MTV puts in OT as social worker

Shows play up issues, though content still criticized

To mark the two-year anniversary of its "Break the Addiction" environmental campaign as well as Earth Day on Sunday, MTV's "The Real World: Hollywood" launched its 20th season Wednesday with its first eco-friendly house and its cast members delivering green tips.

Last week, as part of its "Choose or Lose" campaign, MTV and its online social networking platform Think.MTV.com launched a competition challenging viewers to develop viral videos demonstrating how easy it is to register to vote.

To support its HIV/AIDS It's Your (Sex) Life public information campaign, MTV also hosted a lyrics competition with hip-hop artist Common on "TRL" through the end of March in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The initiatives are just the latest of hundreds of major pro-social campaigns the network has implemented since its inception in 1981.

Ian Rowe, senior vp strategic partnerships and public affairs at MTV, said the network recently has stepped up its own pro-social campaigns, while the new Think.MTV.com, which houses all MTV campaigns, has revitalized its efforts, drawing greater interest not just from visitors to the site but also from such celebrities as Bono, Common, Pete Wentz and Alicia Keys who want to promote their own pro-social agendas.

Amid a historic presidential election, a battered economy, the Iraq War and the threat of terrorism, MTV's pro-social standing is taking on even greater importance within the network and among its audience.

"There's no question that our audience is more engaged on a wide range of issues than we have seen in the past," said Rowe, noting that 35% of MTV viewers said they were following the 2004 presidential election compared with 58% for the 2008 poll.

More than 100 celebrities and nearly 700 organizations are featured on Think.MTV.com in relation to social causes, while 10,000 people have registered to use the site and 100,000 have visited in the past two weeks.

MTV Networks chairman and CEO Judy McGrath recently said that "a deep and very real commitment to social issues" is "the hallmark of every single brand that lives under the MTV Networks umbrella. It's simply in our DNA."

Among the strategies used by MTV to convey its pro-social messaging are PSAs, longform specials, online video and other content, contests and so-called "Think" moments — visual callouts during such programs as "The Hills," "Laguna Beach," "The Real World" and "True Life" that drive viewers to Think.MTV.com for more information on issues like drug and alcohol addiction addressed during the shows. Recently, MTV has stepped up the integration of pro-social campaign messages in the story lines of its shows.

Additionally, "The Paper" is promoting a contest within the series to provide the three winning high schools the resources to start school papers.

Still, despite all the good MTV has done, some watchdog groups allege that it doesn't make up for the "salacious" and "damaging" programming MTV puts on its air.

"I think that many of the pro-social initiatives that MTV is undertaking are really undercut by the irresponsible programming that they feature night after night, day after day on the network," said Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education at the Parents Television Council.

Henson alleged that shows like "Real World" have much more impact on teens than MTV's PSAs about getting tested for AIDS or using protection during sex.

Kids First, another children's media advocacy group, also objects to much of MTV programming but nevertheless applauds its pro-social initiatives. "I don't think you can make one blanket statement against MTV programming, but they certainly have been known to show a lot of misogynist images and things that Kids First certainly wouldn't support," president Ranny Levy said. "I just think it helps perpetuate poor behavior. On the other hand, the pro-social work that they've done has been extraordinary."

However, several media and marketing experts suggest that the pro-social efforts help temper some of the criticism over MTV's programming and create a more positive image for MTV.

"Given some of the programming it does show, it's useful to have a defense of some good things it does to point out when people complain about them," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
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