NEW YORK -- OK, now it's serious. The prospect of war with Iraq suddenly ranks up there with drug abuse as primary preoccupations for MTV viewers. So the network, like other specialty channels, is scrambling to pound out its own particular drumbeats of war.
MTV, along with PBS, A&E;, the History Channel, Nickelodeon and others are among the non-news channels that have decided war is enough of a possibility that programming must address the subject, and contingency plans need to be drawn up.
MTV recently announced it will step up its news reporting on the Iraq situation, in response to recent polling that shows its viewers are now getting interested in the topic. MTV's corporate sibling BET had a special last week. PBS is juggling its lineup of shows, such as the science-themed Nova, to reflect the news.
Local public stations, looking a couple weeks from now, are pondering how -- or if -- March pledge-drive specials such as Rhythm, Love & Soul, on R&B; music, will play if the bombs are dropping.
Since November, MTV's regularly scheduled What's Going On? segments have tackled such basics as "Who Is Saddam?" and "What Is Iraq?" This past week, the network went a step further, with a prime-time special and added reports in its daily news packages.
The MTV News Now Special Report Thursday night examined how a war would affect the network's largely young adult audience. MTV News anchor Gideon Yago will travel to Kuwait, and MTV's daily news packages will feature reports on how the international community is reacting to the threat of war. The network's cinema-verite series True Life will feature young soldiers preparing to ship out to war.
The new programming resulted from polling in which young adults said their most important concern is the possibility of a war with Iraq, equaled only by drug abuse. "We started with polling, we always do," said Stephen Friedman, MTV's vice president of strategic partnerships and public affairs, in explaining how the network reached a decision that the topic warranted MTV's attention.
Despite nonstop newspaper, network news, cable news and public radio reporting on the topic, more than half of the 600 surveyed in MTV's recent national poll by Peter D. Hart Associates said they were "uninformed" about the Iraq situation.
According to MTV's research, Friedman said, "our audience is ... not getting the answers they're looking for. We saw an opening to ... speak to them directly about how this will affect them," addressing such issues as a revived draft.
BET is also starting to look at how it will address the war issues. The topic was front and center in a one-hour question session between an audience of high school students and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that aired last Thursday night. BET Open Mic: Secretary Colin Powell Speaks to Our Youth was moderated by Ed Bradley, a 60 Minutes co-anchor from BET's other corporate sibling, CBS News.
CBS News said it is exploring how it will work with both BET and MTV on other war coverage.
This week, A&E;'s Biography series will program a "Front Page" theme week, with profiles of key players in the conflict, starting with Powell tomorrow.
A&E;'s sibling the History Channel is planning a Defending America special, focusing on the history of homeland security, for March 1. And if war breaks out, their contingency plan is expanded use of newsman Arthur Kent, the "Scud Stud" from the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Elizabeth Jensen is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing company.