News & Politics

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.

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.)

But what if that’s not the case? What if MTV is not just jumping on what it deems a “hot new trend,” and is actually using its considerable power for good? And if it’s interested in doing so, how can Occupy Wall Street allies use that for the positive? (Disclosure:I occasionally write about music for MTV's "Hive" website, unrelated to the production companies producing these shows.)

Consider this: in the 1990s, MTV was markedly more activist, outspoken and politically aware—reflecting the mood of the generation. The network was at the forefront of the shift from the conservative Reagan-Bush eras to the brighter, more vibrant Clinton years—in fact, it helped usher it in, with Clinton speaking to Town Halls aired on the station leading up to the 1992 election, and a voter-registration movement called “Choose or Lose” that got eligible youth to the polls.

But it wasn’t simply the station’s explicit social activism that helped change the culture. The same year MTV launched its “Choose or Lose” campaign, a groundbreaking new reality show called—yes—”The Real World” brought to light the pressing issues of the era through the lives of everyday young Americans. The first few seasons dealt with racism, homosexuality, AIDS, activism, sexuality, and religion, as experienced through the cast. The writer/activist Kevin Powell starred in the first season of “The Real World”; in 2008, he ran for Congress in Brooklyn, telling ABC News, "My life's calling is public service. Civic engagement should be a part of our values as much as MTV and Xbox."

Of course, Powell’s opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of MTV, but his is a lesson in using the fame that came to him through “The Real World” as a tool to bring about real change in the world. After his season wrapped, he used his platform to raise awareness of domestic abuse, sexism, violence, and issues affecting African Americans specifically—including organizing the 2004 conference Black and Male in America.

Certainly the standards for reality television have plummeted greatly (concurrent with the George W. Bush era) in the 19 years since “The Real World” first aired—frank discussions devolving into drunk concussions—but couldn’t a potential OWS cast follow a path similar to Powell’s, using the platform to articulate the issues that America is protesting? Zuccotti Park has human mics to effectively communicate messages... imagine the potential for MTV as digital mic, one with the potential to reach millions. And if the mainstream media continues to belittle and misrepresent the protesters as “kids”—implying that OSW doesn’t know why it exists—wouldn’t it be nice to be one of said “kids” and prove them wrong?

Here’s another reason not to feel too cynical about MTV’s interest in Occupy Wall Street. The network generally has a lock on the 18-34 age group, but its real viewers are tweens, a demographic attracted to copious Bieber coverage and pseudo-reality dramas like “My Life With Liz.” Tweens in 2011 have not experienced any type of mass American protest in their lives, much less a movement (even teenagers’ memories of the 2002 Iraq War protest are likely to be spotty). At its most cynical evaluation, MTV is in the business of marketing coolness to youth, and/or packaging what youth already deem already cool to a wider audience.

The fact that Occupy Wall Street—a wholly organic, worldwide protest movement—could be considered (or portrayed) something that is “cool” to partake in, is nothing short of marvelous. Occupy Wall Street is constructed so that anyone with general overlapping beliefs can participate—if some go down just because it’s de rigueur, as some have criticized several celebrities at OWS, it’s not the worst thing in the world. To put a finer point on it: Kanye West may have ventured to Zuccotti Park wearing gold and Gucci, but the fact that Kanye West even knew what it was is symbolic of what an impact OWS has had.

And these aren’t the only signs. Popular children’s book author Lemony Snicket wrote an OWS instructional guide just for kids. Christopher Nolan is rumored to be filming shots for the next Batman film at Zuccotti Park. The ever-articulate actor/comedian Russell Brand documented his first trip to the protest—with his wife Katy Perry and OWS evangelist Russell Simmons—on his blog, writing, “As I walked home to my 1% apartment I felt incredibly hopeful, the benevolence and enlightenment of the Zuccotti tribe alleviated my feelings of hypocrisy, at least for now. Looking back through the media trucks and flash bulbs it was apparent that they have colonized more than the formerly anonymous square, they have colonized the international agenda.“

Occupy Wall Street has, if I may, trickled up. It’s making its mark firmly in the pop culture—something the Tea Party will never be able to do.

So think about these things a week from Sunday, when “True Life: I’m Occupying Wall Street” airs. In the 12 years since “True Life” began, the show has won three GLAAD Media awards and an Emmy; last year’s season finale garnered close to a million viewers on a Monday night, half of those in the 18-34 age range. Think about them when your little sister, or cousin, or next-door neighbor, or even you, are watching the exciting images of a completely disparate group of people organize itself to sweep up a public park to continue a class protest indefinitely. Think about it as the next generation wakes up to its political reality, happening the way they know and like it best—in real time.


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Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
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