Spongebob, Family Guy & Pretty Little Liars Explain the 'Hooked Up' Generation

By 1stFive Archives
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Chapter 11 of Jack Myers' book Hooked Up: A New Generation's Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World focuses on the impact and influence of television and television programs such as Spongebob Squarepants, Family Guy and Pretty Little Liars on the Hooked Up Generation – the first generation to grow up with the Internet -- born 1991-95 and emerging as the most important generation of this century. Hooked Up was published in 2012 and is winner of the International Book Award for Youth Issues and finalist for the USA Book Award for Pop Culture.

An awareness of the Hooked Up Generation's early television experiences can help us better understand their values, attitudes and expectations. Nickelodeon had a strong influence on The Hooked Up Generation during their formative years, and many of their ideas, perspectives, sensibilities and attitudes can be tracked to these early television viewing experiences.

Nickelodeon programs dominate the list of shows that The Hooked Up Generation name as their favorites at age 12 or younger.

The Hooked Up Generation's Favorite Shows from When They Were
Age 12 and Younger
1. *Rugrats
2. *Spongebob
3. Pokemon
4. *Hey Arnold
5. *Doug
6. *All That* Nickelodeon programs
Source: Myers Survey of The Hooked Up Generation 2011

Geraldine Laybourne, the educator who led Nickelodeon during its formative years, shares the story of her first visit to the set of Linda Ellerbee's groundbreaking Nickelodeon news program. "Linda had posted a sign that said 'Question Authority.' I told her to take it down… and replace it with a sign that said 'Question Everything.'"

When Nickelodeon was launched in 1990, the network issued a Declaration of Kids' Rights that, in many ways, serves as the mantra that The Hooked Up Generation grew up with and that defines how they perceive their rights and entitlements.

Nickelodeon's Declaration of Kids' Rights
June 7, 1990
In the course of history, it has become pretty clear that all people are born with certain inalienable rights; among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But these rights haven't always applied to kids.
And that stinks!
Now, 200 years after the creation of America's Bill of Rights, this declaration proclaims to the world that you have rights too:
You have the right to be seen, heard and respected as a citizen of the world.
You have the right to a world that's peaceful and an environment that's not spoiled.
You have the right to be treated with equality; regardless of race, religion, nationality, sex, personality, grades or size.
You have the right to make mistakes without someone making you feel like a jerkhead.
You have the right to be protected from harm, injustice and hatred.
You have the right to an education that prepares you to run the world when it's your turn.
You have the right to your opinions and feelings, even if others don't agree with them.
So there!

"When we first came up with the mission to connect with kids and connect kids with each other through the world of entertainment, we were less a cable TV network and more a philosophy," Gerry Laybourne explains. "We had a wide range of TV including Linda's news programs that covered topics like AIDS and the Gulf War, game shows like Double Dare, cartoons like Doug and Rugrats, live action shows like Clarissaand All That. We encouraged kids to try new things and supported them when they didn't succeed."

Clarissa Explains It All was the first program with a girl as a central character, an early sign that girls were aware of equality as a central issue in their lives. "She was smart and cool with boys as friends, an attractive central character who all kids would like," says Gerry. "We were trying to create common experiences that could get boys to understand that girls could be cool. In all our programming, a sense of humor was the most important quality we could impart to kids. No matter what challenges our characters were confronting in their lives, with wit and humor they could shrug it off and get through it. We enjoyed making kids laugh."

Gerry acknowledges Nick was "slightly naughty and was not educational per se. We had pies in the face, slime, fun. We were a playful place where there weren't rules about what we could or could not do. We plugged into kids and kids were plugged into us."

"Our pre-school programming was very thoughtful on a developmental basis. What could we teach about cooperation, nurturing, friendships, how to deal with bullies? We did studies to see if our shows were having an effect. We weren't teaching ABCs, but modeling good behavior and getting kids engaged. Blue's Clues had kids getting off their chairs and interacting with the screen way before the Internet. Our pre-school programming left kids better off than we found them; nicer and better citizens. That honestly was our criteria. We asked a profound question to every producer: 'What does the program do for kids?'"
Geraldine Laybourne
Former Chairman, Nickelodeon

Laybourne developed The Nick Studio 10 Commandments rules and guidelines she gave to producers before they developed any series for the network.

THE NICK STUDIO 10 COMMANDMENTS

  1. Thou shalt have no network before Nick.
  2. Thou shalt not treat kids like cattle. Each kid is an individual and deserves an individual experience of Nickelodeon.
  3. Thou shalt focus first on kids and not pander to parents…but allow parents to experience the kid joy of Nick first hand.
  4. Thou shalt have kids-only areas.
  5. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's theme park. Nick's success comes from being different.
  6. Thou shalt not talk down to kids.
  7. Thou shalt not be predictable—sight, sound, surprise.
  8. Thou shalt give kids a chance to be on Nickelodeon and talk back to Nick.
  9. Thou shalt always strive to be humorous and always change with kids.
  10. Thou shalt "bottle" Nickelodeon with wit and humor.

Who are the Hooked Up Generation today? Nickelodeon captured the imaginations of this group during their most formative years and has, in some ways, helped define their mindset and influence their future.

  • The Hooked Up Generation value their individualism while recognizing themselves as belonging to many groups.
  • They welcome their parents' involvement in their lives, but they also want areas of their lives to be private and in their own control.
  • They consider themselves to be the intellectual and social equals of ––if not superior to ––adults and want equality in communications with them.
  • They welcome surprises and both understand and use humor.
  • Interactivity is expected; sit and watch them talk back to the TV even when there is no one listening.
  • And they like to have fun!

 

Importance of Television to The Hooked Up Generation

Television evolved as a natural outgrowth of the development and convergence of cinema, radio and electricity. The nineteenth century was a time of major inventions that led to the Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century, Philo T. Farnsworth patented the television, and RCA developed it commercially. Television evolved by leaps and bounds, and TV programming ultimately influenced generations of people.

Television put the Industrial Age's capitalistic economy on steroids, with new commercials that used sight, sound, motion and emotion to market manufactured goods and services across the nation. Those who are interested in how television evolved will find many histories of the medium, starting with Aaron Sorkin's excellent (albeit somewhat fictionalized) theatrical play The Farnsworth Invention. More to the point of this book, television programming and commercials have had enormous impact on the attitudes, beliefs, actions, behaviors and purchasing decisions of The Hooked Up Generation.

Our survey gave Pioneers ten viewing options and asked which three options they'd eliminate if they were forced to do so.

The results showed that 48 percent would eliminate AOL, Yahoo and MSN. Only 11 percent would eliminate cable networks such as Bravo, MTV, ESPN, Comedy Central, TBS and USA, while 14 percent would remove broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. (And only 11 percent would eliminate YouTube.)

The survey asked males to name their favorite TV program of all time and Family Guy blows away all competition. That program also ranked highly with females, second only to Pretty Little Liars. While Family Guy and Pretty Little Liars are all-time favorite programs, the most influential TV network among the Hooked Up Generation is Nickelodeon and its landmark series Rugrats, Doug and Spongebob Squarepants.

Rugrats, Doug and Spongebob

Nickelodeon had huge success with the triumvirate of Doug, Rugratsand Spongebob Squarepants,. The first two were born in August, 1991, and lasted 8 and 15 years respectively. Spongebob was born in 1999 and is still running strong. Dougfollowed the story of the Funnie family ––mainly, their precociously imaginative son Doug.The Hooked Up Generation born in 1991 and 1992 named Dougas their favorite program of all time.

"What attracted us to these programs is they were invented by people with wild imaginations. There had been (and still is) a school of thought that you only programmed shows with pre-sold characters. Other networks based kids programming on movies or books with merchandising value. We focused on creators with characters living inside them. Doug is Jim Jenkins. Doug's stories are all the stories from Jim's childhood. Everything came from his experiences and imagination. We honestly were not trying to sell product. They were done purely for entertainment."
Geraldine Laybourne
Former Chairman, Nickelodeon

Gerry Laybourne made the decision, with her team, to put both Doug and Rugrats on the air. Doug started out as a transplant to Bluffington, and he had to negotiate his newness to town, his middle-school awkwardness, and the painful joy of growing up. It was his inside world ––his creative mind––that stole the show. From Quailman to Jack Bandit, from Race Canyon to Smash Adams and Durango Doug, his alter egos had free rein in the course of many episodes.

Rugrats was the vision of Arlene Klaskey, who had kids just as impish as the kids on Rugrats, claims Laybourne. The show was developed with their point of view. Bending reality was the penchant of Rugrats' creator. From its beginning to the end of its run in June 2004, the program's infant-aged protagonists grappled with a world full of adventure. The gag was that the parents were so consumed by their own creativity or obsessions with perfection that the babies could get out into the world and explore, narrowly escape danger, and communicate everything that they experienced in a kind of madcap malapropism of adult language.

The Hooked Up Generation were influenced from earliest childhood by what Laybourne describes as "a bold band of programmers who were ferocious in trying to protect kids. We protected them from sexual innuendo and jokes they didn't understand. We spoke to kids about how they can make sense of the world and about what they cared about. We connected the audience with the creative community; we didn't condescend to them and we tried to use connective language to communicate with them. You Can't Do That on Television was psychologically the most important show we did, because we did sketches about some of kids' most important issues, like parents who do dreadful things. We dealt with these issues in an honest, relevant way and from the kids' point of view."

What Makes "Doug" and "Rugrats" So Influential?

Nick O'Leary, 19, a Dartmouth College theater major, remembers Dougas his favorite show because "it made a certain kind of sense, thematically." Like the transplanted Doug, Nick watched the show during a span that included his own family's move from Connecticut to New Hampshire, just before middle school.

"Doug was absolutely my favorite Nicktoon, no question," O'Leary said. "In my mind, Doug's message was that adolescence often seems tough, but it's not that bad. Plenty of episode topics are standard sitcom fare: crushes that don't know you exist, angst about your clothes or your hair, younger kids that want to be 'just like you,' zits, silly fights with your friends. It's possible––make that probable––that it was the first show where I saw most of these topics explored."

"The other thing that I will say about Doug's impact on me as a child is how it encouraged me to develop imagination," he continued. "I know that we typically think of kids zoning out in front of the TV instead of thinking, but…when I saw Doug imagine he was Quail Man, it made me wonder about what superhero I would be."

For Ari Brown, 19, a computer science major at the University of Michigan, the brainy silliness of Rugratsmade a big impact.

"As a young kid, I could watch it and want to be them," Brown said. "They lived the ideal life. Not because it was perfect, but…friendship, love, adventure, excitement, and danger, all before the age of three. How could you not want to live like that? The dad was an inventor who had his juvenile moments, and he was what I wanted to both have as a father and be." Another Rugrats fan, an 18-year-old female college freshman, remembers the dad (Stu Pickles) as a sad character, lost, alone in his basement workshop, and dominated by his wife. The program pushed Brown and other Rugrats fans to think about adults in ways that felt more measured than the anti-authoritarian world of Spongebob.

"Spongebob Squarepants"

Viewers don't need memories or reruns to catch onto the ongoing ideas of Spongebob Squarepants. New episodes continue to prompt a sophisticated (and at times controversial) audience reaction to its themes of diversity, equality, and sometimes-offbeat fun. A second Spongebob Squarepants theatrical film is planned by Nickelodeon for 2014.

The basic premise is the eternally hopeful Spongebob trying to make the best of his somewhat dunderheaded starfish friend Patrick and the grumpy Squidward. The trio frequently seeks to reconcile their desire to have fun with work and deal with the ambitions of Sheldon Plankton (who is married to a computer named Karen), who is out to destroy a competing restaurant owner, Mr. Krabs.

O'Leary and Brown agree that Spongebobwas––and still is––very funny. "It was purely comedic for me, and its legacy will be in comedy, from naivety and innocence," says Brown.

Years Later: Impacting The Hooked Up Generation

Regardless of Brown's and O'Leary's final takeaway opinion of Spongebob,it helped shape their childhood understanding of adults, contributed to their sense of humor, and perhaps instilled an early anti-authoritarian streak.

"The adults in Rugrats weren't mean, they were just misguided," said Brown, comparing the two casts of characters, and then he added: "The adult characters in Spongebob, however, weremean.

"Squidward and Mr. Krabs were two main characters who displayed very adult ––or rather, non-child characteristics––such as practice, greed, and success," he continued. "Squidward was always practicing his clarinet and chasing success in that field, although he never found it. Mr. Krabs was greedy and successful. These two characters were mean and almost always in opposition to the main characters, Spongebob and Patrick. This sets up conflict and a dichotomy of kids versus adults."

In an article published in The Atlantic(August 11, 2011 ), Spencer Kornhaber expressed a similar opinion. "Shows like Doug," he writes, "grappled again and again with the devastating epiphany of adolescence, that there are things about you that you can't change."

Or, as Brown put it: "There is nothing wrong with being your age––hiding and playing pretend in a cardboard box [the Spongebob Squarepants episode "Idiot Box"] and not knowing things. For instance, Spongebob failing his driver's test [in the episode "Boating School"]."

Perhaps what Brown is saying is that adulthood, and the journey toward it, is a bargain of compromise––a message that Nicktoons seems to have encouraged.

As an adult, O'Leary recognizes issues of equality that are layered into the shows. To him, Doug prompted early thoughts about the subject of equality, especially as it applied to the depiction of Bluffington, the main character's hometown.

"A setting where style might change overnight, so that everyone is wearing green sweater vests and khaki shorts," O'Leary said, or "where the local haunted house was built without a floor, or where everyone is a different color of the rainbow...a not-so-subtle statement about diversity."

For Brown, what might have seemed at the time to be "only entertainment" has also provoked a longer-lasting sensitivity to ways that the adult world––the realm of politics, for example––is not necessarily built of the binaries that news and opinion media often suggest to be the case.

"That type of television––namely Rugrats––made me a happier, more adventurous person," Brown said. "And I feel like if I were less adventurous I would be less willing to try new things with respect to politics and group dynamics. For instance, while I identify as a Democrat, once candidates pass a certain threshold, I am very much willing to side with any of them."

Balancing the impulse to divide people and ideologies into neat compartments is also one of O'Leary's takeaways on Rugrats, one that seems applicable to politics and issues of community in the adult world.

"It had a perfect villain in Angelica," said O'Leary. "Sweet enough to manipulate grownups but evil enough to really mess with the babies, she is the embodiment of the 'one you love to hate.' But the show did a great job of balancing the impulse to show her getting her comeuppance and reminding us that sometimes the bad guys get away. They also managed to make us feel sorry for her on a regular basis. After all, she's almost as powerless as Tommy, etc., and, unlike them, she doesn't seem to have any friends."

Nicktoons prompted more sophisticated ideas in some young viewers than their parents ever anticipated.

The subtlety of the messages that viewers such as O'Leary and Brown now describe are (partly) the product of what appears to be real thinking on their part––considerations of the characters and scenarios in these three shows, programming that has clearly informed their adult minds––and that apparently continues to resonate.

As Kornhaber said in his article, the trio of cartoons weren't––and aren't––just good; they matter.

The Philosophy, Psychology and Politics of "Family Guy"

The immensely popular cartoon show Family Guy has been with us for more than a decade, having had its debut after the 1999 Super Bowl. Initially canceled after three seasons, FOX brought the show back when faced with a perfect storm of market forces: DVD sales exceeded expectations, reruns on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block began drawing audiences comparable to those of the Tonight Show, and fans circulated a petition that gained thousands of signatures. Clearly, this program resonated with a market segment that actively engaged with the content.

After its brush with an early demise, Family Guy went on to become an iconic favorite with the The Hooked Up Generation who were growing up with it. The show earned an Emmy nomination in 2009, spawned spin-off cartoon shows American Dad and The Cleveland Show, and retains a cult-like following today.

The program's enduring success begs a few questions, among them: Why is Family Guy so resonant with the Hooked Up Generation demographic? And after a decade of exposure to the program's edgy, cynical content, what impact has Family Guy had on a generation's philosophy, politics and psychology?

Attempting to neatly describe the program's content isn't easy. Like Seinfeld, Family Guyis a comedy "about nothing." The plots present a threadbare canvas for a steady stream of bizarre characters, sight gags and wisecracks that invariably skirt (or exceed) the boundaries of good taste and decorum. Writing in the New York Times, Dave Itzkoff described it this way: "Family Guy is either irreverent or crass, depending on your tolerance for unmannerly humor. Viewers come for its pop-cultural free associations and flatulence gags, not necessarily to debate pressing issues of the day."

"Family Guy is anything but a family show. Its humor is about as politically incorrect as television gets," said NPR's TV Critic Andrew Wallenstein. "But what I find most interesting is it doesn't matter what the story in any given episode is about. In fact, there rarely ever is a story. The plot is really just a construct to cram as many one-liners in as possible, one more outrageous than the next. And that's just what [Seth] MacFarlane (the show's creator) intended."

"Family Guy" As Post-Modern Manifesto

To the extent that Family Guy espouses a consistent "philosophy" it would be in its cynical attitude about human affairs, and portrayals of lives led without "meaning." In Family Guy and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackmun, 2007) editor Jeremy Wisnewski wrote an essay about the show's "postmodern" outlook. His assessment? "It systematically calls into question our most serious ideas: Truth, Progress, Freedom, Rationality, and the Individual."

Speaking of "serious ideas," one also must add religion to that list. Family Guy shines a searing light on all practices it sees as irrational and superstitious. Seth MacFarlane is an outspoken atheist––so Family Guy's parodies of religions of all kinds come as no surprise. ("I think of myself as an equal-opportunity offender," MacFarlane said.)

Cynical Views on Politics and Government

Given the FOX Network's conservative politics, one might expect that a liberal-leaning show would find itself on a tight leash with the expression of political content. Not so, MacFarlane says: "FOX is a company that is schizophrenic in a lot of ways. The news division is very conservative and the entertainment division is very progressive. They really keep their hands out of our business ...within reason."

Truth be told, no political viewpoint is off-limits to the show's writers. Family Guy exposes and satirizes the political establishment––regardless of which party or politician is in power. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all have felt the sting of the show's satirical treatments. And the Kennedy Clan––America's liberal "Royal Family," got the same "gloves-off" treatment. (MacFarlane admits that his writing team "may have gone too far" with its idea of a PEZ candy dispenser bearing JFK's likeness, issuing its candy pellets through a gaping hole in the president's head!)

In his 1984 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the brilliant communications theorist Neal Postman expressed concern about the emergence of a "politically ignorant" society, arguing that democracy is undermined by citizens' exposure to media content that is entertaining but not informative. "Americans are the best-entertained and quite likely the least-informed people in the Western world."

Family Guy is hardly a primer in citizenship––but it certainly communicates a point of view about government and politics. The show's consistently cynical portrayal of a local government––the fictional Mayor of Quahog, Rhode Island––provides the best longitudinal indicator of the program's attitude about the "merits" of elected officials. Mayor Adam West (voiced by Adam West of the Batman television show) is utterly incompetent and truly bizarre––yet none of his constituents notice or care.

In one episode, voters support a candidate largely because she gratuitously mentions 9/11 numerous times in her campaign speech, thus "wrapping herself in the flag." This episode heightened viewers' awareness of the political pandering that drives so many campaigns. One could argue that this lesson in "political literacy" is a good message to share with viewers who are just recently eligible to vote. The lesson? Quality of government is commensurate with the degree to which it is held accountable by the people.

A Bias for Entertainment

In the end, however, MacFarlane makes it clear that his first priority is producing content that entertains. "People watch the show for laughs...They don't want to hear my personal views on politics." Yet, Family Guy remains popular and relevant because MacFarlane tackles the most controversial issues and engages controversial people.

In a case of "real life" intermingling with popular culture, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh accepted MacFarlane's invitation to participate in an episode featuring the radio personality in its story plot. Although many conservatives viewed this as a "suicide mission" for Limbaugh, the resulting show displayed him more favorably than many mainstream media have.

In a follow-up editorial for the Washington Times, Michael Taube (former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper) wrote: "…here's the inescapable––Rush comes off looking like an intelligent, reasonable and likeable conservative. He was portrayed as having strong beliefs and values, a love for his country and a genuine respect for intellectual discourse."

"Family Guy"'s Lasting Impact on a Generation's Psyche

Not everyone sees Family Guy's content as balanced and benign. From the very start, critics actively opposed it with public denouncements, protest letters to FOX and petitions to the Federal Communications Commission.

In 2009 the Parents Television Council (a conservative watchdog group) successfully lobbied for Microsoft to pull its sponsorship of certain Family Guy programming. In a speech to Microsoft's board of directors, the PTC's grassroots director (Gavin McKiernan) condemned the show, saying "…[it] consistently presented excessively violent, graphically sexual and profane material." (Given the program's propensity for "pushing the envelope" of current social standards, opponents have easily collected evidence they believe justifies censorship.)

In Understanding Digital Kids, author Ian Jukes wrote: "Increasingly, today's children's values are not and will not be inculcated by the family, the church or other institutions in either the present or the future. They are and will continue to be developed by the electronic and visual media that they are exposed to. This is where they will learn many of their social skills as they've become increasingly immersed in the new digital landscape."

"Cultivation Theory" describes a systemic erosion of values fueled by media, a framework first developed in 1978 by professors George Gerbner and Larry Gross at the University of Pennsylvania. Writing in The Journal of Communications in 1980, Gerbner and colleagues stated: "Just as an average temperature shift of a few degrees can lead to an ice age or the outcomes of elections can be determined by slight margins, so too can a relatively smaller pervasive influence make a crucial difference. The size of an effect is far less critical than the direction of its steady contribution."

In terms of this direction, television standards of propriety have changed substantially over the past twenty years––leading critics to label this genre as "subversive" comedy shows. First, The Simpsons (which debuted in 1989) broke new ground in exploring controversial subjects. Then cameBeavis and Butt-Head in 1993 and Daria, King of the Hill, and South Park in 1997––with each show adding cynical momentum before Family Guy made its debut in 1999. For every adherent to Cultivation Theory (or its many variations), there is a critic challenging the validity of its methods and findings. (Many alternative theories focus on the widely differing contexts in which various teenagers watch television. Others stress the predisposition that certain viewers have toward violence or other anti-social behaviors.) Consequently, assessing the lasting influence of this (or any program) rarely yields a consensus.

Looking back on America's political and economic realities during the past decade and the new social media transparency, increased public discontent and cynicism are not surprising, nor are they limited to a few snarky television cartoons. You didn't need to be a Family Guy viewer to become concerned about the state of America's politics, economics, and social structures.

Consequently, there are few clear-cut conclusions about the effects of long-term exposure to Family Guy––or similar programs. We simply don't have a control group of teenagers who have been sequestered for ten years and isolated from cultural influences. But the fact is, 17- to 21-year old males name Family Guy as their all-time favorite and, we can conclude, it is among the most influential in guiding their perceptions and behavior.

To be sure, there are anecdotal accounts that these programs have had an impact––from parents, therapists, clergy and social service providers. (Some of this evidence speaks to children's vulnerability, some of it attests to their resilience, and some of it echoes old complaints about "What's the matter with kids today?") Policymakers, academics and psychologists also seek to "read the tea leaves" of national polls and surveys about this generation's attitudes, its political participation and its psychological well-being.

Perhaps the most telling evidence will come as members of the Hooked Up Generation themselves become "family guys." What values will they encourage and model for their own children? And later, when they decide what media their kids will see, will the Pioneers' own boundaries make Family Guy seem tame?

The Role and Relevance of Pretty Little Liars

At first glance, Pretty Little Liars, abbreviated as PLL by those who love the show, seems like a mere riff on a popular theme: pretty rich girls deal with all of the trials and travails of a privileged life in a perfect town full of rambling houses, luxury sedans, and dirty secrets. The theme departs from the usual as the girls' problems revolve around the mysterious death of their best friend.

Pretty Little Liars draws myriad comparisons to a variety of other popular dramas, from LosttoI Know What You Did Last Summer to Veronica Mars. Briefly, the program is about a group of five girls whose leader, Alison, disappears in the middle of a slumber party. A year later, Alison's clique has fallen apart, only to be re-united by a series of threatening texts from "A," an unidentified bully who threatens to expose their secrets and, occasionally, to cause them bodily harm. At first, the girls suspect "A" is Alison, returned to re-assert control over her friends, who have mixed feelings for her. (Hanna describes Alison as "my best friend…but also my greatest enemy.") But when Alison's body is found, buried in her backyard, it becomes clear that "A" is someone who wants to control the four remaining girls—Hanna, Emily, Spencer, and Aria—for reasons they cannot yet fathom.

Without ever revealing his or her identity, "A"––who could be Alison's murderer or even a spooky ghost from some parallel universe––drives the girls to continue to delve into the cause of Alison's death. In the process, "A" forces the girls to reveal secrets they thought they had planned to take with them to the grave. The uncovered secrets prompt the four remaining girls to work through past traumas, and to form bonds that make the transition from teenage life to adulthood a little easier.

It's kind of Twin Peaks for the digital era, say, or Gossip Girls with a twist. But within the first 15 minutes of the pilot, it becomes clear that Pretty Little Liars is not your classic teen drama. Instead, it's a racy, scandal-driven thrill ride that keys into the fantasies and experiences of a new generation of cultural consumers, the 18-24 year-old females who named it their favorite TV series of all time after less than two seasons.

The Hooked Up Generation relate to the main characters and their problems. The girls––Aria, Hanna, Spencer, Emily, and their queen bee, Alison (who appears only in flashbacks––are clearly products of a transformed world. Gossip transmits instantaneously via texting, and children observe adulthood from the moment they first lay eyes on the Internet. Sure, the girls attend school dances—but they also date their teachers, shoplift without consequence, smoke pot, and openly discuss sexual topics with parents and other adults. Pretty Little Liars addresses previously taboo topics such as homosexuality, abortion, and adultery, until recently considered too scandalous to even mention in popular teen TV. The girls delve into topics such as running illegitimate businesses, families splitting up, welfare systems and more. They take charge of their lives.

Pretty Little Liars treats its audience like the adults they want to become.

The show, based on author Sara Shepard's popular book series, premiered June 8, 2010, on ABC Family. Program creator Alloy Entertainment ( Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries) successfully pitched the pilot episode as "Desperate Housewives for teenagers." (Ironically, the current chair of Alloy is the same Geraldine Laybourne who is responsible for the success of Nickelodeon.) Originally, ABC Family slated Pretty Little Liars to run for 12 episodes a year for two years. But after its premiere, which drew 2.47 million viewers (the network's highest rated premiere ever), it became clear that Pretty Little Liars was not just another teenage girl drama. It was a cultural phenomenon.

"I thought, 'Oh how manageable my life will be. I'll get to be home for half the year,'" said series show-runner Marlene King on her original expectations. "And then we were picked up for 22 [episodes] for the first year, and 24 this year." By the end of the first season, Pretty Little Liars was the most popular scripted show on basic cable for women between the ages of 18–34, and viewers 12–34. In the middle of its second season, executives renewed for a third season, and King has now committed to five full seasons.

Although the show is driven by cliffhangers and the fact that "A's" identity is never revealed—and won't be, claims King, until the show wraps up in its fifth season—it's clear that something else is attracting the enraptured audience of female viewers to the drama. "People love to tune in, and they're looking for clues and little bits and pieces of that puzzle along with who killed Alison," explains King. "The mystery is only 30 percent of each episode. 70 percent of it is the world these girls live in and their love stories, their hardships, their hates, and difficulties."

Girls have historically been more attracted to the human narratives of shows like Pretty Little Liars,while boys tend to prefer the crude humor of programs like Family Guy. The question, however, is really not why the show is popular among teenage girls, but rather why it is more popular than the countless other girl-driven dramas on television.

"It's just a guilty pleasure," said one fan, Leslie Ross, age 19. "I love that it's like my high school, but also that none of the stuff they go through would ever have happened at my high school." The characters in Pretty Little Liarsare relatable stereotypes—Aria is the outcast who listens to 'Emo' music and wants to be a writer; Spencer is the over-achiever who feels inferior to her perfect older sister; Emily is the sweet-natured jock with conservative parents; and Hanna is the former fat girl turned beauty queen. Viewers can also relate to secondary characters, such as a mother who is experiencing money troubles after a divorce. Almost any girl in America can find herself in one of the girls…but also the self she most aspires to.

Like the early prototype of a strong female character in Clarissa, the characters on Pretty Little Liarsshow that despite their flaws and faults, all girls can be their own superheroes. An example of this is when Emily, the star swimmer, bravely admits she is gay and discovers the reward for her bravery is ultimately acceptance. The underlying message of the show is that no matter how dark and deep your secrets are, you don't have to carry them alone. You can get the support you need from friends first, and trusted adults second.

Underlying values give viewers food for thought: one girl falls for her English teacher, but soon realizes it's an unhealthy relationship. Spencer, the goody-two-shoes, rejects the expectations of her career-driven parents, and falls in love with Toby, the moody outsider, who encourages her to be true to herself. And Hanna, the blonde bombshell, finds that being a good-natured, kind person actually grants her more power than if she were to be evil and conniving like the queen bee she replaced, the deceased Alison.

Although the girls turn to their boyfriends for emotional support, they more frequently turn to each other, ditching date nights and exciting opportunities to respond to SOS texts The goal is never to find a male hero to save them—and, in fact, the characters who do so, like Spencer's older sister, are often met with brutal truths about their choices. Instead, the PLL message is to show how to gain the confidence to express who you want to be in real life and to know the importance of good friends.

Pretty Little Liars understands that challenges can force kids to react to situations without understanding the implications, and models ways for them to slow down and think about repercussions rather than reacting hastily and dealing with the results later.

Pretty Little Liars enables girls to engage with such scenarios in a fantasy world—while at the same time being thoroughly entertained. "That's become our goal, that during each season we can find one topic where we can contribute and maybe help teens in that area," King explained. And if the ratings for the show are any indication, Pretty Little Liars is accomplishing just that, while emerging as a series that will have lasting influence on female The Hooked Up Generation and, therefore, impact for generations to come.

Do They Still Want Their MTV?

When MTV turned 30, the music video channel that morphed into an entertainment conglomerate gave itself a makeover, implementing new ways to reach the Millennial generation via a multi-pronged approach using social media and activism targeted to college kids. MTV is trying to "keep it as real" as a corporation can.

Millennials––those born from 1980 to 2005––use the Internet as a platform for self-expression, said Meg James of the Los Angeles Times. With its roster of notable (some would say infamous) reality shows, MTV is playing to this audience and to the core segment of The Hooked Up Generation who sit squarely in the middle of the Millennial generation. With a slogan of "life amplified," MTV has its sights set on authentic stories that explore characters' weaknesses and flaws. Among its gritty reality shows are Teen Mom, Jersey Shore and Awkward––an irreverent comedy that has shown promise in TV ratings.

But then, MTV has always been pushing the envelope and cultural norms.

When it began airing on MTV in 1992, TV's original reality program The Real World featured an openly gay, HIV-infected housemate––something unheard of at the time. But the show helped spur a debate on gay and HIV-infected youth. More recently, Lisa Campbell pointed out on the UK-based website Broadcast that MTV's show 16 and Pregnant has been a force for change, helping reduce U.S. teen pregnancy rates.

The Reality Situation

Love it or hate it, Jersey Shore, in its fifth season in 2012, has been kicking sand in the face of its detractors to become a national pop culture phenomenon reaching across the fashion, health and fitness and entertainment industries. The show resonates with the Millennial and especially the Internet Pioneer audience who name it as their fourth favorite all-time TV series behind Family Guy, Pretty Little Liars and House. That's ahead of more obvious favorites The Office, The Simpsons, South Park and Glee. Jersey Shore's party-hearty cast is known for its drinking, fighting, tanning and hooking up––not necessarily in that order.

Just like previous MTV shows that drew the ire of many (think Beavis and Butt-head and The Osbournes), Jersey Shore has become a global phenomenon, making celebrities out of its cast members. How far has the show pushed into popular culture? In March 2011, Rutgers University paid Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi $32,000 to speak about the reality TV lifestyle, according to the Los Angeles Times. That's $2,000 more than Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison got to speak at the university's commencement two months later.

The show drew the ire of New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who vetoed a $420,000 tax break for the series to film in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. In a statement to the Newark Star-Ledger,Christie said that he axed the tax break because the show "does nothing more than perpetuate misconceptions about the state and its citizens." But the results of the new Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind poll paint a different story, with 41 percent of Americans having a favorable view of New Jersey because of the show. On college campuses, students dress like cast members and club like them too, said Steven Guarino on UPIU.com .

More Than the "Shore"

MTV's reach on college campuses goes far beyond getting students to imitate Jersey Shore antics.

MTV Networks' mtvU is a twenty-four-hour channel with original programming dedicated to college students and broadcast on more than 750 college campuses across the nation, reaching almost nine million students. That channel also runs RateMyProfessors.com, where students can go and rank their instructors.

Taking a stand on issues important to college students, including navigating college admissions and financial aid programs as well as a push to increase awareness of HIV testing, are among the issues MTV supports through its mtvU channel. A Facebook application to help navigate the college financial aid paperwork was the winner of the Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge sponsored by MTV, the College Board and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Big Business

Far removed from its days as a single cable channel playing nonstop music videos, MTV Networks is a division of media giant Viacom Inc. with more than 150 television channels globally and 400 digital media properties in its stable, (including MTV, VH1, CMT, Comedy Central, Spike and TV Land and, of course, Nickelodeon). Forbes estimates that eighty-three percent of Viacom's value comes from its TV channels, and of those channels, Nickelodeon and MTV are its most valuable. The networks continue to have enormous impact on the psyche of a generation, and the long-term implications for society are significant.

The Hooked Up Generation reflect the lessons of Doug, Rugrats and Spongebob Squarepants. While older adults may view Jersey Shore contemptuously, The Hooked Up Generation view it as fun and funny entertainment, and are less inclined to draw conclusions on the state of society, youth or New Jersey. They view reality programs such as MTV's 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom with sensitivity and a desire to improve the world in which the show's characters live. This attitude derives directly from the implicit teachings of Nickelodeon and a savvy set of principles that guided the programming that defines a generation.

Fascination with Zombies:

Why "The Walking Dead" is So Popular

 

It's the same "Nickelodeon Slime" principle of fun and lighthearted entertainment that drives the enthusiasm The Hooked Up Generation have for zombies and vampires. The original guidelines for Nickelodeon program producers point out "Kids have a natural fascination with things that are gross." If you haven't heard, seen, or smelled AMC's The Walking Dead, you may want to get checked to see if you're a zombie. The format is similar to that of Lost: a bunch of strangers must band together if they want to survive. Instead of a plane crash on some tropical island, The Walking Dead 's characters survived some type of zombie apocalypse. They must avoid getting bitten by these mostly slow-moving half-dead creatures (Walkers) to keep from becoming zombies themselves. And it's really popular.

The Walking Dead 's second season premiere episode drew an audience of 6.7 million viewers and another 2.1 million viewers for a same-night repeat. Those numbers eclipse the 5.2 million weekly viewers the show attracted in its first season and far eclipsed every other cable television series and most broadcast network drama and comedy programs.

Not Just Watching, Engaged!

The show is not only capturing a lot of eyeballs, it's become a cult favorite, especially among the Internet Pioneer generation of 17- to 21-year olds. They just can't stop talking about the show. Trendrr, the social media measurement tool, shows that the show consistently averages tens of thousands of mentions every day on Twitter alone .

The show is inspiring events all over the U.S. such as the New Jersey Zombie Walk that attracted 12,500 people this year. What's all the fuss about? Why are The Hooked Up Generation so excited about zombies and The Walking Dead?

Good vs. Evil

One of the ongoing themes of the show is the fight to retain some level of humanity when the game rules completely dissolve. There's no oversight, no police force, no overarching Big Brother to modify behavior. What keeps the characters going is the struggle to stay human in a world devoid of humanity.

Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie on the show, recently said about the show's popularity: "It's not just about the darkness. It goes so very deeply into these characters and how living in this kind of world makes us human or makes us less-than (human)."

It's the Economy, Zombie

Some pundits believe that The Walking Dead's success goes hand in hand with the struggling economic environment.

"I can't help but believe that this current Era of the Dead draws its power from our economic malaise. If you work in the many white-collar fields that have suffered in this recession, zombies are the perfect representation of the fiscal horror show. The zombie apocalypse is a white-collar nightmare: a world with no need for the skills we have developed. Lawyers, journalists, investment bankers––they are liabilities, not leaders, in the zombie-infested world."
Torie Bosch
Slate

Seen from this perspective, The Walking Dead's survivors are mostly blue-collar folks––a cop, a hunter, a mechanic––people equipped with the tools, skills, and sheer will to pursue survival when everything they've ever known is gone.

The Only Fear We Have is...Ourselves

In the New York Times, Chuck Klosterman describes the fascination with zombies as a manifestation of our own deepest fears:

"This is our collective fear projection: that we will be consumed. Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don't want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and––if we surrender––we will be overtaken and absorbed. Yet this war is manageable, if not necessarily winnable. As long as we keep deleting whatever's directly in front of us, we survive. We live to eliminate the zombies of tomorrow. We are able to remain human, at least for the time being. Our enemy is relentless and colossal, but also uncreative and stupid."

Chapter 12:Music: The Soundtrack to Their Lives

 

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