TV Column: 'Skins' creator bares all to try to save MTV show

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 7:46 PM

The new MTV teen-angst series that advertisers are bailing out of - the one that a watchdog group claims is child pornography?

Turns out it's "a very simple and in fact rather old-fashioned television series" about "intensely moral" teens, according to "MTV News."

Don't take their word for it - they got it straight from Bryan Elsley, creator of the new scripted show "Skins," in an "MTV News" exclusive.

Advertisers, on whom this appears to be lost, have been bailing on "Skins" since word got out late last week that MTV suits had attended a meeting to discuss whether the new show, which features "actors" as young as age 15," runs afoul of anti-kiddie-porn laws.

(Viewers have, too - this week's episode averaged just 1.6 million viewers, compared with the 3.3 million who checked out the premiere. On the other hand, that premiere had an original episode of "Jersey Shore" feeding more than 7 million viewers into it. This week's episode had a "Jersey Shore" rerun as its lead-in program.)

Anyway, the advertiser pullout came on the heels of a letter that the Los Angeles-based TV watchdog group Parents Television Council fired off late last week, calling upon the chairman of the U.S. Senate and House judiciary committees and the Department of Justice to investigate whether "Skins" is actually kiddie porn in sheep's clothing.

Makeup manufacturer L'Oreal is the latest advertiser to decide that using "Skins" as a vehicle to attract young consumers falls deeply into their Life Is Too Short category - a list that includes General Motors, the Subway sandwich chain, the chewing-gum company Wrigley and the fast-food chain Taco Bell, among others. Tax-filing firm H&R Block claims that its one ad, in the premiere, appeared accidentally.

But of course, as every serious student of TV knows, it's not just about the advertisers who pull out - it's about the advertisers that come in to take their place. The show's second episode featured lots of promos for other MTV shows, and a telltale "bottom feeder" ad or two - those direct-response ads with toll-free phone numbers that will enable you to purchase products that are going to revolutionize your life.

There were also a bunch of ads for flicks hoping to attract MTV's young audience - like the new Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston chick flick "Just Go With It."

But those bottom-feeder ads, and all those MTV promos, suggest that the network and cable system operators are still trying to replace bailed-out advertisers.

The problem here, as "Skins" creator Elsley sees it, is a failure to communicate.

The show, written by young people, takes a "very straightforward approach to their experiences" and "tries to tell the truth," Elsley said in his statement to MTV News.

"Sometimes that truth can be a little painful to adults and parents," he explained.

"We proceed from the idea, not that teenagers are inherently likely to misbehave, but rather that they are intensely moral and disposed to make judgments on their own and others' behaviour," he added for good measure.

A few mentions that the series "has won countless international awards" and received "praise for its portrayal of mental health issues and explorations of bereavement, sexuality, bullying and gender stereotyping" and "I have lost count of the letters we have been sent by viewers who tell us that they have been able to approach their parents or teachers with their difficulties after watching the show" later, Elsley finally addressed the whole kiddie-porn thing:

"We've created a supportive and protective environment for everyone working on the show," he wrote - exclusively to MTV News.

"And of course abide by the law, and give respect to our work colleagues who in this case, are young, energetic and exciting people with so much to offer to an imperfect world," he concluded.

The "Skins" Advertiser Bailout Game began late last week when Taco Bell told entertainment industry trade publication the Hollywood Reporter that "upon further review, we've decided that the show is not a fit for our brand and have moved our advertising to other MTV programming."

Before the show even debuted, PTC had already crowned "Skins" the "most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children." MTV has run the show with a TV-MA content rating, meaning it's not suitable for viewers younger than 17.

'Catch VD' campaign

"Hey - look over here! We're naughty, too!" CW network screamed to all those "Skins"-loathing watchdog groups and newspaper reporters whom MTV is working like a beaver to swat down.

CW has gone and launched a "Catch VD" ad campaign for "Vampire Diaries" in hopes of cashing in on the limitless capacity for knicker-knottedness among the media and watch-doggers.

Billboards have appeared in some markets across the country bearing only the words "Catch VD" on them. That's right: no snazzy photos of sexily posed "Vampire Diaries" cast members.

It appears, sadly, that CW is a victim of timing.

Back in the spring of 2008, the Parents TV Council couldn't do enough for CW, as it frothed and foamed over the network's naughty "OMFG" ad campaign for "Gossip Girl."

But these days, PTC is just too busy trying to scratch "Skins" from MTV's schedule to accommodate CW on the "VD" campaign plugging "VD's" return to original episodes on Thursday.

Still, valiant little CW soldiered on, issuing a statement saying, "VD simply stands for Vampire Diaries and anyone who thinks otherwise should probably get themselves checked out."

Snooki to Sicily?

Getting back to MTV, the network has greenlighted a fourth season of its "reality" series "Jersey Shore" and is sending the gang to Italy for the season.

Or, as MTV put it in its announcement, the gang is "leaving the boardwalk behind for the piazzas of Italy," "poised to get their G.T.L. [gym, tanning, laundry] on abroad," and "excited to trade gorillas [that's "Jersey Shore"-speak for "big muscular guy"] for Italian stallions."

"Jersey Shore" - starring people whose legal names don't really matter because they're far better known from the show as the Situation, Vinny, JWoww, Pauly D, Ronnie, Sammi, Deena and queen bee Snooki - is MTV's top-ranked series of all time among 12- to 34-year-olds, who are the Holy Grail for the basic cable network.

"Jersey Shore" beats all networks - cable or broadcast - in its Thursday 10 p.m. time slot, in that age bracket, as well as among 18- to 49-year-olds who are the age group that broadcast TV networks sell to advertisers.

And the show just keeps on growing, ratings-wise. Last Thursday's most recent episode, in which poor Snooki finally got release from the hoosegow into which she'd been tossed on a disorderly conduct rap after getting hammered in public, clocked nearly 9 million viewers. That's MTV's biggest telecast audience - ever.

demoraesl@washpost.com

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