On today's MTV, anyone's a star

TELEVISION

Its growing lineup of shows obsessed with celebrity culture has left the music video in a mere supporting role.

October 24, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

In the beginning on MTV, there were music videos.

Lots of them. Twenty-five hours a day of them, it seemed, featuring the biggest names in pop music. Or at least enough that you could catch a video pretty much whenever you flipped to the channel.

But turn on MTV today and you'll likely find a karaoke show with goofy, ordinary people prancing around and caterwauling to the Backstreet Boys. You'll see a show where crazed fans are co-stars when they meet celebrities like George Clooney, Mariah Carey or Snoop Dogg. Or you can tune into the documentary-style miniseries "Real World" in Hawaii and catch the latest melodramatics of Ruthie -- a bisexual, alcoholic, quick- tempered, strip-club-loving nudist.

All interesting fare, I must admit. But the MTV that started 18 years ago as a music video network seems to have evolved into a place where videos -- the staple that propelled it to huge popularity among the 12-34 set, its target demographic -- are now also-rans.

Its shows today reflect less emphasis on music, or even on the visual interpretation of music through quick-cut, fast-paced, slickly produced videos. Rather, MTV squares the glare of its lens directly on the ever-expanding cult of personality with shows that celebrate the notion that anyone -- and everyone -- can be a star.

Through MTV's lens, not only are the singers and movie stars celebrities, so are the sub-par karaoke singers, the screaming fans, the formerly everyday people chosen to bare their lives on "Real World." People like Ruthie, who now is not only on my television screen every Tuesday, but just had her own spread in People magazine.

That's what it's come to. In the hype-focused culture reflected on MTV, the Everyman has assumed tremendous importance. Everyone is fascinating. The non-celebrity is a celebrity.

Take "Total Request Live" (TRL), MTV's daily 90-minute show to count down the Top 10 music videos. The show's cherubic host, Carson Daly, his audience and the thousands of screaming fans lining the streets outside are as important as the videos themselves.

MTV's trademark quick-take format jumps from Carson to the teen-age members of his screaming in-studio audience, then back to Carson, who sends the camera to a second host in Times Square, who interviews a bouncy fan on the street, who screams into the camera that she's "THE BIGGEST BACKSTREET BOYS FAN IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!!!" Then it's back to Carson, who picks someone from the studio audience to jump up and say why she's "THE BIGGEST BACKSTREET FAN IN THE WORLD!"

Repeat the above about five times; that's TRL for you. Oh, and the Boys' latest sappy video is screened somewhere amid the screams.

Then there's "Global Groove," which comes on after midnight five days a week. Videos? Forget it. For half an hour, skimpily clad men and women in four cities around the world are shown gyrating and wildly thrusting body parts into the camera lens while a disc jockey spins the latest hip-hop dance tracks.

We don't know who these people are, but they're given air time. And we watch.

It's impossible to discuss the phenomenon of the uncelebrated being catapulted into instant fame without bringing up "Real World." The seven people annually brought together to live in luxurious, Jacuzzi-equipped mansions in exotic locales like Hawaii or London are not only strangers to each other, but to viewers as well.

But that hardly matters. After a few weeks of "Real World" episodes, you're rushing to get home every Tuesday night to see whether Amaya is still pawing at Colin, trying to get him to sleep with her. You're appalled that Teck brought that raunchy stripper home one night. And you're having lengthy discussions with friends about whether Ruthie really sought counseling for alcoholism and should be let back in the house.

Who are these people? Who cares! They are our MTV celebrities du jour.

Brian Graden, MTV's executive vice president of programming, says the network's shows reflect the desires of its target demographic. Audience surveys show the 12-34 crowd want cool. And their concept of cool encompasses real people and cutting-edge, full-blown attitude that you wouldn't find on say, the staid, sober and hopelessly un-hip broadcast networks.

MTV's research shows that its average teen-age viewer has grown up with MTV, can't remember a world without the Internet and are incredibly media-savvy.

"They're a very empowered demographic," Graden said. "Because they've been sold so much media and so much hype since they were extremely young, they're anti-hype," Graden said. "It's important for MTV to be perceived as not very commercial. We try to serve it up straight."

To this generation of viewers, simply watching the videos is not enough. They want to know all about the performers' lives and personalities. They want to inject themselves into the picture, too, because hey, who's cooler and more interesting than them?

Which explains the many MTV shows that, on the surface, anyway, take viewers behind the hype.

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