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MTV's Racy New Series "Skins" Raises Legal Concerns
By Tara Ariano, The Set | Thursday, January 20, 2011, 10:24 AM
Why can't there be a show about teenagers doing homework?!
MTV"Skins," MTV's controversial new show about a group of very misbehaved teenagers has aired just one episode, and already it is facing severe criticism, advertising snafus and even possible legal action.
After a damning story about the show ran on the front page of Thursday's New York Times, Taco Bell announced that it would be pulling all of its ads from future airings of "Skins." A spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter the show is "not a fit for our brand," and that they would be moving their ads elsewhere on MTV.
"Skins" (based on the racy BBC series of the same name) is raising red flags within the company due to its potentially objectionable content. According to a story on the front page of today's New York Times, executives at the network have expressed concerns that content in forthcoming episodes could expose the company to charges of child pornography.
Brian Stelter reports that, according to an unnamed source at MTV, executives have ordered cuts to the episode slated to air January 31, which apparently revolves around teenaged Chris gravely (and comedically) inconvenienced by the effects of an erectile-dysfunction drug; the actor playing Chris, Jesse Carere, is 17.
The conservative Parents Television Council, which previously said "Skins" may very well be "the most dangerous show for children that we have ever seen," reacted to the premiere by announcing that, by their count, "42 depictions and references to drugs and alcohol" were shown in Monday's episode alone. The PTC is also pursuing the matter with the federal government, having sent letters complaining about the show to Attorney General Eric Holder, the FCC and the heads of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.
In response to concerns about the show's depiction of teen sexuality and drug use, MTV stated in earlier news releases that "Skins" is "specifically designed to be viewed by adults," also citing the show's late time slot (10 PM Eastern) as a factor that would keep younger viewers away. But as Stelter notes, Nielsen ratings show that 1.2 million of the 3.3 million viewers who watched Monday's premiere of the episode were under the age of 18. Also, the full episode is available online for free at MTV.com: Though a pre-roll screen displays the show's TV-MA rating, there is no age-gate to limit access by any potential viewer.
Generally speaking, actors playing teenaged characters tend not to be minors, though on most shows that's due to the restrictions placed on the hours underaged actors can work, and not the dicey situations they might be asked to portray. However, MTV's "Skins" has made it a point to cast actors close to their characters' ages: The show's stars range in age from 15 to 19.
"Skins" is just the latest teen-targeted entertainment to be challenged over whether its content is appropriate for its audience. Last fall, several members of the cast of "Glee" were criticized for their participation in a provocative photo shot for "GQ" magazine, even though the actors, unlike their characters, have reached the age of majority.
Whether or not the actors themselves are of age seems beside the point to critics of TV shows that use risqué imagery in depicting the lives of underage characters. Take "Gossip Girl," which follows a similarly unseemly group of high-schoolers (who are portrayed mostly by actors of legal voting age) as they traipse through some decidedly mature scenarios. A 2009 episode that involved three of the characters engaging in an intimate act led to similar complaints from the PTC. The organization called the show "reckless and irresponsible" and urged CW affiliate stations to pull the episode from their broadcast.
And just last night, Steven Tyler made his début as a judge on "American Idol," and immediately drew criticism for what some viewers interpreted as his "hitting on" young female contestants.
The "Skins" premiere attracted a lot of viewers but very little critical praise. If, as MTV claims, the show is meant for adults, few of them are likely to check out the show if they read the reviews by Richard Lawson of Gawker.com or Gabe Delahaye of Videogum.com. In his review titled "MTV's Adaptation of 'Skins' is Terrible," Delahaye says "the only real problems with the show are that the acting is bad, the shock-value is boring, and not a single moment seems even remotely true to actual life." Lawson, for his part, says "Skins" presents the thesis that "kids really are as adults supposedly see them -messy jumbles of extremes with very little shading in between, lacking in kindness, decorum, and any sense of responsibility or consequence. It's a pretty bleak and unfair characterization."
Another critic, James Poniewozik of Time.com, wonders how MTV couldn't have seen all of this coming. "If MTV's executives are suddenly concerned about the legal liability," he writes, "how could it not have occurred to them earlier in the process—especially since the use of teen actors has been one of the show's best-publicized aspects, and since the show was very directly adapted from a British show that already exists for comparison?"
Is this whole flap just a publicity stunt? Hard to say. But over the years, MTV has gotten press for banning racy videos (like Madonna's "Justify My Love"), creating reality shows with built-in controversy (like "16 and Pregnant"), and turning live TV mishaps into indelible cultural moments (as Taylor and Kanye could both attest). If any network could make an even-more-scandalous adaptation of an already-scandalous series, it's MTV.