'Why Bother Voting?' is unlikely to convince its young target audience

September 09, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

If you want to see how truly out of touch PBS is with young viewers, watch "Why Bother Voting?" -- the public television comedy special that airs at 8 tonight on MPT (channels 22 and 67).

Lisa Bonet, formerly of "The Cosby Show" and "A Differen World," is host of the hourlong show, which PBS is calling "the first-ever voting primer for the MTV generation." Other guests in this production, which PBS says is aimed at getting 18- to 34-year-olds to vote, include Carol Kane, Robert Klein, Mark Linn-Baker, Tatum O'Neal and supermodel Paulina Porizkova.

If we want to talk about firsts, it should be pointed out that MTV has been running an imaginative campaign called "Choose or Lose" -- aimed at getting its 18- to 34-year-old audience to the polls -- for more than a year now. It has included many "voting primers," as well as savvy convention coverage and a much-discussed "town meeting" with Bill Clinton.

I suspect the folks at PBS have seen MTV's election-year efforts, because "Why Bother Voting?" tries to beg, borrow and steal the look, tone and feel of them. They try, but they fail. Boy, do they fail.

The biggest mistake this show makes is bringing in baby-boomer celebrities, like Klein, Kane and Linn-Baker, to serve as voices of authority. In a press conference to promote the show during the summer, Kane referred to herself and the others as "children of the '60s."

But research on the twentysomethings, whom this show is trying to reach, indicates that the 18-to-34 group dislikes nothing quite as much as "children of the '60s" telling them what to do. Baby boomers are not only their parents, but also the generation whose Vietnam-Woodstock-Motown popular culture has dominated their lives and suppressed their culture -- except in places like MTV and, in recent years, Fox Broadcasting.

Bonet is a genuine twentysomething, but she seems just a tad too much, consistently over-reading the script and occasionally making her actress' voice crack with emotion as she begs viewers to vote.

Talk about style over substance. WETA -- the PBS station in Washington that produced this special -- tried so hard to imitate the quick-cut, fast-wipe, off-center, color-splashed, screen-slashed, jumpy-jerky, visual signature of MTV that it all but forgot about having something smart to say beyond, "Please vote."

This is a show that not only talks down to its young audience, but talks down to them without having much of anything to say. A better title for "Why Bother Voting?" might be "Why Bother Watching?"

COMEDY SPECIAL

What: "Why Bother Voting?"

When: 8 tonight.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

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