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Tuned In: 'Merchants of Cool' offers ideal product for parents

Thursday, February 22, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Attention parents: This show's for you. PBS's "Frontline" (9 tonight, WQED/WQEX) examines the current media environment in "The Merchants of Cool" and helps explain why today's pop culture climate is so toxic.

Whenever the subject of sex and violence in the media comes up, the ultimate answer to protecting children comes down to parental involvement. But except for the most pop culturally aware parents, it's a daunting task to keep abreast of the latest trends that tempt teens. Investing one hour in "Merchants of Cool" gives viewers a crash course in today's pop culture and those who exploit it.

Correspondent Douglas Rushkoff explains that today there are more teen-agers than ever before, even more than when baby boomers were in their teens, which is why companies are desperate to reach them.

And the best way to reach them is with something "cool," but cool changes at an amazing pace. Rushkoff introduces viewers to "cool hunters," marketing experts who search for the kids who are on the cutting edge of what's new and hip. Mass marketers pay cool hunters to clue them in, and then they set about marketing based on the trendsetters. But what's cool doesn't last.

"That's the paradox of cool-hunting," Rushkoff explains. "It kills what it finds. As soon as marketers discover cool, it stops being cool."

"Merchants of Cool" makes clear that cool is marketed everywhere: In teen magazines, on the sides of buses, in music, in movies and on TV. Rushkoff says 75 percent of teens have a TV in their bedroom -- a huge mistake in my book. By allowing a TV in a child's bedroom, parents lose the ability to stay abreast of what their kids are watching. For a teen who watches TV alone in his or her bedroom, the Merchants of Cool can become an unchecked influence.

A large portion of "Frontline's" report focuses on MTV, a network that has perfected its ability to figure out what teens want and serve it to them in mass quantities that pitch other products.

Teens are interested in sex? MTV airs the late-night show "Undressed," which includes commercials for movies produced by parent company Viacom. Teens want to see rebellion? MTV celebrates rebellion in the form of Tom Green and "Jackass."

"Merchants of Cool" categorizes the most popular characters for guys and girls as "the mook" and "the midriff." The mook is loud, crude, obnoxious and in-your-face. He watches wrestling and listens to rage rock. The midriff is proud to use her sexuality as a form of female empowerment. She rents the movie "Cruel Intentions" and listens to Britney Spears.

The most disturbing scene in "Frontline's" report comes when a pretty 13-year-old named Barbara parades in front of talent scouts.

"I want people to notice me and be like, 'Wow, she's pretty,' " Barbara says. "I need to look good for people. If I don't, it will ruin my day."

In the end, the question of who's in control -- the kids who set trends or the media who reflect them -- becomes moot.

"It's a giant feedback loop," Rushkoff says. "The media watch kids and then sell them an image of themselves. Then kids watch those images and aspire to be that mook or midriff in the TV set."

You can't hover over your children to see what they're watching or listening to every moment of the day. But "Merchants of Cool" at least gives parents a working knowledge of the societal and market forces they're fighting.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Thursday, February 22, 2001

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