Has MTV Gone Too Far?

The teen-focused cable channel, pleased by 'Skins' premiere audience, gets stung with child pornography complaints. Will they profit from the buzz anyway?

(photo: Shutterstock)

NEW YORK — A parents group with 1.3 million members has called for child pornography charges against the makers of Skins, the new TV comedy-drama ostensibly aimed at a teen audience and realistically depicting teen life.

“Whether it is realistic or not is beside the point if it violates child pornography laws,” said Melissa Henson, communications director for the Parents Television Council.

The show’s opening audience on Jan. 17 was 3.3 million, including more than a million school-age children and teenagers.

The Parents Television Council, which has 53 chapters across the U.S., said the show is packed with references to sex, drug and alcohol activity, but short on consequences.

It has asked the Department of Justice and the Senate and House judiciary committees to determine if charges should be brought against Skins’ producers and distributors under several child sexual exploitation laws.

The producers include MTV, MTV Canada (the filming is in Toronto) and All3Media, the makers of the original, British-based version of Skins, where it has already been running since 2007, without any fuss, say the show’s defenders, other than winning awards.

Well, some fuss anyway, since English and Irish police complained of a rash of “Skins” parties that resulted in the trashing of homes, named after the party that climaxed the opening Skins episode in 2007. Maybe this is why the new series, though it mostly follows the original’s plotting, ends its pilot episode not with a destructive party but with the inebriated main characters driving their car into a, fortunately shallow, reservoir.


The Parents Television Council calls the show “dangerous.” Henson explains that “children learn how they are expected to behave from television, and it is also the main source of their sex education.”

But the “lessons” taught by Skins, she said, are that teenage life is about “sex, drugs and drinking,” and that these are all “consequence-free. Nobody is getting pregnant; nobody is overdosing; nobody is getting STDs,” said Henson. “That’s not realistic.”

In its defense, an MTV news release has claimed the show is aimed at adults and pointed to its own “Mature Audience” rating.

Steve Morrison, the CEO of All3Media, told reporters that “the show, in our view, explores real-world issues in a frank, responsible and legal way.”

And Brian Elsley, the creator of the British Skins, called it, “a very simple and, in fact, rather old-fashioned kind of show. It deals with relationships, parents, death, illness, mental-health issues and the consequences of drug use and sexual activity.” He urged critics to watch a few more episodes before passing judgment.

But Bob Peters, president of the Manhattan-based Morality in Media, one of several media watchdog groups that attacked the show, said Skins is not about realism, but about pandering to the appetite of middle-aged men for sexy underage girls.

“The guys are ordinary-looking, but the girls are gorgeous. This is sexual exploitation intended not to teach, but to draw older men with pretty girls provocatively dressed.”

But New York Times columnist David Carr disagreed about the target audience, writing, “Skins is a show meant to offend adults and create did-you-see chatter among young people.” Carr also demolishes MTV’s boast about the show being “daring and innovative,” describing it as a copy not only of the British Skins series but of the 1995 British film Kids. 

The pilot episode tracks the efforts of Tony to procure a sexual partner for his 16-year-old friend Stanley, a familiar enough storyline in teen-targeted movies. Their best bet is Cadie, because she is not only a suicidal knife fetishist, but an addict willing to couple even with Stanley for drugs. Before their caper fizzles out in the reservoir, there are drugs ingested, much female flesh exposed and many references to lesbianism, bleeped obscenities and profanities.

Critics’ Harshness

Critics have been harsh. At Focus on the Family’s Plugged in Online website, reviewer Paul Asay said Skins was even worse than other “unnecessarily salacious” shows, such as Melrose Place and Gossip Girl, which at least offer something “akin to a positive lesson or two” flowing from the all the bad behavior. “On Skins, bad behavior is the message.”

Secular media critics have been just as cruel: Hank Stuever at The Washington Post wrote, “By and large, Skins is a repugnant, irredeemably nihilistic viewing experience for grown-ups — the very thing for which ‘off’ buttons are made.”

But what about teenagers? According to Trendrr, the social-media tracking service, Skins was the second most popular topic in the world on Twitter on the day of the premiere, with 89% of the “tweets” rated as positive.

Reader comments on a TV Guide Web story on the show all defended it. One parent urged others to watch the show with their children instead of trying to ban it unseen. Another comment claimed, “Skins provides an accurate look into what kids deal with these days, but some people just don’t wanna know. They enjoy living in a bubble.”

But a Los Angeles Times web story drew a mixed response from comment writers. Brett Starr, for example, wrote, “I am 18 years old and, honestly, that show angers me so much. I mean: Teenagers are not like this at all.” Brittney Moore weighed in with, “This was the worst [expletive] I’ve ever seen.”

On the other hand, Philodino called it “a gritty portrayal of teen life” that would prove a cautionary tale for most teens.

In his World Communications Day message for 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the need for “info-ethics,” since “it is essential that social communications should assiduously defend the person and fully respect human dignity.  …

“The media must avoid becoming spokesmen for economic materialism and ethical relativism, true scourges of our time,” he continued. “Instead, they can and must contribute to making known the truth about humanity and defending it against those who tend to deny or destroy it.”

Carr suggests the public furor over Skins was everything MTV hoped for — until the Parents Television Council recommended child pornography charges and named its sponsors. Five have now canceled: Taco Bell, General Motors, Wrigley, H & R Block and Subway, and MTV executives are reported to be vetting future episodes to remove 16-and-under sexual activities.

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.


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