June 22, 2011 — -- MTV reality show hits like "16 & Pregnant," "True Life" and "Jersey Shore" have been vehicles for pregnant teenagers, drug addicts, bulimics and other young peole with other eating disorders to reach their 15 minutes of fame.
High school dropouts might be the latest group to join the MTV family. Even though MTV has not confirmed a pilot for such a show, this week, the network is in the Chicago area for an "exploratory" casting call for such a show, according to Melissa Barreto, a senior publicist at MTV.
The idea has people talking, and some are questioning whether MTV is glorifying another less-than-ideal lifestyle.
The network has no less than three shows about teenage parents and the teens have become bona fide celebrities, making frequent appearances in tabloids and becoming household names. Last month, the cast of "Teen Mom" was in a special episode of "The Dr. Oz Show," and there has even been talk of teenagers getting pregnant in hopes of being cast on the shows.
The MTV casting call, which has been paired with a "mini-resource fair" put on by the College of Lake County in Waukegan, Ill., and PASS, Positive Alternative Student Services, offers potential reality TV stars "options" for completing their educations and finding jobs.
But Deana Rohlinger, an associate professor of sociology at Florida State University who specializes in mass media and social movement, has her doubts about MTV's motivation for these series.
"Shows always have the potential to engage a community on a broader level, but the extent to which they do is a whole other can of worms, and one people should be skeptical about," Rohlinger said.
Rohlinger believes that, to some extent, shows like the ones on MTV encourage a lifestyle for young people that might not be healthy.
"They increase this expectation that you're entitled to your 15 minutes of fame," Rohlinger said. "Kids are vulnerable to the idea that you can make it this way, but the reality is that most don't."
Eighteen-year-old Maria Alvarez of Waukegan plans to attend the casting call Friday. Alvarez dropped out of school last February, saying that family problems were distracting her from her schoolwork, and she started skipping classes.
"I thought, 'What am I doing in school?'" Alvarez said. "I didn't care."
Months later, Alvarez regretted her decision and realized she did not want to work in a fast-food chain for the rest of her life. When she heard about MTV's casting call, she saw it as the perfect opportunity.
"I thought it was awesome. I've always wanted to be famous, as an actor or a model or something," Alvarez said. "If I come out on TV and I get my GED and diploma, that's the best combination you could ever imagine."
An avid reality TV fan, Alvarez has never missed an episode of MTV's "True Life" and also loves the network's "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom."
Alvarez has no aspirations of being a teen mom and thinks the show is a good way of deterring teens from that life.
"They're interesting," she said. "I see what other people go through, and it makes me think twice and it actually gives me inspiration."
The college working with MTV has decided to take its chances with the network.
"I thought it was an outstanding idea," said Michele Vaughn, associate dean for community education at the College of Lake County. "It's not about making the students look bad. It's about reinvigorating the motivation to go back to school."
Lake County has about 900 dropouts a year and neighboring Cook County will be the location for the National Dropout Prevention Conference this fall.
Vaughn acknowledged the risks involved in portraying such sensitive issues on television but believes television is the "strongest tool we have that speaks to our generation" and can be used to bring awareness to education. But she does add, "We need to be very careful" and hopes MTV has a good system for choosing the stars.
The MTV reality show model also has pop culture experts at odds.
MTV: Opportunity or 'Exploitation'?
"These aren't programs presenting role models; they're un-emulatable characters that we like to mock," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleir Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "I don't believe we are what we watch when it comes to big decisions, or else we'd better stop assigning 'Romeo and Juliet.'
"I know a lot of teens who watch 'Jersey Shore,' and while they'd all love their own shows, they don't want to be Snooki. They make fun of Snooki," Thomspon said.
Thompson pointed out that MTV has succeeded in some socially conscientious programming and campaigns, such as Rock the Vote, which encourages young people to cast their ballots. He also said that while MTV found the formula for successful reality TV with "Real World," it's a formula that networks have glommed on to with shows like ABC's "The Bachelor," CBS's "Survivor" and Bravo's "The Real Housewives" series.
Gary Hoppenstand, the editor of the Journal of Popular Culture and a professor at Michigan State University, sees it differently.
"It's really ... a thinly veiled cover for something that's really exploitation TV," Hoppenstand said. "It's the wrong attention for the wrong kind of fame. It's rewarding unfortunate behavior, no matter what's being said to spin it otherwise."
Hoppenstand said that even though he is a professor of pop culture, he struggles to see the benefits of these shows. "With programming like this, it becomes difficult to understand what positive qualities could come of it."
Either way, 18-year-old Maria Alvarez is waiting eagerly for Friday's casting call and resource fair.
"I'm really hoping to make the casting. I know there are other people like me out there," Alvarez said. "Where I'm from, everyone has had a brother, mom or father in jail, and that really affects you."
Whether it's MTV stardom or a start in the right direction, Alvarez is determined: "I'm not going home the way I got there. Something's going to work."