The Idea That There Are Sexual Images On MTV Is Shocking… Shocking

Brian Stelter at NYT:

MTV executives have a new hit drama on their hands, featuring the sexual and drug-fueled exploits of misfit teenagers. They also have something else — a fear that coming episodes of the show may break the law.

In recent days, executives at the cable channel became concerned that some scenes from the provocative new show “Skins” may violate federal child pornography statutes.

The executives ordered the producers to make changes to tone down some of the most explicit content.

They are particularly concerned about the third episode of the series, which is to be broadcast Jan. 31. In an early version, a naked 17-year-old actor is shown from behind as he runs down a street. The actor, Jesse Carere, plays Chris, a high school student whose erection — assisted by erectile dysfunction pills — is a punch line throughout the episode.

The planned changes indicate that MTV, which has been pushing the envelope for decades, may be concerned that it pushed too far this time.

“Skins” is a calculated risk by MTV which is eager to get into the scripted programming business. The channel, a unit of Viacom, has long tested American standards for sexuality and obscenity on television with shows like “The Real World” and “Jersey Shore.”

Those reality shows have generally involved adults, but for “Skins,” the producers purposefully cast actors ages 15 to 19, most of whom had never acted before.

MTV’s president and other executives declined interview requests on Wednesday. An MTV spokeswoman, Jeannie Kedas, insisted that the future episodes of “Skins” were still works in progress. She would not confirm that MTV executives were fearful of running afoul of child pornography laws.

Jon Bershad at Mediaite:

According to the article, some MTV executive watched a cut of the show and suddenly freaked out because they were afraid that they had broken child pornography laws. They rushed to have the episode in question edited. And then…just for kicks I suppose…they decided to call up The New York Times to have them report on the whole thing. If you believe that, well, you’re probably pretty naive (no offense!). While I’m sure there’s a possibility that MTV edited a scene from the show after standards and practices got a look at it, I have pretty high doubts anyone was legitimately worried about getting hauled off to jail. No, this seems like nothing but a rumor designed to get a new show some press.

But what does that mean? Basically it means that MTV is now marketing their show with the promise of potential child pornography and the media is helping them. Not only did The New York Times cover this “story” (on the front page!), but a bunch of other media outlets picked it up. Morning Joe did a whole segment this morning that began with Joe Scarborough asking “Why should I be afraid of Skins?” You know there were some good high fives all around the MTV offices when that sentence got uttered.

Shows like Skins have always gotten by on their controversy and the promise of scandalous content. A few years ago, the show Gossip Girl used a brilliant ad campaign that quoted negative and outraged reviews from the likes of the Parents Television Council. However, actually going out and saying the phrase “child pornography” is just so damned cynical. MTV is basically betting that they will get more viewers if people think there are actual naked 15 year olds on this show. They may be right but, God, is it a creepy way to run your business.

So, no, Skins is not child pornography. In fact, it’s a neutered version of the original British show (which, by the way, was actually pretty darn good for two seasons) since MTV isn’t able to feature profanity or nudity.* People are going to say MTV should be ashamed and they certainly should. Not for airing an edgy show, but for trying to profit off the demand for child porn. And anyone who reports this nonsense should feel ashamed for believing it.

Adrian Chen at Gawker:

Of course, the main reason MTV’s target audience will continue to tune into this lackluster remake of the British version is because of its purported edginess. (Tuesday’s premier boasted solid numbers.) And herein lies the problem: How do you make a super-edgy teen drama while simultaneously reassuring some suit back at Viacom that he won’t be carted off as a kiddie pornographer?

Here’s our suggestion: gratuitous violence. Have one of the kids mow down a bunch of pedestrians in an SUV or something—just make sure she’s fully-clothed while doing it.

Erin Brown at Newsbusters:

“Skins” is hypocritical programming for MTV, which has been praised for its portrayalof the reality of teen pregnancy with the hit show “16 and pregnant” and its follow up series “Teen Mom.” The platform of casual sex and living life without consequences as appears in “Skins” stands in direct contrast to the harsh realities that actual teen mothers face and as Michael Inbar for the “Today” show put it, “the often painful resultsof youthful hookups.”

To further entice indecent behavior among teens, the MTV website for “Skins” has launched a new section called, “Where it went down.” Readers are encouraged to anonymously post on a mapof the world where “every kind of trouble” occurred. The website whereitwentdown.com actually encourages posters to “Browse and share the places where memories were made – and the scattered pieces of nights you can’t really remember. Post the truth about the biggest parties, heartbreak, friends, sex, and every kind of trouble.”

Despite the nasty content, one media critic still found a way to praise the show. “‘Skins’ feels raw and gritty… Only the show’s target audience will know how true its portrayal of adolescence is, but it should make many parents pay closer attention to what’s going on in their teenagers’ lives” wrote Amy Amatangelo of the Boston Herald.

Despite its success, the media need to accurately report the consequence-free filth that this show and this network are promoting. Truthful reviews such as this onefrom James Poniewozik from Time magazine can go a long way in exposing the muck of this program.

“There’s far more flesh, swearing and toking on Skins than on the edgiest CW soap, but what may be most shocking to an American audience is how insouciantly it defies teen TV’s unwritten mandate of consequences. On U.S. teen dramas, you can titillate the audience with bad behavior so long as, at some point, there’s a pregnancy scare or a cautionary drug overdose…Skins, like the movies Superbad and Dazed and Confused, instead admits that teenagers seek out sex and drugs because they feel good.”

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:

Given MTV’s history of publicity stunts, the network spokeswoman’s claims of Skins’s legality seem convincing. Recall Snooki’s globe-squatting kerfuffle: the Jersey Shore employee was supposedly going to be dropped in a ball over Times Square at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. At the last minute, though, sphere-ensconced Snooki was relocated to New Jersey, as MTV never received permission to conduct the event in Times Square. The ordeal engendered weeks of press coverage.

For other instances of MTV publicity stunts, look no further than nearly every annual iteration of the Video Music Awards, a broadcast that inevitably includes an unforeseen act of animosity (cf. Bruno and Eminem) or adoration (cf. Britney and Madonna).

James Poniewozik at Time:

I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but the concerns seem to stem from the fact that many of the actors who play teens on the show (as in the original British version) are under 18. So while there’s not live sex on camera—having seen four episodes in advance, I actually found the series’ depictions of drugs more unusual for American TV than its sex scenes—the definition of pornography is trickier when underage actors are involved.

As Stelter notes, a picture of a naked minor can itself be ruled child porn if it’s sufficiently sexualized. But the one scene the piece describes executives specifically being concerned about—a male character shown running down the street naked—is not, as I recall, a sex-charged scene. (It’s played, like a lot of scenes in Skins, for a combination of drama and slapstick.)

It raises scads of definitional questions: Does the fact that the actor is shown (but not shown naked) in other sexual scenes therefore make this scene more sexualized? Does the presence of other sex scenes involving other characters elsewhere in the episodes make the scene more sexual? Would the scene constitute pornography if it were, say, an underage actor running naked down a street in a war movie? Are depictions of teen characters in sexual situations inherently pornographic, or does the use of teen actors drive it over the line? What’s dirtier: two adult actors playing teens having sex, or a teenage actor shown naked in a scene that doesn’t involve sex?

Again, not a lawyer. (And I haven’t seen every episode shot, so it’s possible there is other, unmentioned material they’re nervous about.) But I have to wonder, if MTV’s executives are suddenly concerned about the legal liability, 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?

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