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'Skins' boss defends his racy show

The controversial MTV teen drama is the 'opposite' of porn, Bryan Elsley says.

January 27, 2011|By Judy Berman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • James Newman and Sofia Black-D'Elia star in MTV's "Skins."
James Newman and Sofia Black-D'Elia star in MTV's "Skins." (MTV )

Despite accusations of violating child pornography laws and shedding a slate of big-name advertisers, the creator of MTV's new prime-time teen drama "Skins" has no plans to change or edit its content, he said in his first media interview since the controversy erupted last week.


FOR THE RECORD:
"Skins": An article in the Jan. 27 Calendar about the controversy surrounding the TV show "Skins" said that MTV would probably run all 10 episodes of the series as originally planned. The network has since confirmed that all 10 episodes will indeed air.

Bryan Elsley, creator of both MTV's "Skins" and the British series on which it's based, said he doesn't foresee altering the hour-long program to quell protests about its frank and gritty depictions of teenage sex and drug use. By sticking to the original storylines, Elsley said he is not deliberately trying to be "confrontational," but merely wants to maintain the show's authenticity.

Even before the premiere last week, the Parents Television Council was attacking "Skins" as "the most dangerous show for children we have ever seen." And less than a week into its run, "Skins" lost many of its advertisers, including Taco Bell, GM, Wrigley, H&R Block, Schick and Subway, as the PTC, a conservative watchdog group, was urging the federal government to investigate the program.

The flight of advertisers came after a front-page New York Times story last week that claimed MTV executives were scrambling to make sure the TV-MA-rated show didn't run afoul of child pornography laws. The story, based on an anonymous source, took Elsley by surprise.

"The show is the opposite of pornography," Elsley insisted. "It isn't us who are being provocative. I think that some of the people who object to the show are being provocative in the use of that word."

MTV executives declined to be interviewed for this article. But a network spokesperson reaffirmed that the show would comply with federal laws, adding that it stands by the show and will probably air 10 episodes as originally planned.

The episode that supposedly prompted worries at MTV over its legality is set to air Monday at 10 p.m. The episode contains, among other things, a scene in which a 17-year-old actor is seen naked from the back as he runs down the street, having been locked out of his house by an intruder.

"It's about a boy who is abandoned by his mother," Elsley said. "How he deals with that and how his friends come to realize that this happy-go-lucky boy has led an incredibly sad and fractured life."

Elsley acknowledged that he understands why some viewers might find the show "difficult or objectionable," but worries that detractors are fixating on the sex and drugs at the expense of the program's serious and mature story lines.

Melissa Henson, a spokesperson for the PTC, said "Skins" presents a "dark and nihilistic view of life."

"Skins" provoked its share of hysteria in Britain as well, where tabloids labeled out-of-control teen parties with no parental supervision "Skins parties." One newspaper used the term to describe a gathering where 50 teens were caught "smashing up [a] newly-decorated house and even drugging the family dog." Elsley said the media circus never affected the content of the British series, noting that the show "did not invent the concept of waiting for your parents to go on holiday to throw a party."

This is hardly the first time MTV has had to defend a controversial show. From "The Real World" to "Jackass" to "Jersey Shore," the cable network has successfully remade itself with its stable of envelope-pushing programming for young people — and its most provocative shows have often been its most popular.

According to Steve Sternberg, a TV industry analyst who blogs at the Sternberg Report, the rise of provocative scripted cable series such as "The Sopranos" and "The Shield" has helped lower the public outcry over suggestive content. As recently as the 1990s, Sternberg recalled, network shows such as "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "NYPD Blue" faced boycott campaigns over sexual content that would seem tame by today's standards.

What makes "Skins" different from "Jersey Shore" or "The Sopranos," however, is that the young characters are portrayed by a largely underage cast.

As long as it avoids legal difficulties over its salacious content, "Skins" should be fine, according to Andrew Hampp, who analyzed the controversy for Advertising Age.

"I don't see [the show's racy content] becoming a problem unless it becomes a legal problem," he said.

Despite the loss of major sponsors on "Skins," MTV was able to fill those spots with other ads for movies, TV shows, acne medication, stretch-mark cream and Red Bull.

"Movie studios are always going to want to have their ads there," said Hampp.

And while conservative brands such as GM may never be a good fit for the show, if "Skins" reaches enough viewers, even Taco Bell might be lured back by high ratings, Hampp added.

In its second week, without the "Jersey Shore" lead-in that the premiere enjoyed, "Skins'" viewership sank by roughly half, to 1.6 million from 3.3 million. Despite the substantial drop, the show's ratings among its target demographic of 12- to 34-year-olds rivaled those of competing teen dramas such as the CW's "Gossip Girl" and ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars."

As those numbers suggest, the future of "Skins" isn't clear yet. For now, Elsley said, "I'm just carrying on as normal."

calendar@latimes.com

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