In an increasingly competitive media landscape, there is one sure way of attracting eyeballs: controversy. Namby-pamby shows aren't going to draw fickle viewers. And thoughtful analysis of issues and situations tends to bring in an elite — and reduced — audience.
On TV, especially, one must be bold. Salacious. Crass. Shameless. Forget appealing to the lowest common denominator. That is so yesterday. You have to go all the way into the gutter to reach the most profitable market.
This may explain MTV's latest foray into the youth market. "Skins," a teen sex-and-drugs show, is the network's newest scripted series and its most popular. Even before its Jan. 17 debut, it was scorching hot, attracting 500,000 Facebook fans and then becoming Twitter's No. 2 worldwide trending topic.
The show was so hot, in fact, that it raised the hackles of some adults. Even before its premiere, the Parents Television Council labeled the series "the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seen." Soon after, PTC issued a "take action alert" targeting major sponsors and campaigning for the federal government to investigate "Skins."
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The council pointed out that sexual content on the show involved cast members as young as 15 and that there were 42 depictions of and references to drugs and alcohol in the premiere episode alone.
As of this writing, several advertisers had jumped ship. They may have bowed to pressure or they may have recognized that a steady dose of lewd and crude in the form of beautiful teens hooking up, dealing drugs and otherwise getting messed up would simply be bad for their reputations.
How graphic is "Skins"? A front-page New York Times story reported that executives at MTV ordered producers to edit episodes because they were worried some scenes might be considered child pornography. Network honchos reportedly wondered who could face prosecution if the episodes went on the air without changes.
Later, in a cockeyed defense, an MTV spokeswoman announced: "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."
Surely she didn't say this with a straight face.
What bothers me most about "Skins" is that, for all the cable channel's claim that it reflects real life, the show is not a true depiction of the general teenage experience. Not for today's generation. Not for mine, either. And heaven spare us if it's meant as a prediction. Many scenes come off as a gratuitous display of refined smut (if there is such a thing), an attempt to see how much an eager producer can get away with.
I'm no fool. As a mother, I know only a smidgen of my children's shenanigans, but I suspect plenty more. Any parent who boasts that they know everything about their teen is either delusional or is flat out lying.
That said, it's difficult to believe that our children resemble the characters in "Skins" even in our wildest imaginings. Most teenagers don't spend all their time drinking, dealing drugs, organizing orgies and insulting their parents. In fact, a lot of them actually do homework, hold down part-time jobs, play sports and make it into adulthood miraculously intact.
Then again, featuring the mundane angst of everyday teenagers won't spark the necessary controversy to win the ratings game.