MTV's “Skins” Game

The network that gave us Snooki now features a teen sex show that may have too much to bare...

It's hard to write this without sounding like an ancient prude or an echo of the overheated, we're-in-danger-of-losing-our-mortal-souls! bombast of the often-reactionary Parents Television Council.

But let's step back for a moment, take a deep (not heavy) breath and make a humble suggestion to MTV executives: When your hot new show might be in danger of running afoul of child pornography laws, perhaps it’s time for a larger reassessment of your mission.

The New York Times reports that MTV has directed the producers of "Skins," the new scripted show portraying teenagers run amok, to tone things down because of fears of breaking federal law. The paper cited a scene in an upcoming episode showing a 17-year-old boy naked from behind as among the concern-raising content.

The show, based on the British program of the same name, actually employs age-appropriate actors (the youngest is 15) – unlike TV's biggest high school-set show,  "Glee," where some of the performers are old enough to have graduated medical school.

While "Glee" has plenty of hormonally charged raciness, it's couched in camp. "Skins" offers a far more stark and explicit portrayal of sex, drugs and lots of other things parents of teens wish didn’t exist. Last week's premiere featured an exhibitionist MILF and a girl with an unfortunate nickname, which – like some of the dialogue – isn’t repeatable here.

We're willing to accept that elements of the show are realistic, even if "Skins" isn't necessarily appropriate viewing for young teens (who, of course, are among the 3.3 million who saw last week's premiere episode and the many others watching online. The Times noted that the program set a debut-show record for viewership in MTV’s prime 12 to 34 demographic).

“Skins,” though, feels like it belongs on some other network  – say, Cinemax. Unfortunately, the show marks another example of MTV’s growing cynicism toward a youth culture that it once celebrated.

"Jersey Shore" seems to have been just the start of a headfirst dive (or Snooki ball drop) into a programming strategy largely based upon young people acting foolishly. We’ve reached the sad point where the real-life, walking, squawking ethnic stereotypes on "Jersey Shore" come off as more cartoonish than the fictional characters of "Skins."

It's all too easy for those us who remember MTV's debut nearly 30 years ago to romanticize a past where sexist videos in which guys and gals seemed to be in a big-hair competition ruled the day. But MTV was at least a place that offered the latest music videos, pop culture news and a sense that the real world (and even “The Real World,” at least in the early years) wasn’t a bleak place.

We're not calling for an MTV "Up With People" marathon, and aren’t quite ready to declare, like the PTC, that “Skins” is “the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children!” But using this opportunity to think about where MTV should go from here might be nice, along with a restoration of some balance. Perhaps a little more "Rock the Vote"– and a little less rocking of beach houses.

That might be too much to hope for, with Viacom, MTV’s parent company, making big money off nonsense like “Jersey Shore,” and, presumably, “Skins.” But as they face concerns over crossing the line into kiddie porn, the MTV suits may soon have to decide whether "Skins," in the long run, is too much to bare.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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