Controversial video channel not as irresponsible as some say SEX & VIOLENCE & MTV

January 22, 1995|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

There is probably no greater sign of success than a brand name becoming synonymous with the product itself. For instance, almost no one ever asks for a tissue these days; what they say is "Kleenex." Likewise, plenty of people will "Xerox" papers even if the copier is made by Cannon.

So it is that for millions of Americans, MTV is music video -- a place where images of Green Day, Snoop Doggy Dogg and the like flicker across the screen in a steady stream of song and dance. It's a name, a product, a concept everyone knows and understands.

Unfortunately, that doesn't always work to the advantage of MTV, which is accused -- unfairly -- of inundating viewers with sexually provocative and violent images.

Recently, New York policeman James E. Davis, who last year successfully campaigned to have realistic-looking plastic guns removed from toy store shelves, announced he was organizing a boycott to get violent videos off MTV between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. "MTV is not being responsible," Davis said. "It is the vehicle that some rappers use for violence that is perpetuating itself in our community."

MTV executives responded by pointing out that the channel not only has standards that prohibit excessive violence (as well as drug references and explicit sexual content), but has sponsored an aggressive campaign of anti-violence ads and news specials -- dubbed "Enough Is Enough." It was also suggested that Davis had confused MTV with other video channels, since MTV had, in fact, never shown some of the videos Davis has accused them of airing.

It is true that the channel is no longer the monopoly it once was. In addition to its sister operations, VH1 and MTV Latino, there are several other full-time music video channels eager to chip away at MTV's market share -- including the Box, Country Music Television, MOR Music and Canada's Much Music -- as well as a host of part-time operations like BET and TNN. Some of these operations have looser broadcast standards than MTV does.

Still, the perception persists. Because MTV is so intimately identified with music video, the assumption is that its programming epitomizes the genre's worst excesses -- scantily clad women, malevolent heavy metal bands, gun-toting rappers. a result, it's easy for people to assume MTV's programming is sexist and exploitative, or to insist, as Davis has, that "MTV is playing violent images throughout the day."

Is MTV really as bad as all that?

Perhaps the best way to find out would be to watch it. So that's what I did, logging some 16 hours of viewing over a four-day period recently. What I saw would probably come as a shock to some of the channel's critics -- but not necessarily in the way they'd expect. Although MTV's programming isn't as wholesome say, the Disney Channel, what it airs is nowhere near as dark and disturbing as its critics claim.

The worst don't sing

The worst of what I saw on MTV actually came up in connection with its non-musical shows. At the moment, music video represents about 84 percent of MTV's weekly programming, with the rest given over to "Real World," "Sandblast," "The Week in Rock" and others. Most of these are variants on standard TV fare -- dramas, comedy and game shows -- and as such rarely stray into controversial territory.

Even so, a recent promo for the game show "Sandblast" advertised a soccer-goal competition by saying it offered "more shots than a Mac 10." Given the channel's professed sensitivity toward the issue of guns and violence, that line isn't just objectionable -- it's stupid.

Speaking of stupid, there's also "Beavis and Butt-head." This is by far the most controversial show on MTV, having been relegated to an 11 p.m. time slot after an Ohio woman claimed the show inspired her son to set fire to the family trailer, killing the boy's 2-year-old sister. Since then, MTV has taken pains to excise all references to fire from the show, and precedes each episode with a reminder that these guys are cartoons, and as such are not meant to be imitated. (Well, duh!)

That the show is often hysterically funny usually mitigates the moronic behavior of its two protagonists, either of whom would make the phrase "dumb as dirt" seem insulting to the dirt. Still, the "Tainted Meat" episode, in which Beavis parlayed a case of jock itch into a food poisoning crisis was enough to make even a dedicated fan like myself feel queasy.

By contrast, the worst that can be said of the videos on MTV is that some are just plain shown too much. (Watch before noon, and it seems as if Boyz II Men's "On Bended Knee" is aired every 45 minutes.)

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