The Real World of MTV

Die-hard Justin Timberlake fans should abandon any plot to finagle their way onto the set of Total Request Live. Last month, on my way up to MTV studios on the 23rd floor of the Viacom building in Times Square, I had my ID checked four separate times. I can’t blame them—my MTV screen test was at 1:30 p.m., the precise time when hoards of screaming teenagers crowd the street below the studios, offering anything and everything to snag a seat on Carson Daly’s countdown show.

As I left a crowd of disappointed ID-less fans at the foot of the escalator, I was accompanied by Margaret, a recent Boston University graduate. She joined me in flashing a superior smile at the forlorn faces of the hormonally-charged teenagers before asking, “So, how badly do you want to be on MTV?” Without missing a beat, she continued in valley-girl speak, “It’s like so cool. But I didn’t know what to wear!” I gave her the once over. I actually feared for the safety of her seams, thinking they might bust every time she changed her position.

We had made the pilgrimage from Boston to the holy grail of mindless TV addiction with the hope of becoming VJs for an unspecified project. Both of us had gotten vague e-mails about MTVU, a spinoff MTV channel theoretically geared specifically toward college students. Instead of broadcasting boy bands and bubble gum pop, MTVU would aim at a more sophisticated music audience. This is not to say that MTVU will entirely forgo programming that plays on stupidity—in fact, movies like Tom Green’s Road Trip are typical of the humor that MTVU will likely display. MTVU will showcase life at colleges across the country—from Harvard to the University of Puget Sound. College kids have disposable income and tons of leisure time, but no station has ever been successful in churning a profit from them.

Target audience firmly in mind, we were told only to bring an ID and to dress “college casual.” The latter was obviously the first test, as I discovered when I stepped out of the elevator and found myself surrounded by indie rockers in self-conciously trendy outfits.

I’d be lying if I said that I was anything but completely ecstatic to be inside the global headquarters of corporate-approved hipness. The studios were decorated in stainless steel faux-warehouse chic. The walls were even sprayed with graffiti. MTV hopefuls, the requisite mish-mash of minorities and uber-prepsters sat on a plush couch. I joined my fellow VJ wannabes and sat silently pondering the room’s aesthetic of exposed plumbing.

I started getting nervous the moment I was handed a form and asked to list my most recent CD purchases. I didn’t want to be too alternative, but I also didn’t want to come off as a pink pom-pom-toting Britney Spears devotee.

There’s a strange paradox in being both an MTV junkie and a college student with better things to do than sit at home and watch TV. While I’m admittedly obsessed with MTV—MTV.com is right after the New York Times website on my internet bookmarks—ask me if I watch MTV at school, and I’d have to admit that I don’t even know the channel designation in Cambridge. Herein lies MTV’s marketing dilemma: college students need a damn good reason to abandon their pursuit of keg parties to watch television instead.

Here on our campus, Harvard-Radcliffe Television seems to do little more than sporadically issue e-mails about mysterious new programming efforts. At one point, there was a soap opera produced by Harvard kids, but that didn’t exactly electrify its target audience. In a place where students are too busy to veg out in front of the tube, student television stands only a small chance of survival.

According to Youthstream Media Network’s study of 30,000 students who attend four-year colleges, the five most popular activities for people our age are: surfing the Internet, reading, walking, cooking and working out. College students, according to the study, spend more time using computers and less time with TV. Twenty percent of nine-year olds watch six or more hours of TV a day, whereas only four percent of college students subscribe to such extreme coach potato-ness.

Where HRTV has fallen short, MTV sees room for lucrative investment. The station wants to continue warping our minds even after we’ve left for college.

With MTVU, the station hopes to target college students for programming. Viacom, MTV’s owner, recently bought the largest college television network, CTN, for $15 million. That station claims to already broadcast to at least 35 percent of the total student population.

In preparation for my big shot at stardom, I hit CTN’s website. The anchors featured didn’t look like movie stars and one of them was even a Princeton alum. There seemed to be some hope for an Ivy League brainiac like myself.

As I was handed a microphone, I was informed that MTVU’s mission is to generate a loyal fan base of followers—like the screaming frenzy of teenage girls jostling for the chance to spend the afternoon with Carson Daly.

I stood facing the camera in a corporate boardroom with a Beavis and Butthead table and Anthony Kiedis’ signature framed on the wall and was asked to speak about issues facing American college kids. I babbled about sex education. Another challenge: how would I rally against date rape without sounding like an afterschool special? Strike one against Nikki.

MTVU VJs have to be hip. They asked me to make up a soundtrack for my college years—one song for each year—and talk about what I had done outside of class. Trying to sound cool, I talked about my sometime job as a scooper at Herrell’s ice cream shop. The body language of Wendy, my interviewer, indicated she didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for frozen treats. The final test to assess my coolness quotient was to talk about a college event and pick a video to go along with it. I talked about good old primal scream and chose Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again?” video, where everyone runs around sans clothes. Wendy appeared amused, but I think she might have cringed at the thought of Harvard kids running around wearing nothing but our Coke-bottle glasses.

I haven’t received a congratulatory phone call from MTV—yet. I will continue to spend my free time pondering just what kind of defense jock straps can offer in the face of a paintball gun (Jackass), and boyfriends who let their girlfriends be Internet exhibitionists (Sex2k). Even with the pressures of college life, I’ll keep getting my MTV fix. Whether the channel—with or without me—can get other people to join in this obsession- remains to be seen.

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