The Political Economy of Jersey Shore

by Iris Bull

How do we begin to untangle the social and political forces that connect The Godfather (1972) with the likes of MTV hit reality show Jersey Shore?

495 Productions

Jersey Shore first debuted in 2009 promising to contextualize the “guido” lifestyle for ordinary audiences. The show is produced by 495 Productions, a company exclusively owned by SallyAnn Salsano.

Salsano, pictured left.

Salsano’s production company first crafted an “Italian-American”-themed reality television show with That’s Amore! With Domenico Nesci (2008). That’s Amore! tried to ride the coat-tails of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila (another Salsano reality-television creation that premiered in 2007 and ran for 2 seasons)—Domenico Nesci was a dejected contestant on that show.

Jersey Shore came a year after the premiere for That’s Amore! In some ways That’s Amore! primed MTV audiences for the overenthusiastic “Italian” motif.

Salsano has reported in several interviews that Jersey Shore has always meant to be representative of how she spent her younger years at the Shore, but how much Jersey Shore is an original creation inspired by a nostalgic revival of her younger years is debatable.

495 Productions has a long history of spinning shows from tried-and-true hit sensations. The company debuted with Nashville Star (2003), a “twist on American Idol, amateur singers compete for several weeks to see which one will be selected by viewers’ votes as the next country music superstar,” and went on to produce such “original” shows as HGTV Design Star (2006; essentially a cooking show with interior designers), The Big Party Plan Off (2007) (a HGTV Design Star and game-show motif mash-up), and Dance Your Ass Off (2009; an obvious spin off of The Biggest Loser (2004)).

So, the show wasn’t initially Salsano’s idea, but she knew how to make Jersey Shore into a cultural phenomenon. Phase one of her plan was to pitch the show to MTV executives, the company that had just distributed A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, A Double Shot at Love, and That’s Amore—all money-makers for the network.

Within a year of the show’s first broadcast, ratings for Jersey Shore were up 194% compared to its first season, totaling 5.3 million viewers. In March of 2011, MTV reported its highest ratings in 5 years, and viewership among its targeted demographic (18-35 year-olds) was up 27%—Jersey Shore snowballed like no other MTV show. This was all good news for MTV’s parent company, Viacom.
In a single quarter from this year for Viacom, “Jersey Shore contributed to a 14 percent increase in ad revenues worldwide and 12 percent in the U.S.” Since the end of Jersey Shore’s first season Viacom has seen gains in stock prices, with the most dramatic increases correlating with the progression of Jersey Shore’s 3rd and 4th season.

This rapid success prompted 495 Productions to attempt a wide variety of television show spin-offs that experiment with the show’s premise. Shows that have been formally pitched or piloted include:

  1. Untitled “Nicole ‘Snooki’ Polizzi and Jenni ‘JWoww’ Farley Project (to be produced by 495 Productions)
  2. Untitled “Paul ‘DJ Pauly D’ Delvecchio Project (to be produced by 495 Productions)
  3. Wicked Summer and Tehrangeles/Jersey Shore: The Persian Version (supposedly pitched by 495 Productions, in conjunction with Doron Ofir Casting, but is suspected to be “fake”—a publicity stunt designed by Doron Ofir Casting)
  4. Party Down South (in production; produced by 495 Productions, in conjunction with Doron Ofir Casting)

Other shows that have spun off of Jersey Shore include:

  1. Lake Shore (Toronto, Canada; 2010—it didn’t do so well. Produced by Sunrise Multimedia)
  2. K-Town (in production, supposedly; independently produced by Tyrese Gibson, a former MTV VJ)
  3. Russian Dolls (in production; owned by A&E Television Networks, which is owned, in part, by Hearst Corporation, Disney-ABC Television Group, and NBCUniversal)
  4. Shahs of Sunset (conceptually identical to Tehrangles; to be produced by Ryan Seacrest Productions in partnership with Bravo, Bravo being owned by NBCUniversal)
  5. The Only Way is Essex (produced by Lime Pictures, which is owned by All3Media, reputably Britain’s largest independent production company)
  6. Geordie Shore (also produced by Lime Pictures; distributed by MTV, a Viacom subsidiary)

The more attention Jersey Shore and her spin-offs have garnered, the more popular the show has become. The show’s ability to garner an audience, though, is closely liked to its support from Viacom, and not necessarily any promotion from 495 Productions.


Viacom is one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world, and—after merging with CBS in 2000—touts a presence in online, film, television, radio, book publishing, and outdoor advertising industries, among others. Viacom is so powerful, it can “generate its own entertainment through Paramount Pictures, distribute it on CBS and possibly UPN stations, promote the soundtrack on MTV or VH1, rent out the videotapes at Blockbuster, and do book tie-ins through Simon & Schuster” (Holstein).

Viacom is a vertically integrated corporation; it owns multiple (if not all) stages of production for many of its products. This allows for the corporation to control costs within the production line, and diversify its market holdings. The diversification of commodities made ultimately makes it a stronger corporation; if one market experiences turbulence, for example, Viacom can rely on other subsidiary companies to generate profits for the parent company. Diversification also allows for commodities to cross-promote products sold within the Viacom corporate family for little to no cost—this is referred to as synergy.

The Jersey Shore cast is one small implement in its global toolbox used to promote or advertise other commodities; the synergistic promotion of Just Dance 3 and Jersey Shore is one example of this:

It should come as no surprise, either, that Snooki’s book, A Shore Thing, was published by Gallery Books, a subsidiary Simon & Schuster—Viacom’s book publishing company.

Notably, though, Viacom won’t be sponsoring DJ Pauly D in his up and coming music career—mostly because the corporation isn’t in the business of recording and distributing that kind of music. True: Pauly is coming out with his own show that will air on MTV, but it appears as though his music will distribute through 50 Cent’s record company G-Unit (owned by Warner Music Group, which was just recently sold from Time Warner to Access Industries). There is also word that DJ Pauly D will have his own brand of headphones—we’ll see if they end up being part of the Beats brand by Dr. Dre. Only time will tell how Viacom chooses to capitalize on Pauly D beyond his MTV show.

If history is a predictor, though, Viacom will find a way. The company prides itself on producing commodities inspired by up-and-coming cultural trends—it thrives on capitalizing on the culture of “cool.”

How could we have predicted the rise of Jersey Shore? Why would Viacom/MTV so readily adopted the show?

In many ways Jersey Shore was predictable—its just a recycling of MTV hits from the 2000s. The bodies, the partying, the overindulgent consumption of crap could have been portrayed by any ethnic group. So why does Jersey Shore pick on Italian-Americans?

The Sopranos vs. Jersey Shore

The Sopranos (1999-2007) made a lot of money for Time Warner, and it had taken a different approach to the Italian theme—reminiscent of The Godfather, The Sopranos portrayed the Italian-American mafia as a crumbling institution.

But 2007 also saw the end of economic stability in the United States. The stock market crash of 2007/2008 was redolent of the Great Depression for many Americans, and—just as it was in the 1930s and 70s—by 2009 the Italian motif/theme was popular again in the media.

Within Jersey Shore, representations of Italian-Americans today are not too different from representations of Italians of the 1930s and 40s. Italian identity is used to distance characters who desire economic or social status from Anglo audiences—the Italians are greedy, violent, overindulgent, promiscuous, and morally reprehensible. It’s understandable to identify with their desires, but socially unacceptable (for adults) to mimic their behavior.

Jersey Shore doesn’t exist today because it is new; rather, Viacom/MTV produces Jersey Shore because the corporation knows that it will make money. Just as a cover band attracts audiences by playing songs everyone already likes, Viacom makes money by repackaging stories everyone has already grown to love.

Sources hyperlinked and embedded where appropriate.

Ancillary Sources:

Holstein, William J. “MTV, Meet 60 Minutes.” U.S. News & World Report 127.11 (1999): 44. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.

Roberts, Johnnie L. “World Tour.” Newsweek 145.23 (2005): 34-35. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.


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