MTV comes under fire as younger viewers copy its Johnny Knoxville-helmed hit.

By Josh Young
April 06, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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More than a week has passed since MTV’s one-time-only broadcast of Madonna’s new video ”What It Feels Like for a Girl,” but as of press time no one has stolen two cars, collided with multiple vehicles, run down street-hockey players, held up an ATM patron, torched a gas station, pointed metallic squirt guns at cops, and crashed head-on into a pole. Yet.

But MTV, which banned the Guy Ritchie-directed video except for its March 20 airing at 11:30 p.m., clearly had cause for concern. The 20-year-old network seems to be in a full-scale defensive crouch, stung by criticism that some of its edgy programming — especially Johnny Knoxville’s stunt-driven Jackass — encourages dangerous copycatting by its sizable audience of young teens. Despite repeated requests, MTV declined to comment for this story.

MTV’s recent troubles began Jan. 26, when Jason Lind, 13, of Torrington, Conn., tried to repeat the human BBQ stunt he had just seen on Jackass. On the show, Knoxville donned a flame-retardant suit covered in raw steaks and lay on a grill as assistants squirted lighter fluid. Lind went into a friend’s yard, where pals poured gasoline on his hands and legs and lit him on fire. (He spent five weeks in a hospital with second- and third-degree burns.) Although Lind made national news, he wasn’t the only imitator.

EW has learned that another boy, Thomas Hitz, 12, performed his own version of the fiery stunt Feb. 3 in a friend’s backyard in Lake Mary, Fla. Hitz doused his hand in bug spray, lit it on fire, and tried to put it out on his shirt. Seconds later, his shirt burst into flames and he dived into a nearby pool. Hitz’s friends, ages 8 to 13, were doubled over with laughter, just like Knoxville’s on-air sidekicks. The laughs soon stopped: Hitz was treated for second- and third-degree burns.

”I don’t blame myself, I kind of blame the show,” says Hitz, whose family has decided not to sue MTV. ”We did it because we saw [it] on Jackass and we were copying the show. In real life, kids don’t think. They think they’re invincible, so they don’t worry about what will happen.”

Hitz says he and his pals were trying to follow Knoxville’s career path. Knoxville, 30, né Phillip John Clapp, landed on MTV when the net saw a tape Clapp had made of himself performing stunts like getting pepper-sprayed in the face. Though MTV doesn’t solicit material for Jackass, Hitz hoped to win fame and money by sending in his own tape. Before trying the self-immolation stunt, he and his buddies shot footage of themselves doing backflips off a church roof and jumping on pogo sticks in traffic.

MTV faced similar questions eight years ago when a 5-year-old Ohio boy set a fire that killed his sister after watching the pyromaniac dolts of Beavis and Butt-head. Today, the network is treading on trickier terrain. (MTV brass is still recovering from internal strife over the antigay messages in Eminem’s recent videos.) While Jackass and the sexy soap Undressed are aimed at the over-18-year-olds that make up 59 percent of MTV’s audience, acts like Britney Spears and ‘N Sync are attracting younger viewers.

“MTV is going to go through a real soul-searching debate if incidents like these keep occurring,” says an exec at MTV parent Viacom. “It’s even harder when you have all this outside pressure to tone things down.”

Much of that pressure comes from former vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has led a political crusade against media violence. After receiving a call from the Linds, Lieberman castigated Jackass in a letter to Viacom president and COO Mel Karmazin. In response, MTV president Van Toffler defended the show and its on-air warnings. “It WAS made clear that the performer of the stunt was wearing a flame-retardant suit, that the stunt WAS dangerous, and that it should NOT be tried at home,” Toffler wrote.

Unlike the Hitzes, the Linds are still exploring legal options. The family, says lawyer Michael Magistrali, “wants to do whatever is necessary to make sure it won’t happen again.”

In a terse statement, MTV wished Lind “a full and speedy recovery.” Since the incident, the network has also moved Jackass an hour later, to 10 p.m., and scrapped the show’s old jokey warning (“MTV insists that neither you or any of your dumb little buddies attempt this dangerous crap”). The warning now explicitly discourages viewers from re-creating the stunts, which it says are performed “under very strict control and supervision.”

But even stronger warnings might not deter copycats like Hitz. The boy swears he has learned his lesson but worries about the show’s approximately 2.8 million viewers, 39 percent of them under 18. “A lot of kids are still watching,” he says, “and getting ideas.”

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