Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


An MTV That Enlightens and Uplifts?

The music television superpower unveils an eco-travelshow,
a documentary about the Holocaust, and mini-films promoting spiritual awareness.
by Maura R. O'Connor

From the moment “Video Killed the Radio Star” hit the airwaves in 1981, MTV has been condemned as the bane of popular culture. Indeed, just last February, the Parents Television Council released a report in which they tallied 2,881 verbal references to sex and 3,056 flashes of sexual imagery in a single week of programming. It's no wonder that critics claim the global television network (MTV was recently launched in Africa, a continent that has one of the lowest numbers of televisions per capita in the world) has debased the morality of an entire generation brought up in the glow of its music videos and sensationalistic programming. As one reviewer from the National Review put it, MTV has made America's youth “deaf to all higher culture and blind to all hope or beauty.”

But the next time you settle in to watch Total Request Live or Pimp My Ride, pay attention to the commercial breaks. There amid the mindless plugs for hip-hop ring-tones and pimple creams, you may catch a glimpse of a different kind of MTV, one that is covertly using its influential powers for a purportedly higher purpose. In January, the music network launched what it calls “Spiritual Windows”—individual mini-films no longer than fifteen seconds that contain a variety of spiritual imagery and/or philosophical messages which it seeds throughout the day's programming. Numbering twenty-four in all, each one depicts scenes from nature, moments of prayer, or images from daily religious life.

Some of these “promo spots” have voice-overs, but others use only music to accompany the images. “Rejuvenate,” as one promo is called, simply shows a group of Muslim men praying together at a mosque. In “Everyone,” a Chinese dragon dances on screen while a voice says, “We need other human beings to be human. I am because other people are.” There's even a Spiritual Window with Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, in which an image of the sun sets over the pyramids while Coelho says, “The desert will give you an understanding of the world. How do I immerse myself in the desert? Listen to your heart.” “Consume Mindfully” depicts a Tibetan nun taking out the garbage at her Buddhist temple, and “Everyday Grace” features a gondolier rowing on the canals of Venice while a disembodied voice says, “Your heart is where your treasure is, and you must find your treasure to make sense of everything.”

Though beautifully produced, one has to wonder if Spiritual Windows is more gimmick than serious attempt at injecting spiritual awareness into mainstream culture—akin to, say, Urban Outfitters hawking Buddha statues or Barneys selling yoga mat bags. But the vice president of on-air promos for MTV, thirty-seven-year-old Kevin Mackall, disputes this. “We wanted to create little, short moments, almost breaths of peace for the channel,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “There's a genuine appetite for spirituality these days. And that was the mission. We're doing a great job of getting people to watch Ashlee. Now, let's have a moment of reflection.” A moment of reflection on the banality of The Ashlee Simpson Show? No matter how tastefully executed, it would be hard to take the Spiritual Windows campaign seriously if it didn't coincide with a slate of other surprisingly smart and inspirational programs produced by and aired on MTV.

For instance, in March 2005, a weekly series called Trippin' was launched. This “eco-travel” show, produced by movie actress Cameron Diaz, includes a revolving star-studded entourage of Diaz's friends, such as rapper DMX, Drew Barrymore, and Kid Rock, who accompany Diaz as she trots the globe visiting nature preserves, endangered species, and threatened ecosystems. Throughout the half-hour show, factoids appear at the bottom of the screen with information about the environment or useful tips on how to save water or use less electricity in our daily lives. Although the program can seem to pander more toward celebrity worship than deepening environmental awareness, the evolving dynamic between Diaz and her companions in each episode is fascinating. At the beginning, there is a lot of predictably superficial banter between them, but later—disheveled from traveling (there are no make-up people allowed), having learned together about the plight of the planet—an undeniable authenticity emerges. By the end, they all seem genuinely moved by the experiences they've had, and this, in turn, is inspiring for the viewer. One example is an episode in which actress Eva Mendes, after spending the day at a village in Nepal, turns to Diaz and with tears streaming unselfconsciously down her face, says, “Oh my God. We're all just human beings. We all want the same things. I never understood before. We're all just human beings, and it's so beautiful.”

Two months after Trippin' premiered, MTV aired an hour-long documentary about the Holocaust called I'm Still Here. Scheduled to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day, I'm Still Here deals with the genocide of the Jews through the diaries of young people alive at the time, including some who survived and others who died in the concentration camps. Each diary entry is read by a different celebrity, such as Elijah Wood, Kate Hudson, Brittany Murphy, or Joaquin Phoenix. The cumulative effect of their voices, the stories they tell, and the documentary footage and photographs is deeply haunting and melancholic. A New York Times reviewer wrote that I'm Still Here was “inventive and inspiring . . . a masterly documentary and proof that there are still more and decent ways to remember the Holocaust.”

Ironically, MTV's efforts to air sophisticated, serious products like Spiritual Windows, Trippin', and I'm Still Here are highlighting just how debauched and irrelevant its programming usually is. For example, the new series My Super Sweet Sixteen, a reality show that follows different rich kids around each week as they make plans for their sixteenth birthday parties, manages to consistently illustrate an almost pathological level of self-obsession and materialism in our culture. MTV has also created the reality series I Want a Famous Face, in which young people undergo plastic surgery to make them look like their favorite celebrity. Indeed, when a Spiritual Window featuring a Buddhist nun is followed by an ad for Britney Spears' upcoming reality show about her life with Chihuahua “Bit-bit” and husband Kevin, it becomes clear just how far MTV has to go to raise our culture above the superficiality that it is partly responsible for creating—and that it continues to capitalize on. Despite this, its initial efforts at providing more conscientious, spiritual fare are commendable and, at times, uplifting.


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew

This article is from...


December 2005–February 2006