Six Degrees Of 'Skins', 'NYPD Blue' & PTC: Behind MTV Series' “Porn” Controversy

Last Monday was supposed to be a big day for Liz Gateley. As SVP series development at MTV, she had spent the past two and a half years working on a passion project – bringing the raunchy British series Skins to MTV. She pursued the rights to the original series relentlessly for almost 2 years, having originally been turned down by the show’s co-creator Bryan Elsley, before ultimately landing the project, which was quickly picked up to pilot and then to series by MTV president of programming Tony DiSanto. But the two left MTV on Dec. 31, just 2 weeks before Skins‘ debut, to launch their own company. And, after a brief moment of celebration at MTV when the solid premiere ratings for Skins came in last Tuesday, a controversy  erupted. To stay true to the original series, Elsley insisted on casting teens with no acting background of the same age as the characters they portray, resulting in a cast aged 15-19. Some actors’ status as minors led to the Parents Television Council’s call to the Feds to investigate the show for possibly violating U.S. child pornography laws. In hindsight, some MTV execs now regret the decision to hire underage actors, sources said. When PTC targeted the racy GQ photo shoot featuring the stars of Fox’s Glee in suggestive poses, the child pornography accusations didn’t hold water because, despite portraying high-school students, the actors on the show are all adults.

Meanwhile, things have been eerie calm at MTV which had to weather the media storm last week without DiSanto, Gateley and MTV’s head of programming David Janollari who, as EVP scripted development and later head of programming shepherded Skins in the development, pilot and series stage. (Janollari was on a scheduled vacation.) MTV executives have been in constant communication with the legal department, but sources say nobody suggested pulling the show in face of the controversy and the exit of several major advertisers, including Taco Bell and Wrigley. I hear honchos from MTV parent Viacom sent the producers a list of several scenes involving underage actors that they wanted cut, including a 17-year-old girl who appears to be having sex and a 17-year-old boy running naked with an erection. The cuts are minimal, sometime involving seconds, and won’t need reshoots, but producers are going into length to ensure that they don’t affect the story, sources said. There are no trims planned for the second episode of Skins slated for tonight, which will air in its original form.

This is not the first time a new MTV series has been the subject of a major controversy – reality hit Jersey Shore launched amidst a storm of criticism from Italian Americans over what they called stereotypical portrayal of  the ethnic group. But the row surrounding Skins is more reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the launch of another show, ABC’s acclaimed cop drama NYPD Blue, almost 18 years ago.

57 of ABC’s 225 affiliates preempted the premiere episode because of protests led by Rev. Donald Wildmon and his American Family Assoc. who referred to NYPD Blue as “soft-core porn” series. Advertisers also defected en masse, but solid ratings and critical praise gradually brought stations and advertisers back and the show went on to run for 12 seasons.

There is another, six degrees of separation-type link between NYPD Blue and Skins. By L. Brent Bozell III’s own admission, the nudity on NYPD Blue prompted him to launch TV watchdog the Parents Television Council. PTC repeatedly targeted the ABC cop drama, including the Nude Awakening episode that resulted in an $1.2 million FCC fine, recently overturned by a federal appeals court. Now, PTC is behind the campaign against Skins.

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