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MTV's Occupy Wall Street Shows: Horrifying Co-Option or Great Publicity?

As OWS seeps further into pop culture, these are ever-pressing questions. Here's why we're feeling optimistic about it.
 
 
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Ready or not, MTV is coming to Wall Street. In the past two weeks, the network has announced that two separate programs based on the Occupy Wall Street protests are in the works—reality programs, naturally. First up: a search for “Sexy, Young Occupy Wall Streeters” for its long-running show “The Real World.”

The open casting call, sent out last week via Craigslist, immediately provoked ire from OWS allies on Twitter (@AziPayarah: “beginning of the end?) and from blogs (Mediaite’s take: “basically, a giant corporation needs a young person to exploit for money and so they’ve decided the best place to look is amongst that giant group of young people who are sick and tired of being exploited by corporations for money.”) The Onion brilliantly spoofed it, and the New York Observer hypothesized that perhaps the Real World's production company had come up with the idea after seeing the “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street” Tumblr. No one, it seemed, thought it was a good idea.

Alternately, this week MTV announced that on Sunday, November 5, an episode of its long-running documentary program “True Life” would focus on three young protesters over the course of two weeks at Zuccotti Park, in an episode titled “I’m Occupying Wall Street.” An advance five-minute preview focuses on protesters the night before Brookfield Properties was set to clear out the park for “clean-up”: it shows them working together to gather all of the trash and recycling to successfully prevent any clashes and, we know now, prevent the “cleanup.” An accompanying press release promises the episode will “capture the day-to-day realities of the protestors and uncover some of the motivations that continue to drive them.”

Last week, MTV conducted a marketing study of millennials (ages 18-29). According to their research:

  • Nearly three-quarters of those ages 18 to 29 feel “things are unfair for my generation because we have to start our careers during this economic crisis.”
  • Nearly half (45%) have postponed a major life milestone (marriage, having children, moving out of their parents homes, etc.) because of the economy or their employment situation.
  • 93% feel the current economic situation is having a personal effect on them.
  • 72% do NOT trust the government to take care of their well-being.
  • 76% are worried about the future of our country.
  • 62% fear for their parents’ ability to retire in this economy.
  • 66% wish there was some leader, outside of a political one, who could speak to their generation’s needs.

It’s tempting to hand-wring over MTV’s interest in Occupy Wall Street—particularly its youngest protesters. First, there’s the obvious: MTV is owned by Viacom, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, and run by entertainment baron Sumner Redstone—a Democrat so avowed that he famously went ahead and supported George W. Bush in the 2004 election because he believed Viacom would fare better in a Bush-run America. (He was right—and coincidentally, Viacom’s parent company, National Amusements, Inc., was Obama’s sixth largest campaign contributor in 2008.) The company raked in $3.3 billion in revenue last year, in part thanks to astronomical ad sales for “Jersey Shore.” Networks and assets under Viacom’s umbrella include MTV, VH-1, BET, CMT, Nickelodeon, Spike, Comedy Central, and TV Land, plus a stake in Netflix—making Viacom the most influential pop culture company in the United States, if not the world.

Viacom represents the type of corporate concentration that some people at Occupy Wall Street are protesting. Meanwhile, reality show stars notoriously work for lower wages than trained actors, driving down standards while making the company’s top tier ever-richer. Their operation is certainly counter to the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, and could be construed as MTV attempting to own yet another corner of pop culture—stamping its logo on an already-popular, DIY movement for profit. (Idea: we all audition for “The Real World” but unionize beforehand, so whomever lands the cast gets a job and a decent wage.)