Media executives and cultural critics discuss the changed culture in which kids are growing up today, and the forces influencing this change.
head of programming for MTV
There's been a striking edge to some of your programs. Was there a need to
make programming pop to get the attention of the kids? Was that a conscious
thing to have to do?
The programming absolutely had to pop. And the word "edge," while it's loaded
with implications, has always been an important part of the brand promise of
MTV. And certainly things like "Celebrity Death Match" and Tom Green and some
of the other things that we've done have received due attention as edgy
One thing we've tried not to do is to shock for shock's sake. There are
definitely shows that are doing that now, and I don't have to name them for you
to figure out what they are. That's not the right brand promise for MTV, and I
don't think it's right exactly for this demo. ...
At MTV we are absolutely in a constant internal discussion about our role in
the media. ... It is a non-stop discussion, because we take the responsibility
very seriously to not put dangerous things out there. At the same time, the
reason the audience trusts us in the first place is because we don't censor.
We present their art in the most honest way. . . . We won't cross violence
lines. We won't cross certain language lines. But otherwise, we will let the
art express itself as purely as possible....
I have to ask you about..."Undressed." What is the genesis of that
show, and what was the idea there?
The genesis of "Undressed" is interesting. We had a show four years ago called
"Singled Out," which was a very hot show. And it ran its course. We said, "We
have to be talking to our audience about relationships. Somehow we have to
have that reflected on our air." We'd like to do it in a way that isn't
"Singled Out" and isn't some sort of cheesy game show that was great in its
day, but let's move on.
And at about the same time, Roland Joffé came in and pitched the show
"Undressed." And his pitch was really interesting, because he is fascinated by
these small conversational moments that ultimately really say volumes about a
His pitch was that you don't get honest until you get home at night and you
start to get in bed. Once you . . . get undressed--which was his
metaphor--that's when you start to get real.
. . . When we saw "Undressed," we realized that he went to a place that was
deadly honest and that dealt with things like you would deal with if you were
21 years old. Most of the situations are organically provided by writers who
were in that demo, situations that they either lived or friends had lived.
So we made the decision simply to put it on at 11:00 because it was perhaps
racier than we originally envisioned. At the same time, that was the artistic
vision. It was appropriate for after 11. And it's certainly true to the
reality of what it's like to navigate sex and dating for this audience
So your assumption is that kids are not watching this.
That's our assumption, yes.
a media critic and the author of Boxed In: The
Culture of TV
In a thoroughly commercialized environment, there is very little incentive to
be careful of the sensibilities of particular segments of the audience.
Thirty years ago, a certain kind of commercial approach to children would have
been unthinkable. Thirty years ago, children's TV programs were, by our
standards, largely laughable in how slow and elementary and often sentimental
they were. People marvel at the miracle that is Mr. Rogers, because he is such
an unusual kind of figure in today's media world. Once the commercial logic
takes over, children are fair game along with everybody else.
I can give you a very dramatic example from the world of book publishing.
Bantam Books was the second mass market paperback company to be formed in the
United States just after World War II. And it was conceived deliberately with
large masses of young readers in mind. Books like The Grapes of Wrath,
Shakespeare's Greatest Comedies, Jane Eyre, sold for 25 cents
with the aim of making sure that young people who weren't rich could get hold
of really good books. And it did very well.
Well, by now Bantam Books is part of the Bertelsmann empire, which is
the largest book publisher in the world, a commercial entity based in Germany
that dominates the American publishing landscape. A couple of years ago,
Bantam came out with the Barfarama series for young male readers 12 to 15 with
titles like Dog-Doo Afternoon and The Great Puke-Off. These are
all brainlessly scatological books that were packaged just to make a buck. Now
some of the people who do them claim, "Oh, at least we're getting young people
reading." That's a very disingenuous thing to say. This is going deliberately
and systematically for the lowest common denominator, and the logic there is
purely commercial. It has nothing to do with literary quality or with
introducing the joys of reading to the young.
The same kind of callousness, the same kind thoughtlessness, the same disregard
for propriety and the same uninterest in what kids really need and like
dominates throughout the culture industries. If you watch Saturday morning
kids' TV, you can see it in programming that is unrelievedly frantic, hyped-up,
hysterical, and, in its own way, quite violent and pervasively commercial.
It's all about selling, and this, I think, is the primary reason why there is
something of a crisis nowadays, a cultural crisis involving children. It is
not because there are fugitives from the 1960s generation who are in control of
the media. It's not a communist plot. It's not because bad people are
involved in those industries. It's because of the inordinate influence of
commercial logic and the commercial imperative overall.
... How does the concentration in a few companies fuel a kind of
hypercommercialism and lowered standards?
When you've got a few gigantic transnational corporations, each one loaded down
with debt, competing madly for as much shelf space and brain space as they can
take, they are going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the
most people, which means that they will drag standards down. They're not going
to be too nice about what they choose to do. They'll go directly for the
please center. They're going to try to get you watching and buying right away,
and what this means is that they are going to do as much trash as they can,
because that will grab people.
The word "trash" is old-fashioned, because this is a state-of-the-art, highly
sophisticated venture that we're talking about. They're using all the most
brilliant means of measurement and surveillance to figure out what we're all
about. They focus group everything in a million ways. So we have a highly
sophisticated enterprise that's engaged in a kind of regressive project.
They're trying to sell as much junk as they can by appealing to the worst in
all of us, but they do it some extremely civilized means.
a media critic and author of Rich Media, Poor
Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times
.... I think music gets better and culture gets better when people engage
socially and politically. The two go hand in hand. So I think if there's a
broadening of interest in social and political issues among people, the music,
even within the crummy commercial system, will get better, if you understand
the relationship. There are other factors besides just EMI's research and
marketing department that influence the nature of music.
When those factors are systematically removed by corporations, do you find
that music and the sentiment around it coarsens?
You mean when it's more commercialized? I'm not a great culture theorist.
I'm not even a bad cultural theorist. I'm not really a cultural theorist. So
I'd be careful to give the answer to this, but my hunch--as sort of a political
economist assessing these industries--if, in fact, the political critique of
music is zapped out, the people want controversy in their lives. They want
that sense of struggle and conflict. Then you replace it with sort of the
Howard Stern-Eminem stuff, a lot of misogyny, a lot of violence, which gives
the illusion of conflict and tension and excitement without the real thing.
It's just picking on the weakest members of society. That seems very
controversial, and it's commercially viable, but it's not the real thing.
Iovine is co-chairman of Interscope Records. His label includes
cutting edge gansta rap and rage music stars such as Tupac Shakur,
Dr. Dre and Eminem.
If I understand you correctly, you respect the kids' culture. You do try to
understand it, but you don't try to moralize about it from the adult
perspective. You sort of accept it and try to get to the bottom of it and
service it as a record company.
We do a lot of things here. And I do a lot of things personally. There's just
no way to stop a movement in popular culture. It's going to happen, with or
without you. There's absolutely no way to stop that train.
Now, having said that, do I think that everything is for kids of all ages?
Absolutely not. I don't believe that. I think that we need parental
supervision. I think people should watch their kids. I think they should
watch what they eat, watch what they drink, watch what they watch on TV, watch
what they listen to--absolutely. People that work in stores or in theaters
should pay attention to parental advisories and to ratings. Absolutely. They
should pay attention. They should follow what the rules are. And if someone
doesn't like the rules, they should change the rules. They should raise the
bar or lower the bar, whatever suits their fancy.
... You're saying the culture can't raise your kids. . . .
It doesn't try to. Your kids are creating the culture, actually. It's not the
other way around. The question you pose is a very interesting question,
because I don't know the answer. I don't think anyone knows the answer. ...
One man's improper lyrics are other man's political message.
Or another man's sense of humor . . .
a writer for The New Yorker and author of Nobrow:
The Culture of Marketing--The Marketing of Culture
The traditional role of the tastemaker was, in part, in keeping a certain level
of proprietary in place in terms of the television that everybody watched. We
think of the Walter Cronkites ... people who represent as much tact and
politesse and decorum and a gentility that seems very much a part of a
different age than the age we live in today.
I do think that television, in its early years, played a significant role in
that standard-setting, enforcing a certain decency among people. They took
their role seriously, and the people behind the camera took their role
seriously, too. I do think that is something that's really changed in our
world today--that so-called tastemakers or programming executives are not
using those standards anymore in deciding what to put on the air. It's not
important anymore to reinforce some notion of propriety for an MTV audience. I
think if you asked them, they would say, "We don't think it's important at
all." They would say, "We just think it's important for the family to do that,
and it's not our job."
That is often the argument that, for example, Eminem makes, when he's asked how
can he put this level of coarseness into his music. His argument is, "Well,
it's up to the parents to see to that. If they don't want their children to
watch me or listen to me, then they should not have the television set on."
But in reality, that's not possible for a lot of families, because they have
one television set. It's in the central area. It's on because they want to
watch the news or they want to watch the latest election count or the latest
compelling docudrama. And so the kids want to watch MTV. How can the parents
say, "Well, we want to watch Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton," and
maintain that that's somehow a level of decency and propriety that's much
higher than what the kids are watching on MTV? It's hard to make that
argument. So it's probably not just MTV that this . . . promotes this
coarseness. It's part of the world of today. It's just that the barriers tend
to not be there anymore.
Is there something about the hegemony of today's marketplace that leads to
In a crowded marketplace, where everyone is trying to be heard and where
there's an amazing number of choices, the loudest, coarsest, most shocking
voice does tend to be the one that at least grabs your attention for a moment.
And since moments are the currency within which modern media trade, that's all
that really matters.
Now that we have the web, where there are plenty of websites like
"darefordollars.com," where you can pay someone to do something really gross,
like cover themselves with dogshit. It puts together the audience with the
people that are willing to do that. And so there you see something beyond MTV.
. . . I don't think it's entirely driven by the needs of programmers to get
I also think that it's part of the reality TV, the aesthetics of reality that
people want to hear--people speaking the way they speak on the street, or they
want to watch sports and they want to hear what the guys actually say in the
huddle, or they want to hear rappers rapping how they really rap and not how
they rap for TV. A lot of people are fed up with the attempt to filter out by
tastemakers and they say, "Just give me the real stuff. Give me what the real
language is, and I'll be the one that decides whether it's coarse or not
coarse." So that's another element in that, too.
. . . I find Eminem to be remarkably gifted, verbally. I'd almost call him a
poet, but like a verbal performer. As a writer, I find the way he uses
language and rhythm to be very inspiring. But at the same time, the content of
his music, of his words, is extremely troubling. And people my age wrestle
with that. How can you like the performer if you find the message to be so
And then I think to myself, well, maybe this is another difference between
people our age and younger people. They do grow up in this environment
saturated with these angry messages, many of which are concocted for marketing
reasons alone. They have a radar and an ability to make a distinction between
the performer and his style, and the words and their meaning. And so they can
like the one without necessarily buying into the other. Or they can even
recognize when the other is playing a game with them. Eminem's lyrics are so
over the top that perhaps one can see him as parodying the violent content of a
number of gangsta lyrics. But then other adults will say, "Oh, but you're
being a Pollyanna about this. You can't for a moment allow people like Eminem
to be an influence on our kids. We have to keep this out."
I do think that kids have developed a more sophisticated ability to filter out
some of the anger and rage and see it from what it is, which is just
manipulative or even a joke. They can take what's good about the music, and
they do that much more efficiently than we do.
Another thing that's different about today is that there are so many more
channels for music and for culture and art than there used to be, but there's
not necessarily that much more talent. Talent, rare talent, is a constant from
age to age, and there just aren't that many people who are truly gifted.
But today we have much more space to fill up with the not-so-gifted people than
we did before. So you, as an audience, become the filter that the technology
and media used to provide, just in terms of having a limited number of
channels. Now you have a massive number of channels and, therefore, you have
to have content on all of them. So you have stuff that's really total dreck
and is pure marketing, and then you have stuff that actually does have a kernel
of some artistic integrity inside it. But it's all smushed together and thrown
at you, and it's up to you to make the choice. And that's different from the
way it used to be.
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