Of Skins and Publicity

skins.JPGAn old saw says that all publicity is good publicity. And MTV’s racy, controversial new TV series Skins is the latest boundary-bending bit of intentional naughtiness to put that cliché to the test.


Skins, which is based on a popular and even edgier version of the show in Great Britain, focuses on the drug-fueled sexual antics of a group of teens. It debuted this week to big numbers and big criticism. According to Nielsen, 3.3 million folks tuned in on Jan. 17 to watch the premiere of a program the Parents Television Council dubbed “the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seen.” According to The New York Times, 1.2 million of those viewers were under the age of 18.


PTC senior director Melissa Henson summarized the show’s glorification of consequence-free sex and substance abuse by saying, “They’re engaging in the most reckless and irresponsible and sometimes even illegal behavior, and all of it is shown as an aspirational lifestyle.”


Acting on that concern, the Los Angeles-based watchdog group launched a two-pronged assault on Skins: calling for its constituents to boycott advertisers and calling for a congressional investigation regarding whether a 17-year-old actor’s rear nudity in an upcoming episode constitutes a violation of child pornography law.


The first strategy has already yielded what the PTC is characterizing as a victory: Taco Bell has decided to pull its advertising from the show. Rob Poetsch, a spokesman for the restaurant chain, told The Hollywood Reporter, “We advertise on a variety of MTV programs that reach our core demographic of 18 to 34 year olds, which included the premiere episode of Skins. Upon further review, we’ve decided that the show is not a fit for our brand and have moved our advertising to other MTV programming.” The PTC is now urging its folks to contact GM in an effort to get the car company to pull its ads as well.


More unusual, even by the PTC’s aggressive standards, is the watchdog group’s letter to members of a congressional judiciary committee, the chairman of the FCC and the attorney general urging a federal investigation of whether the third episode’s nudity warrants federal prosecution for violation of child pornography laws. “It is clear,” the PTC’s letter said, “that [MTV corporate parent] Viacom has knowingly produced material that may well be in violation of any or all of [four different] federal statutes.”


A widely quoted assessment of that charge published in The New York Times gave enough credence to the PTC’s claims that MTV is reportedly editing the episode in question before it airs.


For its part, MTV issued a statement that said, “Skins is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way. We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards. We are confident that the episodes of Skins will not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers.”


Regarding MTV’s potential legal liabilities, attorney Ian Friedman told Fox News, “Putting aside whether it is socially acceptable, I certainly believe that MTV is unnecessarily tempting fate. It is not clear as to whether MTV is in violation of federal or state child pornography laws, but that does not mean that they won’t end up defending themselves somewhere in the United States. … This situation presents a minefield of legal issues that may not have been considered prior to filming.”


Legal repercussions aside, though, MTV’s latest flirtation with over-the-line edginess once again begs the question of whether the network hoped for some scandal-minded publicity. Or as Salon television critic Matt Zoller Seitz noted, “Last week the PTC declared the U.S. [version of] Skins ‘the most dangerous program for kids that we have ever seen.’ That’s not just good publicity. It’s perfect. … Is there a greater P.R. agent for risqué television than the Parents’ Television Council? I doubt it. If I were a young viewer who paid attention to the pronouncements of watchdog groups (and has there ever been one of those, ever?) I’d put any show it condemned on a list of must-sees.”


While I applaud the PTC’s ongoing attempts to get the word out regarding extremely salacious fare like Skins—word that seems to be influencing the show’s sponsors—I’m grudgingly forced to admit that Seitz’s observations about free publicity might be one of the reasons so many people tuned in to see the very thing the PTC rightly says no one should see.

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