04/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

MTV Proves It's Still a Driving Force in Popular Culture

After twenty years of attending presentations by networks to the advertising community I cannot recall a single one that did not include speeches by executives extolling the results of recent research about their network's growth and potential, not to mention their future programming plans.

Also, I can't recall one that included a young man happily having his testicles smashed live on stage to roars of laughter and thunderous applause from the audience. You don't soon forget something like that.

These are my primary take-away impressions from MTV Behind the Screen, the network's presentation to advertisers at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom last week. It was the opening pitch of the basic cable Upfront season but one not overtly positioned as an Upfront event. Rather, the very early timing (February 2) came across as an important acknowledgement that television is a 52-week-a-year business in all ways.

MTV decided to let its talent tell its story, a smart move considering the dizzying diversity of its current and upcoming programs. This approach seemed to play very well with the crowd of noticeably young media buyers and planners that filled the room. Usher opened the show with several songs, his performance enhanced by four provocative female dancers. Quest Crew, the winning group from Season 3 of America's Best Dance Crew, brought the house down at the end. In between, it was all talent and series creators talking about their shows, with minimal hosting chores handled by MTV News personality Sway. The energy throughout was palpable.

The messages put forth about individual shows and the network overall were consistently clear and concise. They all reinforced the fact that, despite formidable competition from the usual online suspects, MTV is still a driving force in popular culture as it relates to young people, and it is still second to none at reflecting all aspects of current youth culture.

It was interesting to hear Usher at the opening of the event and Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy at its mid-point wax nostalgic about watching MTV when they were young. Their hindsight enthusiasm was all about the music and artists they saw on the network that entertained and inspired them, rather than unscripted series programming of the kind that largely defines MTV today. Usher recalled the thrill he felt when he saw his first video "on the same channel" he had seen Michael Jackson's Thriller on many years earlier.

The new programming unveiled throughout the presentation reflected a network that wants to be all things to all people within its targeted demographic. In other words, there will be plenty of content available even to those who no longer come to MTV for music but can't get enough of Jersey Shore, The Hills and Teen Mom.

On the one hand there was The Dudesons in America, a sketch show starring four comically self-abusive young men from Finland who seem to have been weaned on MTV's Jackass. Two of them appeared on stage; one of the two sustained the blow to the balls mentioned above. (After removing his pants, he straddled the down end of a see-saw like construct. Then his pal climbed a ladder and jumped onto the other end with the expected shocking result. I'm still not sure how the poor fellow managed to get to his feet and continue promoting his show after suffering so punishing a blow.) Following that, they both half-mooned the audience to proudly show that they had the letters USA branded on their butts. It is no surprise that Dudesons has as its executive producer Johnny Knoxville of Jackass, and it will be come as no surprise if the Jackass crowd makes it a hit.

At the other end of the spectrum was If You Really Knew Me, an ambitious observational reality series in which high school students from different cliques and social circles are mixed together and then encouraged to be brutally honest with each other about their problems. "I learned that everyone cries," said a girl featured in one of the many moving clips from the show, which vaguely reminded me of the 1984 movie The Breakfast Club.

Strangely, I found myself anxious to sample both of these shows, even though I am well beyond their intended demo.

Also strange: Cast members from Jersey Shore were all over the Behind the Screen after-party but were not identified during the presentation or asked to appear on stage. Given that the buzz for this controversial show has been white hot in recent weeks, far eclipsing everything else on MTV and many other networks, it seems odd that MTV chose not to show them off and raise the roof. Even without Pauly D, JWOWW, Snooki, Sammi Sweetheart, The Situation and the rest, however, it was clear from the vibe in the room that the media executives, buyers and planners in attendance received the messages MTV had so creatively put forth.

This column was oringinally published at