With a written rebuke by a senator from that state, a new 'reality' show capitalizes on Capitol Hill outrage to get noticed.
Of all the campaign ads screened in the "Media and Politics" class I teach at the University of Minnesota, one that still stuns students is "Convention."
Created by the 1968 Nixon campaign, the incendiary, instantly controversial ad had no voiceover, but instead a sped-up, nervous version of "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," meant to mock Chicago, site of that year's disastrous Democratic National Convention.
Even more than the jarring audio, it's the visuals that still startle. With a quick-cut pace well ahead of conventional '68 standards, pictures of convention hall chaos, disturbing urban riots and casualties in Vietnam are interspersed between unsettling stills of newly nominated Hubert Humphrey, alternately grimacing and grinning from the podium.
There are also stark depictions of appalling Appalachian poverty. A man, appearing gaunt and haunted, peers from a front porch. A mother and daughter with dirt on her face sit at a sparse table. An American flag droops in a broken window, through which a boy blankly stares, his broken hope seemingly symbolizing LBJ's failed "War on Poverty."
Yet despite the depressing characterizations, the faces retain nobility that evoke the iconic Great Depression photos of Dorothea Lange. "Convention" doesn't mock Appalachia, but rather the failure to help it.
Conversely, the faces of MTV's new "Buckwild," a "Jersey Shore" meets "Jackass" reality show set in Appalachia, are different. These West Virginians are portrayed as more nubile than noble, less dignified and more decadent.
Kissing, cussing, shooting, shouting, laughing, lounging, mumbling (some need subtitles), mudding and mugging for the faux-reality show, they show poor judgment but don't seem poor. The hillbilly affectations mask affluence unobtainable to previous, prouder generations: These country kids have multiple motorized vehicles to pull stupid stunts on, and they trash furniture after being evicted not because of poverty but partying.
"Buckwild" angered Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., even before Thursday's premiere. Based on previews (evidently he didn't need to drink the whole carton to know the milk was spoiled), Manchin wrote MTV to "formally request that you put a stop to the travesty called 'Buckwild.' ... Instead of showcasing the beauty of our people and our state, you preyed on young people, coaxed them into displaying shameful behavior -- and now you are profiting from it. That is just wrong. This show plays to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia."
MTV declined comment. It didn't need to say anything: A stern senatorial rebuke was priceless advertising, just as when Garden State Gov. Chris Christie jeered "Jersey Shore." With "Buckwild," MTV, expert at extensive envelope-pushing, cut through the cultural clutter by capitalizing on Capitol Hill outrage, gaining attention (and probably viewers and advertisers) in a TV world morphed from the Big Three to the little 300 networks many now receive.
Manchin commented on commercialism, MTV-style, when he wrote: "As a U.S. Senator, I am repulsed at this business venture, where some Americans are making money off of the poor decisions of our youth. I cannot imagine that anyone who loves this country would feel proud about profiting off of 'Buckwild.'"
Proud? Uncertain. Profitable? Probably. Reality shows like "Buckwild" aren't just cheap, they're inexpensive.
But they're usually fleeting. Princeton, which tied Harvard as U.S. News' highest-ranked national university, is much more durable than "Jersey Shore" as a state icon. The damage to West Virginia's image should be limited, too. Most know that any state can conjure up a similar set of embarrassing ambassadors, and that "reality" TV isn't, well, real.
To be sure, among the videos and voyeuristic series like last year's parental panic, "Skins," MTV has a long history of programs with social angle. Recent examples include explorations of college costs, the 2012 campaign, HIV youths, stopping student suicides and human trafficking, and other laudable efforts.
Maybe MTV's next pro-social platform should be a look at the roots and ramifications of real poverty, which still afflicts 21.9 percent of U.S. children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But "Buckwild" -- more "The Real World" than real world -- seems more like MTV, a network once considered "edgy," but one that is really rather establishment. Owned by global conglomerate Viacom, the network is profiting from its familiar formula of modeling -- and monetizing -- indiscretion.
Truly edgy, even radical, would be a sincere, consistent commitment to young people, not alternately elevating and denigrating them. Conversely, as cynical as "Convention" was, at least that era's earnest effort was to lift up, not put down, Appalachian youths.
Not so much with "Buckwild." Indeed, it seems MTV got the show's title only half-right.
Buck(s)? Certainly. Wild? Hardly.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
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