MTV's newest TV series is so racy the network's own executives worried during a meeting last week whether they could be charged with child pornography, according to a report in the New York Times.
Network execs and the producers of the show "Skins" have plenty to worry about, from potential legal problems to angry parents and the flight of mainstream advertisers.
The Parents Television Council believes the show has gone to a new level of depravity in its depictions of adolescent sexual acts. A PTC alert sent to parents about the show said that in addition to the sexual content in the debut episode, "Skins" had clocked 42 depictions and references to drugs and alcohol during the 41-minute premiere. "It is absolutely crucial," the alert warned, "that you be aware of the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children!"
Mainstream advertisers are abandoning "Skins" as national shock grows. Taco Bell pulled its ads, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Wrigley and GM have done the same, and H&R Block told TMZ its ad ran on the show only by mistake.
Why all the hubbub? An upcoming episode of "Skins" is scheduled to show a naked teenage actor after his character takes a male enhancement pill, according to a Washington Post blog.
That and other depictions of sex acts make that concern about potential child porn charges pretty realistic, a former chief of the U.S. Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section said Monday. "Given the allegations of sexually explicit conduct by minors that have been made in news reports and by the show's distributors, MTV and Viacom, some material may constitute child pornography under U.S. law if certain conditions are met," said Patrick A. Trueman, who is now the CEO of Morality in Media.
"U. S. child pornography laws prohibit any visual depiction involving children under the age of 18 engaged in 'sexually explicit conduct,' which is defined under those laws as 'actual or simulated' sexual intercourse, including ... a variety of other sexual acts," Trueman said.
Others agree. Amy M. Adler, a professor of law at New York University who specializes in free speech, art and pornography, told the New York Times, "There are times when I look at mainstream culture and think it is skirting up against the edge of child pornography law."
The marketing campaign also bothers many parents. Video clips posted on Teen.com before the show debuted portrayed characters promoting sex and drug use.
Marketing like that and the show's edgy content made "Skins" the network's most-popular pilot ever among viewers 12-34. The episode even drew 1.2 million viewers younger than 18. That's a big number, more people than watch an average NBA game on ESPN.
Newsweek's youth culture writer, Jessica Bennett, doesn't find any of this surprising. She wrote that " 'Skins' may be the most realistic show on television."
"And, well, let's face it: real teenagers can be a little nuts," she said. "They do have sex; they do experiment with drugs. Three in 10 of them will get pregnant before they turn 20, and 9 percent of them will attempt suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They can be angry and volatile, depressed, isolated, and often insecure."
The Deseret News editorial board had a different take on realism in the entertainment world: "The real shocker," today's house editorial said, "would be if MTV were to produce a sharp and witty show that upheld traditional values as a way for teenagers to empower themselves and develop healthy relationships."
And realism among one segment of teens is not excuse enough for baring it all on television, said PTC president Tim Winter, who told the New York Daily News the show makes "sexual objects" of every one of its young characters, adding more disturbing evidence in support of PTC research that shows teen girls are increasingly sexualized in the media. "MTV seems determined to exploit them further for ratings," Winter said.