[19 November 2008]
Q: When is a television station not a television station?
A: When it’s a slickly produced advertisement for a non-profit organization founded by global telecommunications juggernaut Virgin Mobile.
Homeless Youth TV, the brainchild of Virgin Mobile’s youth activism-oriented 501(3)(c) “Re-Generation,” promotes itself as the “first ever homeless youth television network.” Its stated intention to provide “new reality programming that stars homeless youth across America” is certainly provocative: bringing attention to the estimated million plus kids living on the streets in the U.S. today is a task most urgent and important. Unfortunately, HYTV doesn’t live up to its promises. The site offers no “television” so to speak of, and the assembled images don’t “star” any actual homeless kids.
The only piece of video posted thus far is a testimonial from American Idol‘s Season Five contestant Ace Young, who expresses how “shocked” he was when he learned how very many young people are homeless in America. To find out what it’s “really” like to be homeless, Ace will videotape his own “24 hours without food or money” on the streets, and HYTV will edit and post the vid to their “network.” As a bonus, two applicants will be chosen from entries texted to the “network,” to share in Ace’s experience.
There’s something more than a little bit patronizing, not to mention voyeuristic and exploitative, about this “contest.” It’s like Tyra and her fat-suit, of the shenanigans of Bear Grylls on Discovery’s Man vs. Wild. How much can carefully scripted and controlled simulation really tell anyone about the day to day experiences of marginalization, bare survival or indigence?
The front page of HYTV lays out a series of linked pages for “programs” that spoof recent high-profile/major network reality fare. It’s a rather clever conceit. Certainly, “reality television” bears very little resemblance to reality as most of us know it, and even less to do with the real realities of life for homeless kids. Through transformed titles and witty blurbs, HYTV‘s “original programming” skewers the consumer excesses and privileged class-fetishizing promoted by standard reality fare. So, Bravo’s Project Runway becomes Project Runaway, with an animated teaser that tells us the show will “throw 12 models out on the street, with only the clothes on their backs.” MTV’s My Supersweet 16 becomes My Street 16, and Fox/E!‘s The Simple Life becomes The Simple Strife.
The animated teaser trailer for The Simple Strife is most telling of the political limits of HYTV, as it fails to inform potential viewers about the conditions facing teen-aged girls on the streets. The promo image shows two young girls in skimpy attire hitching roadside as cars and semis pass by. The illustration hints at the dangers of sexual violence and exploitation, as well as the fact that many of those young women must resort to sex work to survive and minimally support themselves. Yet the facts and concerns addressed in this HYTV show are about the lack of access of homeless kids to basic levels of health care. Sure, this might allude to sexual and reproductive health issues, but effacing the danger of sexual and other abuses common in so much sex work does a disservice to the reality of the girls’ lives. Perhaps that reality is a bit too real for potential charitable contributors.
Despite Homeless Youth TV insistence that it will give voice to the realities, experiences, fears, and hopes of homeless kids in the U.S., these are precisely what is missing from the network. Considering the vast technological and media resources at the disposal of Virgin Mobile, perhaps the company could put some camera-phones in the hands of homeless kids and allow them to tell their own stories. If the privacy of homeless youth, or their own fears of legal entanglement or family retribution, were the reason not to give those kids representation, such matters could be handled and the kids’ rights protected with simple image blurring, sound engineering, and other editorial techniques familiar from shows like Cops. As it is, HYTV solicits public empathy and charity by suggesting it will give homeless kids agency and the opportunity to speak for themselves, and then denying them both.