The fast-food chain pulled its ads off of the racy teen drama after the Parents Television Council (PTC) urged the public to contact the company to protest, calling it “the most dangerous program ever for children.” As well, only a day after it was reported Viacom execs ordered producers to tone down the show, the PTC said it is asking DOJ and U.S. Senate and House Judiciary Committees to open an investigation. Taco Bell isn’t the first major food chain to pull out of an MTV show. Domino’s pulled its ads from Jersey Shore in 2009.
“In addition to the sexual content on the show involving cast members as young as 15, PTC counted 42 depictions and references to drugs and alcohol in the premiere episode,” PTC wrote in a letter to all three government arms. “It is clear that Viacom has knowingly produced material that may well be in violation of [several anti-child pornography laws].”
The New York Times reported that a number of Viacom and MTV execs met 1/18 over concerns the show could violate federal child pornography statutes.
MTV/Viacom is particularly concerned about the third episode of the series, which is to air 1/31. In an early version, a naked 17-year-old actor is shown from behind as he runs down a street. The actor, Jesse Carere, plays Chris, a high school student whose erection — assisted by erectile dysfunction pills — is a punch line throughout the episode. The planned changes indicate that MTV, which has been pushing the envelope for decades, may be concerned that it pushed too far this time.
An MTV spokeswoman, Jeannie Kedas, told The Times that the future episodes of “Skins” were still works in progress. She would not confirm that MTV executives were fearful of running afoul of child pornography laws.
“ ‘Skins’ is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way,” she said in a statement. “We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards. 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.”
Child pornography is defined by the United States as any visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. In some cases, “a picture of a naked child may constitute illegal child pornography if it is sufficiently sexually suggestive,” according to the DOJ’s legal guidance. Anyone younger than 18 is considered to be a minor. The youngest cast member on “Skins” is 15.
The show is doing well with ratings, attracting 3.3 million to its premiere on 1/17 and set a new first-episode record for the channel among viewers ages 12-34.
Episodes of “Skins” are rated TV-MA, indicating that the content may be unsuitable for viewers younger than 17. MTV states in news releases that it is “specifically designed to be viewed by adults.” However, many of MTV’s viewers are in middle and high school, as the numbers show. According to the Nielsen Company, the first episode drew 1.2 million people younger than 18.
MTV noted that the episodes were being shown only at or after 10 p.m. ET, and said in the statement, “We also have taken numerous steps to alert viewers to the strong subject matter so that they can choose for themselves whether it is appropriate.”
From the PTC alert: “It is absolutely crucial that you be aware of the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children! Next Monday, January 17th, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific (only 9:00 p.m. Central/Mountain), MTV will debut its new series Skins. Here’s why this program is so dangerous to your kids:
• Skins is filled with graphic content involving high-school children, including depictions of teens drinking, smoking marijuana, and using massive quantities of drugs, engaging in violent acts, and having irresponsible sex with each other, with their schoolteachers, and with other adults. Skins is so extreme that MTV is rating the program TV-MA – a rating cable has previously reserved for programs like FX’s ultra-violent and quasi-pornographic series Nip/Tuck, which was wholly unsuitable for all but those who crave explicit material.
• Skins is about high-school children. Mixed in with the graphic drug use and sex scenes are storylines about falling in love and problems at school – elements sure to generate interest from teens. The show is being written, in part, by teens. And the Skins cast is actually made up of teenagers, not adult actors playing teens. One cast member is only 15 years old.
• Skins has been extensively marketed to high-school children. Internet sites like Teen.com have carried dozens of promos and stories about the new show. Many of the Internet ad campaigns have shown how Skins blatantly urges children to lie to and defy their parents, and engage in risky and dangerous behavior.
About one dollar of your cable or satellite subscription fee goes to MTV each month. That’s more than $10 that subscribers like you pay to MTV every year. And there are 100 million cable and satellite subscribers in the U.S. That means that MTV is collecting a billion dollars a year from parents and families – and they are using the money to make programs that glorify children using drugs, having sex, and defying their parents! If you are tired of the entertainment industry deliberately targeting your kids with their corrosive programming – and forcing you to pay for it — you can TAKE ACTION! With Cable Choice, you would be able to select – and pay for – only the channels you actually watch. You would no longer be forced to pay for hundreds of programs on dozens of channels you don’t want – including ones that target your kids! To sign our Cable Choice petition – demanding that we as consumers must be given the choice over which cable networks we want to pay for – CLICK HERE.”
RBR-TVBR observation: MTV/Viacom has several things to be concerned about here: Losing more advertisers than Taco Bell; criminal child pornography charges and lighting the spark of Federally-mandated a la carte cable. Let’s face it, consumer, with so many online and VOD choices out there, is moving things in that direction anyway. So for MSOs and cable networks that fear the a la carte model would be a death knell, pushing the envelope so far such as MTV did with Skins might be a thing we all need to put the brakes on. Ratings at any cost don’t always equal ad dollars and revenue.