Latest generation of teen shows paint distorted picture of fame

Katie Stroh

Scan the schedule of any kid-centric TV channel these days and it’s impossible to overlook a distressing theme: shows depict young teenagers living glamorous celebrity lives.

Shows such as Nickelodeon’s “Victorious” and “Big Time Rush” feature their young teen stars reveling in their newfound wealth and international stardom. The channels’ millions of young viewers are consuming these images at an alarming rate, learning a damaging lesson: The materialistic celebrity life is not just something to admire, but something to strive for.

This trend seems to have been sparked by the massive popularity of Disney Channel’s 2006 series “Hannah Montana,” starring Miley Cyrus as a country girl living in Los Angeles, trying to handle the pressure of fame of her secret, wig-wearing rock-star alter ego.

“Hannah Montana,” in addition to being incredibly popular, is also still incredibly influential, despite the fact the show aired its final episode last January. Following the show’s explosive rise — “Hannah Montana” ended with 6.2 millions viewers watching the series finale according to TV by the Numbers — both Disney and rival channel Nickelodeon began to follow up on the kids-as-celebrities trend.

In addition to “Hannah Montana,” Disney also aired “Jonas L.A.” starring teen idols The Jonas Brothers as secret agents masquerading as rock stars, and “Sonny with a Chance” with Demi Lovato as a young actress who lands a place on her favorite sketch comedy show.

Nickelodeon shot back with its own kid-celebrity programming with “iCarly,” about a girl who stars in her own popular internet show, and “Big Time Rush,” which follows an up-and-coming boy band trying to make it big in Hollywood and enjoying all the perks of fame.

All the kids depicted on Disney’s and Nickelodeon’s various celebrity-centric programs are teenagers, but the shows are marketed toward adolescents and preteens — a period when most kids are deciding if they want to be an astronaut, a chef, a doctor or even a celebrity.

By creating these fantastical, wish-fulfillment situations in which fictional teenagers maintain glamorous Hollywood lives while also doing “normal” teenage things, kids’ channels are promoting a false image of fame to kids. Stardom is depicted as fun and unpredictably exciting. It’s easy to imagine that young television audiences see the celebrity life as not only entertaining to watch on TV, but as a goal that they can (and should) achieve.

To be fair, most of these shows make a point to demonstrate the drawbacks of fame and the importance of remaining grounded with the support of friends and family. That doesn’t make the image of a young, wealthy teen living the celebrity life, going to exclusive parties and being worshipped by a crowd of screaming fans any less bewitching to Disney’s and Nickelodeon’s hordes of young viewers.

Shows like “Hannah Montana” and “Big Time Rush” aren’t exactly quality programming. They’re unrelentingly loud, obnoxious and painfully unfunny, which “Saturday Night Live” parodied last weekend in a sketch entitled “Disney Channel Acting School,” featuring former Disney star Miley Cyrus herself.

The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon aren’t looking to make masterpieces. They simply follow the grating, cringe-worthy “Hannah Montana” formula that has made them so much money in the past few years.

Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking, but the scarcity of quality programming for kids is all the more obvious when compared to the live-action shows that Nickelodeon aired just 10 or 15 years ago, many of which were reasonably well-written, creative and quirky as well as being entertaining for kids. Think “Clarissa Explains It All,” “The Adventures of Pete and Pete” and “The Secret World of Alex Mack.” With ratings at an all-time high, perhaps it’s too optimistic to hope that these channels will abandon their obsession with child fame and return to form anytime soon.