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Teen-Heavy UPN, MTV to Push Social Issues

Television * Public-service messages tailored to fans target sexual promiscuity and discrimination.

January 06, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Viacom-owned networks that principally appeal to youthful audiences--and have been criticized in that context for running what some view as inappropriate material--are orchestrating separate public-service initiatives to engage teenagers on the issues of discrimination and sexual responsibility.

UPN, the broadcast network that has garnered ratings if not necessarily critical respectability thanks to the wrestling show "WWF Smackdown!," announced plans Friday to launch a six-month public-service drive beginning next week, informing teens about sexually transmitted diseases and sexual promiscuity.

Staged in conjunction with the philanthropic Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the campaign will run in UPN's Monday lineup of comedies starring predominantly black casts--with those ads specifically tailored to African American youths, who represent the core audience of those programs--and feature humorous spots Thursday during "WWF Smackdown!," one of prime time's most popular franchises among teenage males.

"Young guys cannot deal with sincere, earnest messages. They completely shut down," said UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan, explaining why the campaign, which directs teens to a Web site for more information, uses a libidinous man in a crab suit and a character named Stiffy the Dog to get its point across.

Earlier this week, MTV unveiled its own yearlong "pro-social initiative" against all forms of discrimination. The project kicks off with a movie about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, "Anatomy of a Hate Crime," which will be telecast Wednesday and followed by a documentary on the issue. After that, the cable channel will go dark for 17 hours, running only a scroll of hate-crime victims across the U.S.

Subsequent MTV programming will include a documentary examining the media's possible contribution to discriminatory attitudes, including musical acts such as Eminem, whose lyrics have been condemned for being hostile to gays and women.

Television's role in shaping popular culture was again a topic during the recent presidential campaign. The medium's influence on teenagers, in particular, has been widely discussed in the wake of high-profile acts of violence involving teens, including the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Moreover, MTV and UPN have been singled out for catering to a young audience with questionable fare. The former prominently features videos by Eminem and other rap acts critics perceive as promoting misogyny and homophobia. At various times, MTV has also drawn fire for running such programs as the animated "Beavis and Butt-head" or, more recently, the bizarre stunt show "Jackass," currently the channel's highest-rated show.

While the public-service effort is separate from programming decisions, network officials said that MTV employs strict standards regarding which videos are deemed appropriate for its audience, adding that the channel does not censor artists.

UPN, meanwhile, has been the subject of sharp criticism for broadcasting "WWF Smackdown!" and similarly themed programs that have drawn the ire of watchdog groups such as the Parents Television Council and appear to undermine the messages within its public-interest campaign. As one example, the network has ordered "Chains of Love," a series that involves shackling a woman to various potential suitors. NBC originally developed the concept--based on a European format--before deciding not to proceed with it.

Still, Kaiser Vice President Vicky Rideout noted that UPN's audience profile makes it an obvious venue for reaching teens, citing the importance of approaching youths with messages to which they can relate. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based nonprofit organization is also sponsoring a conference for entertainment industry leaders, "Sex on TV," scheduled for early February.

While it is not uncommon for television networks to embark on ambitious public-service campaigns, their efficacy is often difficult to measure, and any goodwill engendered among critics is usually short-lived.

In 1997, for example, ABC conducted a sweeping monthlong anti-drug program, "March Against Drugs," consisting of prime-time specials and millions of dollars in donated air time. Six months later, President Clinton broadly chided the media in his weekly Saturday radio address for promoting "warped images of a dream world where drugs are cool."

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