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Coming Now to a Kid Near You

5 minute read
Tamala M. Edwards

THERE IT WAS, A CHANCE ENcounter and perfect sound bite. Robert Tercek, then an MTV Asia promotions executive, was in Bombay taping a commercial when he felt a tug at his sleeve. Standing there was an Indian youth who insisted that he had to tell the world “what MTV has done for me.” Cameras rolling, Tercek let Sanjay, 19, have his say. “Before MTV, I was like this,” he began, his hands to his face like blinders. “Now it’s like this,” he said, stretching his arms to the sky.

That testimonial is echoed by many young fans in 241 million households planet-wide who tune in for the music and stay to watch “Free Your Mind” news features, interspersed between MTV’S main fodder of music videos and celebrity interviews. Often derided as a vapid, immature channel for rap-and- rock vidkids, MTV tackles serious problems in segments that range from three minutes to theme weekends. Promising viewers “free your mind and the rest will follow,” the five international affiliates — MTV Brasil, Asia, Japan, Europe and Latino — cover issues like safe sex and the environment, once deemed too sensitive or boring for kids. Result: a following that comprises the same youths who rarely read a newspaper or watch their parents’ TV news.

MTV’S special offerings for World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 display the sort of programming making MTV News popular. This is not the statistics and facts of conventional news; rather MTV mixes a little hip and a little hype to push news the young viewers can use. MTV Brazil next week will feature two segments, “Have You Tested for HIV+?” and “Hearing the Results,” which explain how to get tested and how to tell others the outcome. MTV Europe offers the human angle, profiling a day in the life of a “Buddy,” a young volunteer who cares for an AIDS patient. And Asian parents may recoil in shock when MTV Asia broadcasts safe-sex information to their kids from a Thai condom factory.

The straight-on attitude of earlier segments have had impact. India’s Suditya Sinha, 13, reports he resolved not to buy anything made of mahogany and to use cloth bags instead of plastic after seeing an MTV Asia feature on deforestation. “I was horrified. I never realized things were so bad,” he says. In Brazil 20% more youth (ages 16-22) voted in April’s constitutional referendum than in the previous presidential election; MTV Brasil believes the boost is partly related to its “Plebescito” campaign, urging kids to vote “because the world is upside down and God is really busy these days.”

The most challenged affiliate may be MTV Asia, based in Hong Kong and broadcast in English to 30 countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Mongolia. The region’s conservative nature makes it harder to probe delicate issues, but that hasn’t stopped the network. Despite Chinese reticence toward discussing politics, MTV Asia veejay Rita Tsang got Chinese and Hong Kong teens to express candid opinions in “Changing Hands,” a segment about the crown colony’s 1997 return to China, beamed by satellite and cable into about five million Chinese homes. ” AIDS at Your Doorstep” covered the disease and safe sex — a bold move in places like South Korea, where an official told the network “there is no AIDS because there are no gay people.”

While each affiliate chooses its issues according to regional importance, they all convey a bedrock belief in tolerance, often attacking their subjects with in-your-face frankness. A recent MTV Europe news segment focused on Russian homophobia. Another network might have opted for tactfully restrained graphics, two men holding hands, perhaps, but the MTV piece started with a passionate on-the-mouth male kiss.

AIDS, homophobia, voting — how does MTV keep kids interested in such weighty issues? By not getting heavy, for one thing. News is offered as food for thought, not as indisputable dictums. “We’d much rather ask a question than answer,” says Tom Hunter, an MTV senior executive. The informal MTV may not be CNN, but that is exactly why kids like it. “Other news is very grown up, dry and impersonal,” Germany’s Angelique Desvignes, 15, explains. It also doesn’t hurt that most of their news teams are barely out of secondary school. Says Victor Civita, 28, a director for MTV Brasil: “We’re talking to ourselves.”

The kids don’t always listen. “Whenever the news comes on, I turn it off,” admits Bonn student Kristian Greite, 16. His classmate Oliver Matyssen complains that the news is “superficial” — a credible charge. No effort is made to cover major breaking events of the day. Reports are often a few facts laced between “what-do-you-think?” inquiries, most of which are to teenagers, not officials or experts.

But MTV believes its news features add protein to the mostly musical diet. The network is currently bringing its newest affiliates, MTV Japan and MTV Latino, on-line, for the moment using borrowed news segments from the other divisions. For the future, one possibility is a multichannel MTV with a nonmusic news station. Whether that ever reaches TV screens, the world’s vidkids are already taking on a shared sensibility about the world that is likely to intensify the generation gap at home and tighten the bonds of the global village in the future.

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