.

Rather than refute the accusation, they simply plowed on through the reunion show and then just a couple of weeks later they have the MTV New Year’s Eve party, with Tila as the host.

But right off the bat you have to wonder… where’s the lucky winner? Where’s Bobby?

Well wouldn’t you know it? Bobby “broke up” with Tila! He supposedly couldn’t “handle her busy schedule”! You know, that “busy schedule” that Tila constantly talked about during the whole series.

How utterly convenient! Bobby supposedly called Tila, even though he himself said in his own MySpace page that he never had Tila’s phone number. It’s a little hard to call someone when nobody will provide you with the means to contact them. Their reunion show host pointed out that Bobby and Tila were kept separated after the show, supposedly for “legal reasons”, which seems to be the standard for reality-based shows when relationships are involved, and probably explains why many of them ultimately fail.

But Tila doesn’t just leave it at that. Eager to show that she’s really not distraught by this loss, she not only announces that MTV has given her another season of “A Shot at Love”, but also proudly says “This time I wanna find love for real!”

For REAL? You mean to say, Ms. Tila, that the sixteen guys and girls who embarrassed themselves on TV… that ate disgusting foods… got humiliated by you in an S&M dungeon… who took you into their homes and introduced you to their family and friends… who got into knock-down drag-out FIGHTS over you… and in the case of “poor Bobby” even went to the HOSPITAL for you… did it all FOR NOTHING? For the sake of ENTERTAINMENT? That you REALLY weren’t “serious” about “finding love”, and now, suddenly, you are?

In other words, boys and girls, Tila Tequila pretty much VALIDATED the claim made by the mystery source in the New York Post that the show is in fact A SCAM! A cruel, cruel joke played on those that put their names and reputations on the line.

Of course it’s not ALL sad news for the cast members… two of the “personalities” get to have their own spin-off dating show. And the lesbian firefighter who came in second is something of a local celebrity herself now, simply because she was “dumped” by Tila Tequila.

But let’s get brutally honest here… MTV has a SERIOUS credibility problem because of this! It is one thing to fudge the rat maze and stack the deck with “personalities” and encourage them to go to extremes… it’s another thing entirely to fudge the ultimate prize. That’s called FALSE ADVERTISING!

It’s like telling the contestants that the grand prize is a brand new Porsche and then handing the winner a Matchbox toy car. If you tell the contestants that the grand prize is to be in a relationship with Tila Tequila, then that is what they are going to compete for, and it does THEM and it does the viewers a huge disservice if you either tell them or let them believe that this is all just for entertainment and that they really won’t get anything other than notoriety of being the fools that they are.

Plus it sort of kills the whole deal for the next time around. WHY SHOULD people either compete in or watch the next season of “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila” if they suspect that the winner won’t get Tila in the end? Why go through it all? For what? Notoriety? Fame? And why bother watching it? They know – or at least now suspect – that the winner will be conveniently dumped at the end of the whole thing anyway. He said, she said… it doesn’t matter who breaks up with whom at that point. It’s all meaningless because you won’t have any viewers left who will care!

Not to mention that this sort of crap doesn’t do Tila any favors either. It’s one thing to be called the “MySpace Diva”. It is another thing to be accused of actually BEING a diva. Nobody likes an actual diva.

For the record, I should point out that MTV isn’t the only one fudging on the “ultimate prize”. Fox’s show “Hell’s Kitchen” originally promised ownership of a restaurant, but then changed it behind the scenes so now putting up with Gordon Ramsey’s foul mouth and abusive antics for a whole season can get you A cooking job, but not THE cooking job. But even then MTV still takes the cake by creating not one but two ad-libbed soap operas and trying to convince people that those are reality.

The claim of “being real” carries with it the responsibility to prove that it really IS REAL. You can’t say that something is REAL and then say that certain elements are scripted. The whole game show genre found out the hard way that you can’t fix the results. Likewise, the world of professional wrestling lost quite of bit of credibility when World Wresting Entertainment had to grudgingly admit first that what they’re doing is really not SPORTS, but SPORTS ENTERTAINMENT, and then had to admit even then that much of what they do may be ad-libbed, but the outcomes are still scripted. Even seasoned journalists have been caught fabricating stories, and it has come back to hurt them.

Clearly MTV is falling down that same path. Whether or not they will have to answer to the same people that humbled the game show and wrestling genres is not clear, but one thing is for certain… there will come a time when they will have to rely on that credibility and they won’t have it, and it will hurt them. And when that moment arrives, if they want to know how it could happen, all they have to do is think back to when they started passing off fiction as “reality”.

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