Ellen Gray: We're clothing 'Skins' in controversy, but it's not porn

Posted: January 24, 2011

SKINS. 10 tonight, MTV.

THERE ARE reasons not to watch MTV's "Skins," but avoidance of child pornography probably isn't one of them.

I'm not a lawyer - nor do I play one on TV - but I have seen three episodes of the U.S. remake of the series that one watchdog group claims may violate the law, including the Jan. 31 installment that the New York Times reported last week had MTV executives "particularly concerned."

And if that episode, which was sent to TV critics some time ago, violates federal child pornography statutes, maybe it's time we took a closer look at the statutes.

Or at least a deep breath.

Because, if a largely grown 17-year-old running down a street naked, filmed from behind, is kiddie porn, then the definition isn't just too broad - it's an insult to the children who actually are exploited by porn purveyors.

And it may have the effect of turning a not-very-good teen drama into an unstoppable hit.

Like much of what's being peddled on MTV these days, including "Jersey Shore," "Skins" benefits from controversy, so when the Parents Television Council asks for a federal investigation into the series, which premiered - after a special episode of "Shore" - to 3.26 million viewers last week, it's playing into MTV's hands.

Taco Bell has decided to move its advertising from "Skins" to other MTV shows, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and, sure, others may follow. But reaching people 12-34 isn't easy for advertisers, and I don't see "Skins," whose premiere set a network record in that demo, going commercial-free anytime soon.

Those who'd like to see how all this started can watch the first four seasons of the British show on Netflix (the first three are available for instant streaming). What they'll see is a self-consciously diverse group of British teens living large in a world that apparently doesn't include helicopter parenting but does include access to drugs and sex.

I'd argue that there are important differences between British and American teens (not that ours are angels, either), but beyond casting, there have been few changes in the early episodes of the U.S. version. However, tonight's focuses on a young lesbian named Tea (Sofia

Black-D'Elia), a character who didn't exist in the U.K. version, where the main gay character was male.

Next week's episode, the one MTV's reportedly most concerned about, parallels the fourth episode of the British "Skins" nearly shot for shot, if not line for line (British standards for profanity on TV being considerably looser).

To give you an idea of what we're talking about here, a character named Chris (Jesse Carere) wakes up with an erection clearly visible through his briefs, goes to urinate and sprays himself in the face. He ends up urinating in the bathtub, wrapped in a shower curtain. We see a label for something called "Erectagra" and his erection becomes a running gag for much of the episode.

Carere, according to MTV's website, is a 17-year-old from Woodbridge, Ontario. The series is shot in Toronto, and the younger cast members, who are mostly in their late teens but include one 15-year-old, represent a mix of Canadians and Americans.

Whatever their actual ages, several of the "American" teens seem older - and somehow coarser - than their Season 1 counterparts in Britain, whose appearance often lent a peculiar poignancy to what MTV's "Skins" renders merely raunchy.

Too raunchy for kids to see? I still think that's something parents, not parent "councils," should decide.

'Kimmel' gets midnight

Starting Feb. 4, ABC's "Nightline" will be trimmed by a few minutes to allow "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to start at midnight instead of 12:05, something the show's host reportedly had written into his latest contract.

ABC News president Ben Sherwood last week was spinning this one in the news division's favor, noting in a memo the network distributed to reporters that "ABC has definitively answered one of the recurring questions about 'Nightline' and ABC News . . . 'Nightline' is a vital part of its successful late-night strategy and 'Nightline' will anchor the schedule at 11:35 p.m. Period."

It wasn't always so. The show, which began in 1979 as a nightly update on the Iran hostage crisis, anchored by Ted Koppel, has been tied to the railroad tracks more than once as ABC considered its late-night options.

On Friday, ABC reported that in the week of Jan. 10, "Nightline" was the No. 1 show in late night, averaging 4 million viewers and beating NBC's "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" in adults 25-54 and 18-49. Season to date, it ranks first in total viewers and adults 25-54.

"Jimmy Kimmel Live" will continue to run until 1:05 a.m.

And "Nightline"? According to Sherwood, he has "a firm commitment for 13 hours in prime [time] for 'Nightline' to produce this year." *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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