On the third episode of MTV's new series "Skins," a high school student takes erectile dysfunction pills and, with the camera filming him from behind, runs naked down the street. His tumescence serves as a running joke throughout the episode. The new show is a hit among middle schoolers, and the actor in the aforementioned scene is 17 years old.
According to the New York Times, MTV is taking steps to edit out some of the more objectionable content in this episode — not because it's inappropriate for teen viewers but because network executives are worried they may be charged with violating child pornography laws.
MTV and other basic-cable networks have been pushing the envelope on sexual and violent content for decades, but seldom have they aired anything as brazen as "Skins," a scripted series starring a troupe of unknown actors between the ages of 15 and 19. A remake of a series that originally aired in Britain, it is loaded with teen sex, masturbation and casual drug use. The conservative Parents Television Council calls it the "most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children."
The show does cross a boundary when it comes to TV depictions of sex involving minors, but any kid who's been to a Judd Apatow movie has seen worse. Today's teens have easy access to Internet porn, pay-cable sex shows and other entertainment offerings that scandalize those from earlier generations; MTV isn't alone in degrading cultural standards. Of course, that doesn't entirely excuse the network, which is breathtakingly disingenuous about its practices. It claims in a release that "Skins" is meant to be viewed by adults, and to prove it the channel airs the show at or after 10 p.m. Eastern time and has slapped a TV-MA rating on it, meaning it's theoretically unsuitable for those under 17. If airing programs late at night ever put off teens, the strategy has been rendered obsolete by digital video recorders. And the notion that a show starring teen actors, playing characters dealing with teen issues, on a network watched mostly by teens, is actually intended for adults is laughable.
The Parents Television Council is lobbying for a Justice Department investigation of MTV, but looking for government remedies is ineffective and unwise; we suspect the network's editors are smart enough to skirt prosecution. The Federal Communications Commission doesn't regulate the content of cable networks, and even if it did, a crackdown on shows like "Skins" would be a bad idea, because adults should be able to watch whatever they like on cable and federal attempts to protect kids from adult programming have never been successful. The best and most appropriate ways for parents to protect their kids from objectionable material on TV are to monitor their viewing and to learn to use the V-chip.