Chicago Tribune: MTV has a program called "Jackass" that is so dumb, it's dangerous.
The premise of the show is that viewers will watch other people do stupid, disgusting and dangerous acts. Sadly, H.L. Mencken was right: No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. "Jackass" draws the highest ratings of any program on that cable channel.
"Jackass" host Johnny Knoxville and his cast of daredevils like stunts that are senseless (such as becoming a human steak on a grill), tasteless (such as being inside a well-used portable toilet as it is rolled and flipped), or both. A recent live performance of the show at a Chicago concert included stapling paper to a cast member like he was a living bulletin board.
Grotesque: Now, daredevil stunts have been a staple of TV and movies for a long, long time. James Bond, Batman, you name it. The difference is that "Jackass" specializes in seemingly regular folks doing stunts you could pull off in your back yard, stunts that are tried only for the thrill of the risk or the grotesqueness of the act.
The show all but dares its viewers, many of them teen-age boys, to emulate it. There are disclaimers that warn kids not to try this stuff at home. Any parent knows just how well such warnings tend to work: Some kids get the message, but others hear a challenge.
The "Jackass" casualty count has been mounting. Two boys, 12 and 13, were seriously burned in separate incidents when each set himself on fire while imitating one "Jackass" skit. Another boy, age 16, was hit by a car he was trying to dodge. He and two friends were making a video they had hoped would be used on the show. The boy broke his leg; his friends were charged with reckless endangerment.
MTV crows about its influence on young minds through its news, public service ads and public affairs programs like "Rock the Vote." But it has a problem accepting any responsibility over the role it played in these reckless stunts.
It did beef up its disclaimer. The show now says "Jackass" stunts are "performed by, and/or supervised by, professionals to reduce the risk of injury."
Now something inevitable is happening -- commercial imitation. NBC has announced that, come June 11, its new "reality" show, called "Fear Factor," will debut. The plan? Lots of people will watch other people perform disgusting or dangerous tricks, with the winning contestant getting a $50,000 prize. One promotional picture shows a black woman in a padded suit being chased by an attack dog. Is this a restaging of Birmingham, Ala., circa 1963?
MTV has dealt with its siren-song power over impressionable teens before. It toned down the "Beavis and Butthead" cartoon, removing references to fire after a 5-year-old burned his sister to death. It has removed profanity from videos, and even refused to show some videos for reasons of taste. So why protect this tripe?