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Beavis and Butt-head: Playing with fire

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How well does controversy sell? Trying to spread moron chic across the country with their own book, CD, comic book, movie, and line of merchandise, MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head are about to find out.

Last week, a Moraine, Ohio, mother, Darcy Burk, accused Beavis and Butt-head—MTV’s highest-rated show—of inspiring her 5-year-old son to set the fire that killed his 2-year-old sister and destroyed the family’s mobile home. The incident followed earlier reports that three girls in western Ohio had set another fire while imitating a trick from the show, and that two South Dakota schools had banned B&B merchandise from their premises. MTV immediately canceled an appearance by series creator Mike Judge on Late Show With David Letterman (which had planned to use B&B as recurring characters this fall), and released a statement promising to delete ”all references to fire” from future episodes.

Although there are unconfirmed reports that Burk’s home wasn’t wired for cable, detractors of the animated show have seized upon her charges as confirmation of their fears. ”MTV has been irresponsible and reckless in programming this sort of behavior to children this young,” says Terry Rakolta, founder of Americans for Responsible Television, which plans a campaign to pull the show off prime time. ”I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier.” A spokesman for Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), the chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, says, ”I can’t imagine (B&B) not coming up” at congressional hearings on TV violence scheduled for Oct. 20.

Shock waves from this latest flap, however, have yet to slow the flood of B&B spin-offs:

* After reportedly shelling out $825,000 and readying an initial print run of 330,000 copies, Pocket Books is sticking to its Nov. 10 release date for MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head: This Book Sucks.

* Marvel Comics still anticipates selling 500,000 copies monthly of a comic-book series, beginning in January, that will chronicle B& B’s escapades at the dentist, at the morgue, and aboard a UFO.

* The David Geffen Company declined comment on a reported forthcoming CD, featuring B&B faves Nirvana and White Zombie, and a possible film, which might now face an R instead of a more lucrative PG rating. Still, ”there’s an audience for a Beavis and Butt-head movie,” says Twentieth Century Fox producer Andrea King, ”and if there is an audience, Hollywood will make a movie.”

* B&B merchandise—including T-shirts, Halloween masks, calendars, figurines, baseball caps, pins, and wall banners, among other items—continues to fly off store shelves. Even if MTV chooses to unplug the show, ”I wouldn’t be able to ignore the millions of dollars in sales,” says Glenn Hendricks, vice president of licensing for OSP Publishing, which has shipped approximately 6 million Beavis and Butt-head T-shirts, 800,000 posters, and 600,000 buttons in the past two months. ”Not accounting for the tragedy of this situation, it does create controversy, and controversy sells.”

At press time, MTV and Judge would not comment on whether other editorial changes will be made or if the show’s schedule will change, though Judge has said he’s against the 7 p.m. slot. The duo’s antics have been toned down since the first season (several early episodes have been taken out of circulation), and most observers expect further mellowing. When B&B ”reach the masses,” says Bob Solomon, president and CEO of merchandising giant DAKIN, which makes B&B dolls, figurines, and mugs, ”the episodes will be homogenized.”

In fact, B&B’s success may have made Burk’s accusation inevitable. ”Everyone realizes that the show doesn’t depict values that we espouse as a network,” Sumner Redstone, chairman of MTV parent Viacom Inc., insisted last month. ”I would let my own kids watch it because it is a satire.”

”This is a media bugaboo that goes back a half century,” says media critic Jonathan Katz. ”Every program that’s daring or provocative gets itself into trouble. What the culture at large needs to understand is that we’re entering a completely new realm where it’s just not possible to control the information environment of children. We need to find other ways of transmitting values.”

Additional reporting by Alan Mirabella

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