When The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called out the global community for the scant attention being paid to the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, he singled out one media outlet, MTV's college network mtvU, for turning a spotlight on the atrocities. MtvU recently televised a wealth of programming about the ongoing crisis, and “is covering Darfur more aggressively than most TV networks,” Kristof said.
The accolade, delivered in one of the newspaper's most visible platforms — the Sunday opinion section — represented high praise for a network that had launched only a little over a year ago. It also provided a vivid reminder that, along with being one of the world's premiere providers of entertainment programming, MTV and its siblings spend an unusually large amount of time engaging viewers on the issues.
In fact, a look across the stable of MTV Networks indicates that the company's commitment to pro-social programming may be expanding. MTV, for example, recently finished its biggest year ever for “Choose or Lose” election-year coverage, while Nickelodeon added “Let's Just Play,” a widespread effort to combat childhood obesity and remind kids and their parents of the importance of unstructured fun. VH1, which has given more than half a million children access to music education through its 10-year-old VH1 Save the Music campaign, is readying its most ambitious HIV/AIDS awareness special yet, highlighting a partnership with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. CMT will soon launch “One Country,” its first formal pro-social campaign, and Spike TV, which focuses much of its attention on “Check Up or Check Out,” a campaign urging men to have regular physical checkups, recently aired a star-studded special on the rewards of fatherhood.
Those are only the most visible examples of one of the largest commitments to pro-social programming in the entertainment industry.
“We are an entertainment company that believes we have a responsibility that extends beyond entertainment,” said Marva Smalls, executive vice president of public affairs and chief of staff at Nickelodeon Networks.
While MTV Networks is known for high-visibility public service campaigns, ranging from MTV's “Fight For Your Rights” to VH1 Save the Music and Nickelodeon's “The Big Help,” the pro-social commitment also extends into programming. MTV's The Real World and MTV News & Documentaries' True Life series may delve into dating, relationships and entertainment, but they also bring MTV viewers face to face with issues like sexual health, substance abuse, intolerance and diet-and-health issues. Likewise, Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer and The Brothers Garcia are hit shows, but have also broken new ground by putting Latinos in starring roles on major series.
It is here, at the intersection between entertainment and involvement with the issues, that the company's commitment appears to be expanding. The N produced two major specials last year — the ambitious miniseries, Miracle's Boys, and I Sit Where I Want, a documentary about segregation and young people — while CMT is readying two original series that will reflect the values of a soon-to-be-unveiled new public service campaign. MTV, meanwhile, is unveiling think, a new unifying initiative that will identify pro-social programming and lead viewers to more information and resources on air or via MTV.com.
“It's our responsibility to provide escape and entertain our audience, but it's also part of our responsibility to inform and educate and connect our viewers to each other and the issues that are relevant to them,” said Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music Group. Toffler and many other MTV Networks executives, as well as those at sister company BET, say the commitment to pro-social programming stems from two things: strong encouragement from top management at parent company Viacom, and audience research that reminds content creators, over and over, about how concerned viewers are about issues affecting them and their world.
It was audience research, for example, that led CMT to create One Country, a public service campaign designed to help viewers connect to opportunities for volunteerism. “People have told us that in a world where they are bombarded with information, it's hard to take a look at the universal condition and figure out a way to help,” said Brian Philips, CMT's executive vice president and general manager.
While corporate commitment and a close relationship to viewers are driving an expanded commitment to pro-social programming at MTV Networks, something else — call it heritage — is also playing a role. For close to two decades, flagships MTV and Nickelodeon have engaged — and sought to empower — their viewers on issues that mattered to them. While Nickelodeon was encouraging kids to feel important and even, through “Kids Pick the President,” to voice their political preferences, MTV was urging its viewers to Choose or Lose and Fight For [Their] Rights.
Those early commitments bred a tendency toward pro-social programming that pervades the corporate culture. “It's in the DNA of the company,” said CMT's Philips. “You can't be an MTV network without having a strong, clear voice for change for the better.”