Sept. 22 -- A change in the tone of pop culture is now inevitable and
already underway, according to
Tom Freston, the CEO of MTV Networks. Freston is the most influential mass media executive so far
to comment publicly about the impact of the devastating Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the entertainment media.
In the hours immediately after the tragedy, pop culture began to exist in a new reality as its audience was
abruptly shaken to its core, its world view completely upended.
From Hollywood to Broadway to the midtown Manhattan book publishers,
the leaders of mass media suddenly
are struggling to recalibrate the sharp tone and taste of pop-culture fare. BUT IN A INTERVIEW with NEWSWEEK, Freston asserts that mass media is facing a more prolonged period of adjustment, one that will extend beyond the
immediate re-editing of new television shows to remove images of the World Trade Center or questionable storylines.
An era of gentler, warmer entertainment is at hand, Freston predicts. "Where is the bottom going to be in terms of
pop music and â€˜Fear Factor' on television," he asked rhetorically. The narcissistic tone in pop culture--"my desire,
my problems, my possessions; sensationalistic"--is coming to an end, he predicts, adding: "That kind of party is over."
In music, there will be a reemergence of songs that offer a sense of community or spiritual and social purpose.
"We will begin to see more of that now," Freston says. "Artists in the music world have pretty good instincts."
Beyond the predictions about the course of music, entertainment companies
generally aren't yet certain
about what direction to go. "We don't know where we are going," he said. "There are a lot of discussions.
We are all looking at what we are making."
As much as any single individual, Freston has had an unparalleled impact
on the tonal direction of pop culture
in the past 20 years. He was one of a small, youthful band of visionaries that in 1981 launched MTV, one of
the world's most powerful entertainment brands, which now reaches 79 million of the nation's 100 million homes.
Another 305 million of its viewers are scattered around the globe. It is the flagship of a family of cable networks
that includes Nickelodeon, VH1, Nick at Nite, TV Land, Comedy Central and TNN. To an immeasurable degree,
the music and lifestyle network has set the tone of pop culture--from the crude and rude "Beavis and Butthead" and
the outlandish comedy of Tom Green to the violence of "Celebrity Deathmatch" and the pioneering reality-TV show
"The Real World." Over the years, television critics and social conservatives have attacked MTV programming.
"We might have seen an end to a certain cycle" of programming, " says Freston.
All this week, cultural commentators, the literati and arbiters of pop
culture questioned what is appropriate to
deliver in the form of mass entertainment into the homes of a shaken world. Some from those quarters declared
an end of irony-laced entertainment. Others speculated that the days of reality TV may be numbered.
Newspaper headlines ask WHEN IS IT OK TO LAUGH AGAIN? David Letterman and Jay Leno turned to
the airwaves with more thoughtful and serious approaches. "Tone is really important in everything when we talk
about comedy, gossip, music and television," Freston says. "But where does that all fit in this new reality we are in?"
Within hours after the attack, Freston knew the world had changed. "We
were knocked back like everybody,"
he said. MTV, VH1 and other channels he manages dropped regular programming and picked up CBS News,
a division of MTV's sibling broadcast network. That allowed them to provide their audience, which is primarily
12- to 35-year-olds, access to information. "We didn't want to look out of sync with what was going on in the
country, the mood." MTV quickly lined up artists such as Jon Bon Jovi to do public-service announcements for
the Red Cross. Later, when the regular music programming returned to VH1, the mix of songs was changed to
include artists like Bob Marley, who frequently sang of social injustice.
Increasingly in recent years, the entertainment industry has faced harsh
criticism from social conservatives,
parent groups and lately Washington over its content. Over the years, MTV in particular has been criticized for
depictions of violence and language. Freston says such attacks often were unwarranted. "We felt we would be
in line with broadcast standards," he says. The entertainment industry, however, "is quick to respond and
change. We hit bottom and bounce off quickly."