Originally created 02/24/03

MTV expects to be news source for young people if war breaks out



NEW YORK -- The network of Eminem and "The Osbournes" is getting ready for war, too.

Much like the broadcast and cable news networks, MTV is laying out plans to cover a potential war with Iraq, expecting to be both a news source and sounding board for teenagers and young adults.

While many viewers are likely to turn to the traditional news networks for initial war reports, television outlets like BET and PBS are planning to bring their own takes to the story. MTV, with its special hold on young viewers, has a chance to reach those who might not regularly watch news.

Several MTV reports on the war buildup have aired already, and correspondent Gideon Yago is just returning from Kuwait after visiting soldiers and young Arabs, compiling a diary for MTV and its Web site.

MTV executives, who are constantly taking the pulse of their audience's ever-changing moods, were surprised at the level of interest in the conflict in a poll taken a few weeks ago. It ranked equal to drug abuse as the top concern of people aged 14 to 24.

This was the first time a political issue had scored so high. Usually, viewer concerns are more personal: drugs, sex, school violence, peer pressure. The potential Iraq war looms as a bigger worry than terrorism did in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, said Dave Sirulnick, MTV's vice president of news and production.

"It's very much on the minds of the young people," he said. "It's real. They all feel it. It's really seeping in. It's become more than just a political issue, it's a life issue."

Two-thirds of the young people polled said they knew somebody in the military, and were worried for their safety. These findings confirmed MTV's gut feeling that there was a hunger for news, Sirulnick said.

Much of the MTV News coverage works as a basic primer, with a rock or rap soundtrack -- on what is going on. That's not often available in traditional news reports, consumed with the daily nuances of the story.

"If you're a 20-year-old, you're getting only pieces of it," Sirulnick said. "Nobody is explaining this in a way that makes sense to you, in a way that is delivered specifically for you."

Two recent news reports give five arguments against a war, and five in favor. Another offered viewers five things they should know about Iraq, saying many young Iraqis listen to American music. That enabled a glimpse of a Britney Spears video.

MTV News needs to walk the delicate line of not going over their viewers' heads, and not talking down to them, he said.

Correspondent John Norris opens a more lengthy special report being aired repeatedly while standing in front of anti-war demonstrators in New York.

MTV tries to play it evenly, giving equal time to the Bush administration's views and that of anti-war demonstrators, Sirulnick said. The poll reflects the need for evenhandedness; among respondents aged 14 to 17, it found 46 percent favor military action to remove Saddam Hussein, and 45 percent oppose it.

The network, which aired a town meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell after the terrorist attacks, has yet to persuade a prominent administration official to talk about Iraq.

"I think they know that the treatment they'll get is fair and that it's a direct outlet to young people," he said.

Since many in the military are MTV viewers, or peers of them, the network is spending much time talking about their experiences. The series, "True Life," will profile several young soldiers preparing for war in a segment called "I'm Shipping Out."

MTV hasn't requested that any reporters be embedded with military units. And it's not certain whether an on-air personality will be sent to Iraq. In those cases, MTV is relying on its partnership with corporate cousin CBS News.

It was a CBS crew, in fact, that caught the most striking moment on the lengthy special report. Three young Iraqi boys are interviewed, and they give a tour of their middle-class home, pointing out posters of Will Smith and the Backstreet Boys. But they have no sympathy for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"They deserved it, that's what I think," one of the boys said.

There's no age limit on which CBS News reporters can appear on MTV, said John Frazee, CBS' senior vice president of news services. But MTV prefers reporters its audience can identify with, he said. Translation: Don't expect "60 Minutes" reporters on MTV.

Since the CBS News and MTV audiences rarely overlap, the partnership provides a good opportunity for exposure, Frazee said.

Sirulnick said the partnership has been a boon.

"They respect us and we certainly respect them," he said. "They're our big brother and we like that. We like having that big brother to help us out."

On Sept. 11, MTV switched to a CBS News simulcast. Sirulnick said that's not as likely if war breaks out, but MTV will probably use parts of CBS broadcasts and hear from CBS reporters in the field. MTV will probably have a mixture of news reports, will take calls from viewers and show poignant music videos.

"Our purpose on the day that war breaks out is we are going to be a community service for our viewers, a place where people can feel connected to other people their age," Sirulnick said. "We're certainly not going to be the be-all and end-all of war coverage."

On the Net:

http://www.mtv.com