The calendar may say 2012, but at MTV it’s 2009 all over again. And that could be welcome news for a network in desperate need of a ready-made controversy as it tries to replicate the success of the mega-hit “Jersey Shore.”
It was in November 2009, weeks before Snooki and the gang made their TV debut, when Italian-American groups began blasting the program as “trash television,” creating an irresistible pre-buzz that no amount of promos and advertising could match. That fervent word-of-mouth carried over into the "Jersey Shore" premiere and jump-started what would become MTV’s most talked-about program for the next three years.
Now MTV is attempting a follow-up in the form of “Buckwild,” a reality series that follows “an outrageous group of childhood friends from the rural foothills of West Virginia who love to dodge grown-up responsibilities.” In other words, it’s “Jersey Shore” on moonshine, with promos featuring reckless young country folk fighting, cursing, riding four-wheelers through the mud, creating makeshift human catapults and wreaking general mayhem.
The show is slated to premiere on Jan. 3, and like clockwork, an outraged West Virginia senator is calling on MTV to pull the plug before it starts. In a letter sent to MTV President Stephen Friedman, Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, said “Buckwild” perpetuates “ugly, inaccurate stereotypes” about the people of his home state. The letter was sent on Friday and obtained by the Washington Post.
“I am repulsed at this business venture, where some Americans are making money off of the poor decisions of our youth,” Manchin wrote. “I cannot imagine that anyone who loves this country would feel proud profiting off of ‘Buckwild.’ Instead of showcasing the beauty of our people and our state, you preyed on young people, coaxed them into displaying shameful behavior -- and now you are profiting from it. That is just wrong.”
A spokesperson for MTV declined to comment about Manchin’s complaint or whether the network is secretly thrilled with the free publicity. One thing is certain, however: MTV and its parent company, Viacom (Nasdaq: VIAB), need a hit. The network is feeling the imminent loss of “Jersey Shore,” which led MTV into a ratings boom at a time when it sorely needed it. The series, which airs its final episode this month, debuted during a slump, when reality snoozers like “The Hills” and “The College Life” had some questioning whether MTV would ever get its mojo back. With “Jersey Shore,” it did, but for how long, and at what cost?
This summer, an analyst with UBS cited MTV’s longevity problem when he downgraded Viacom’s stock. It seems Snooki and company were great, but their shelf-life was always seen as limited, which is precisely why MTV so desperately needs the young cast of “Buckwild” to start making headlines -- sooner rather than later. Enter Manchin, who is playing right into the network’s hands with an angry personal appeal that has earned “Buckwild” free press in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Politico and elsewhere. Even Fox News’ Sean Hannity weighed in on it this weekend.
As the old saying goes, you can’t buy this kind of publicity. But you can certainly bait it.