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MTV's awards shows always deliver shock -- and draw

By Todd Leopold, CNN
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Cruise, Bullock rock MTV Movie Awards
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Always something to talk about after an MTV awards show
  • This year: Sandra Bullock kissing Scarlett Johansson on MTV Movie Awards
  • Show was full of off-color language; "vulgar for sake of vulgarity," says critic
  • Technology spreads around water-cooler moments as they get all over Web

(CNN) -- OMG. MTV did it again.

On Sunday, Sandra Bullock, who had been keeping a low profile in the aftermath of her romantic woes with soon-to-be ex-husband Jesse James, appeared on the MTV Movie Awards. She thanked the audience, cracked a few jokes about herself and planted an awkwardly scripted kiss on actress Scarlett Johansson, who was sharing the stage with her.

The next day, the entertainment world buzzed.

And not just about Bullock, though she was the lead story (including on CNN.com). There were clips of Tom Cruise as foul-mouthed "Tropic Thunder" character Les Grossman, "Twilight" stars Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson and host Aziz Ansari, who concluded one routine by insulting BP.

Video: Everybody loves Sandra Bullock
Video: Stars turn out for MTV Movie Awards
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MTV has a knack for such water-cooler moments. Its MTV Video Music Awards has featured Kanye West grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift, Nirvana's Krist Novoselic being brained by his own bass and Eminem bickering with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Last year's Movie Awards featured a bare-bottomed Sacha Baron Cohen crashing into Eminem.

In fact, Britney Spears -- no stranger to controversy -- has built a good portion of her career around her MTV awards appearances, whether it's dancing while entwined with a snake, giving Madonna a lusty kiss or poorly lip-syncing "Gimme More" while spilling out of a sequined two-piece outfit.

"I think the various MTV award shows have become known -- notorious if you will -- for their unpredictability," says Kath Skerry, editor of the Give Me My Remote TV blog. "There is always at least one moment or two that permeates into the pop culture conversations of the classroom, office and newsroom."

Technology has helped immeasurably, she adds -- after all, you don't need to wade through the whole show to catch the highlights anymore.

"What will be the most talked-about moments of the night surface on YouTube just minutes after it airs on live TV," says Skerry. "The live viewing audience itself might be small, but there is a collective permeating curiosity that comes with an event so intertwined with pop culture."

Skerry herself didn't watch the show live; she kept abreast of it through Twitter's trending topics and then skimmed through the two hours the next day on DVR.

MTV acknowledges the show is meant as a party, not a serious kudofest. (It's also a valuable promotional tool; Sunday's show featured frequent cutaways to the "Jersey Shore" cast.)

Not everyone approves of what MTV gives its audience. Though the network aims much of its programming at the 18-34 demographic, it also touts its status as "the No. 1 rated full-day ad-supported cable network for persons 12-24," according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau -- and it's what the awards shows expose the younger viewers to that has critics up in arms.

"MTV may come out and say, 'we're just reflecting the generation.' But I don't know many 12-year-olds who run around in sequined bathing suits pushing their crotches in people's faces, or walking around acting like they're masturbating on their friends," said Nathan Burchfiel of the Culture and Media Institute, a unit of the conservative Media Resource Center.

"There can be a redeeming quality to being edgy, pushing the envelope. But MTV is just being vulgar for the sake of vulgarity," he said.

The Culture and Media Institute counted "at least 100 bleep-worthy words" during the Movie Awards (though some, like "damn" and "bitch," have become part of the mainstream vernacular). In a statement, MTV apologized for the language -- "We sincerely apologize to those in our audience who were offended by any objectionable words that might have slipped by for the live airing," it said -- but Burchfiel wasn't placated.

"Any apology from MTV concerning their inappropriate programming should be taken with a grain of salt. They can come out and say, 'We had no idea' ... but history proves otherwise," he said, reeling off other moments in MTV awards programming and noting the name of an official category was "WTF Moment."

Moreover, he added, all the bleeps are "counterproductive." "The people watching on TV can't even hear [what they're saying] because of all the mutes and the bleeps," he said.

Skerry adds that, though she enjoyed certain moments Sunday, she's generally aged out of the shows. "These awards shows seem to rely on 'shock and awe' rather than pure entertainment," she said. "The constant cursing and the need to be 'controversial' seemed to be more important than the movies and stars that were being celebrated."

Perhaps even Bullock, who was honored with the "Generation Award," might agree.

"Now that we have done that, can we please go back to normal, because therapy is really expensive?" Bullock said after kissing Johansson. "Go back to making fun of me, I don't care, it's time to get back to normal."

With MTV? Not a chance.