What Sen. Joe Manchin’s Complaints About MTV’s ‘Buckwild’ Tell Us About Agency And Reality Television

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is displeased that, in the wake of the end of Jersey Shore, in part because some of that show’s stars started doing things like having babies and acquiring responsibilities other than partying, MTV is coming to his state with a show that will start airing next year called Buckwild. The program will follow the antics of a group of twenty-somethings who live in a 4,000-person town. The Washington Post reports on his letter to MTV:

“As a U.S. Senator, 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.”
In an interview Thursday before sending the letter, Manchin repeatedly called MTV’s decision “just awful.”

“I have no problem with people in this country trying to earn a profit, but I would ask them: Would they do this to their own children, in their own neighborhood, in their own home state?” Manchin said.

It would be nice of Manchin, in the course of defending the innocent young people of his state, would recognize that his own constituents are among the people who “are making money off of the poor decisions of our youth.” There are definitely reality television programs that can be exploitative. Scenes can be cut to be misleading. Producers can be less than honest with participants about their intentions for a project. And no matter how much anyone does to prepare the subjects of a reality show for the limelight, there’s no way to predict what the reaction to a program will be until it airs, or how people who haven’t previously broadcast their lives will react to being characters, as opposed to actual humans.

But we’re also at a point in the development of reality television where many, many people who agree to participate in it are aware of the genre’s conventions, and go into the process with open eyes and a clear sense of how they can leverage the process to their own advantage. The subjects of Breaking Amish appear to have given the producers what they wanted, no matter the facts of their actual lives. I have qualms about making very young children the main characters of reality shows, but the adults who are participating in a program like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo seem self-aware and happy, and rather than becoming objects of pure ridicule, there are a lot of people who have found them rather likable. Jersey Shore‘s stars showed a determined willingness to make fools of themselves, but in a way that was mostly calculated, rather than desperate.

If I were Manchin, I might have a little more respect for my constituents. The only real argument I can see making is that rather than setting the show in Sissonville, which is in Kanawha County in West Virginia, which has 6.1 percent unemployment, down from 6.7 percent last year, MTV might have considered going to Clay County, where the unemployment rate is 13.5 percent, up from 10.6 percent last year.