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MTV Is in the Outrage Business, and Has Plenty of Accomplices

Events like the VMAs exist primarily to titillate; the media is happy to play along

The Parents Television Council actually stumbled onto something when it asked “Why Does MTV Get a Pass?” in the context of Miley Cyrus’ by-now-legendarily scandalous performance at the Video Music Awards.

Except the advocacy group whiffed on the answer, which is that MTV is in the outrage business, and in that regard has plenty of accomplices — including, not incidentally, organizations like the Parents Television Council, which thrive (and fund-raise) off being offended, and providing a voice and forum for those who see such imagery leading America’s children to ruin.

For starters, there’s absolutely no reason for the Video Music Awards to exist other than to make news by being provocative, since nobody really cares about the videos or the awards. It’s all about the performances, and a can-you-top-that quality that has crept into the event.

So each year, MTV and the artists scheduled try to outdo each other. And the assembled media wait breathlessly to see who will produce an “OMG” moment that can be replayed on cable news and “Good Morning America” for the next week.

In that regard, the major failing of the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake halftime show the PTC cited as an example of MTV’s past transgressions was one of context — namely, engineering the garment-removing stunt during the Super Bowl, America’s national holiday of sitting around watching TV. Hence Chris Rock’s admonition to Jackson for exposing herself “on a Sunday afternoon.”

Frankly, if the same performance had taken place at the VMAs, the reaction would have been considerably less dramatic — generating a few days of buzz, perhaps, but hardly the enormous rigmarole that followed.

Indeed, the Viacom networks in general tend to thrive on creating these sort of media melees, which is why it’s going to be hard pretending to be shocked when Comedy Central televises the James Franco roast on Labor Day. (Entertainment Weekly already ran a piece highlighting the event’s 26 best lines, which is ridiculous, since there haven’t been 26 good lines at the last five Comedy Central roasts combined.)

In this, however, the rest of the media are more than willing accomplices, since chewing over the “Did Miley go too far?” story is a convenient excuse to run the clips and photos. And the same largely goes for groups like the PTC, who can use MTV’s perceived excesses and “incessant sleaze” as ammunition to press for one of its pet causes, a la carte cable.

Of course, rock ‘n’ roll has been pushing cultural hot-buttons since its birth, and from that perspective, one could easily argue that MTV is merely doing its part to uphold a proud (and occasionally not so proud) tradition.

But to get really agitated about what happened during the VMAs, you don’t need to be a cultural scold or harbor a low tolerance for “incessant sleaze.”

All that’s really required, in fact, is a short memory.

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