In closed-door meetings at MTV, creators are grappling with how to make entertainment more responsible

·8 min read
UKRAINE - 2021/03/10: In this photo illustration a silhouette hand is seen holding a smartphone with MTV channel logo on a its screen. (Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Dr. Jessi Gold was emphasizing the importance of messaging in entertainment, and had a troubling statistic to prove it.

Suicides, she said, rose 10% in the months after Robin Williams took his life in 2014.

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"So think really carefully before sending a character to a psychiatric hospital," said Gold, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University's School of Medicine. "We should try not to romanticize the mental health struggle."

Gold was speaking to more than a dozen television writers and producers - counseling them, really, on how to craft more responsible entertainment. The meeting was part of an unprecedented effort by Chris McCarthy, MTV Entertainment Group president and a top executive at ViacomCBS, to make programming more mental health safe.

Last year, concerned his shows were contributing to the country's mental health epidemic, McCarthy commissioned a study from the University of Southern California's Annenberg Foundation of dozens of his top shows. It found that only 9% of series regulars had mental health conditions (21% do in real life) and that there were high levels of insensitive language and behavior on a network of at-times conflict-driven shows such as "Jersey Shore," "The Hills" and "The Real World," whose tag line is "what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real."

McCarthy hired a team to compose a guide on creating responsible programming, part of a larger movement he hopes to drive forward in Hollywood that also included several days of industry panels last month. Most notably, he convened dozens of sessions within ViacomCBS in which top-tier creators would listen to and consult with mental health experts like Wash U's Gold, the executive director of the mental-health-focused JED Foundation Courtney Knowles and Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, an Atlanta-based psychologist.

The result is a kind of new movement of change-driven popular television. The sessions - which brought in writers and producers from "The Daily Show," animated satire "Clone High," young-adult reality show "Teen Mom," music-focused unscripted drama "Love & Hip Hop" and others - offers a real-life litmus test for the new woke Hollywood. Essentially, it asks a provocative question. What would result if a company known for animated satire and reality melodramas began shaping them with mental health in mind - what happens when people start being polite and stop being really outrageous?

Viacom allowed The Washington Post to sit in on a half-dozen of these Zoom sessions over the past few months with almost no reporting restrictions. The sessions offered a unique lens onto how the television business operates in this new age, how it seeks to balance the sometimes different aims of entertainment and social responsibility.

At one session, Gold made reference to the guide. A slickly designed website, it focuses on a range of mental health situations and includes storytelling tips like "elevate stories of friends and family members who are supportive" and answers to hypotheticals such as "If you're crafting a horror movie, what setting should you make sure to portray with extra sensitivity?"

Gold advised creators to be especially wary of problematic words.

"We're a comedy show and there are obviously a lot of words we've been careful to weed out," said Jennifer Flanz, executive producer and showrunner of "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah." "We've used words like 'unhinged' or 'intense' to replace 'crazy.' Are there words you would suggest using?"

"Can I think on that and get back to you?" Gold said.

'Unhinged' I don't love. But I would write a comedy sketch with the word 'silly,'" Flanz said.

Reality-television dramas can be more shaped than even some cynical viewers realize. Practices like "frankenbiting," in which sound bites are created by splicing together quotes, are common, and casting has long been a fraught area in which some producers have been said to seek out those with mental health conditions. Harden Bradford asked if producers conducted psychological evaluations before casting.

"We only do psych evals if we are doing a house reality putting people in close quarters," said Sitarah Pendelton, a senior vice president of original series at MTV Entertainment Group.

"So that may be something to consider," Harden Bradford said.

For years, concern about Hollywood harm has been directed toward portrayals of concrete acts - gun violence, cigarette smoking. But what constitutes bad mental health behavior is harder to define. The effects can also be difficult to measure. Does depicting bullying make it more likely someone will initiate the activity? Does it make someone watching feel bullied all over again?

Would calling someone "crazy" or "unhinged" contribute to exactly the kind of stigmas that makes people afraid to seek help? And is it Hollywood's responsibility to worry about it in the first place? Could they even do that if they wanted to, when conflict and excessive behavior are often what get TV shows watched and talked about?

Producers at the sessions showed they, too, were struggling with these questions. "We're still making television. We're not making a psychological show," Donna Edge-Rachell, an executive producer of "Love & Hip Hop," which focuses on the professional and personal lives of people connected to the industry, said at a session for her show. "All of these people who are experiencing a level of this - we don't want to go to therapy with all of them, we don't want to sit in a chair and have them analyzed by a psychologist."

But she also asked for tips on how to show them working out issues without therapy. Harden Bradford suggested depicting informal mentorships with older people who'd gone through their own struggles.

A producer raised another worry.

"These topics are so sensitive, they're hot button, things you can't touch or things you can't say," said Jubba Seyyid, an executive producer on "Love & Hip Hop," at a session for that show. "You can't even say 'oh that's a crazy thing happened' because now you used the word crazy and now you're a leper. Is there space for humor?'"

The expert at that session, Harden Bradford, had a ready response. "I think that there can be. You just have to be very careful though because humor is very personal," she said. "So what is funny to you may not be very funny to me. You want to make sure you're funny in a way that translates. You have to be sensitive so it's not just a cheap laugh."

Meredith Goldberg-Morse, senior manager of social impact at MTV Entertainment Group who ran the meetings, offered a related thought at another session.

"It's definitely OK to find humor in the challenging experiences people face," she said. "But when you're doing that, it's important to be mindful of not sending the message that the person managing the condition is the punchline of the joke."

Running under the sessions is a question facing this new responsible entertainment movement: to what degree Hollywood creations should reflect the world that is versus painting an aspirational portrait of one that should be? The latter may be healthier, after all, but it is less accurate. It also may be less compelling television.

McCarthy said he believes strong entertainment doesn't have to run counter to altruism.

"There's a misconception that good business is at odds with doing good," he said. "And I strongly disagree."

With mental health statistics suggesting a startling 93% rise in depression screens during 2020 and the struggles of people like Naomi Osaka casting light on the issue (and a finger at the media-entertainment complex), the issue has an almost moral dimension to McCarthy.

"We're at our best when it's both entertainment and making a difference," he said.

At the sessions, words used in everyday conversation were opened to examination.

Erica Rivinoja, showrunner of "Clone High," in which portrayals of famous personalities from throughout the ages mingle at an absurdist imaginary high school, described a plot point in which a 20th-century historical figure made provocative comments on Instagram in an act of cyberbullying. Then he checked herself. "The term 'cyberbullying.' Is there a better term?"

The expert at the meeting, JED's Knowles, said, "We try not to use bullying. The person who's in the bullying situation is most likely to take their life. It doesn't do anything to villainize them."

The sessions showed creators interested in the well-being of their subjects, a telling reveal given reality TV's occasional reputation for seeking out cast members predisposed to mental health conditions.

"I think our show might be the only time a conversation has come into play that addresses that." The words came from Morgan J. Freeman, an executive producer on the "Teen Mom" franchise, a long-running property which focuses on the personal struggles of a host of young mothers; he was referring to a character with a body-image-issue. "Without us there I think it continues to spiral down a very dysfunctional path," for the character, he said. But there's only so much we could do," he added ruefully.

These discussions can also lead into amusedly surreal territory.

"I'm trying to remember the story we told about robot suicide," Rivinoja said at the session devoted to "Clone High."

"I think it was a joke about [their] battery running out," offered Jessica Lamour, a co-producer on the show.

"He's feeling like he doesn't want to plug in," Rivinoja said.

"It's important to show that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem," Knowles offered.

Rivinoja suggested the writers could craft a scene where the robot's brother comes to help him.

"That could be a good way to show robot suicide?" she asked.

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