In a fascinating front-page New York Times story this morning, Brian Stelter reports that some executives at MTV were worried that some scenes in the new teen drama just might be, and are ordering producers to edit some Skins episodes accordingly:
It is unclear when MTV first realized that the show may be vulnerable to child pornography charges. On Tuesday, a flurry of meetings took place at the network’s headquarters in New York, according to an executive who attended some of the meetings and spoke only on the condition of anonymity. In one of the meetings, the executives wondered aloud who could possibly face criminal prosecution and jail time if the episodes were broadcast without changes.
I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but the concerns seem to stem from the fact that many of the actors who play teens on the show (as in the original British version) are under 18. So while there’s not live sex on camera—having seen four episodes in advance, I actually found the series’ depictions of drugs more unusual for American TV than its sex scenes—the definition of pornography is trickier when underage actors are involved.
As Stelter notes, a picture of a naked minor can itself be ruled child porn if it’s sufficiently sexualized. But the one scene the piece describes executives specifically being concerned about—a male character shown running down the street naked—is not, as I recall, a sex-charged scene. (It’s played, like a lot of scenes in Skins, for a combination of drama and slapstick.)
It raises scads of definitional questions: Does the fact that the actor is shown (but not shown naked) in other sexual scenes therefore make this scene more sexualized? Does the presence of other sex scenes involving other characters elsewhere in the episodes make the scene more sexual? Would the scene constitute pornography if it were, say, an underage actor running naked down a street in a war movie? Are depictions of teen characters in sexual situations inherently pornographic, or does the use of teen actors drive it over the line? What’s dirtier: two adult actors playing teens having sex, or a teenage actor shown naked in a scene that doesn’t involve sex?
Again, not a lawyer. (And I haven’t seen every episode shot, so it’s possible there is other, unmentioned material they’re nervous about.) But I have to wonder, if MTV’s executives are suddenly concerned about the legal liability, how could it not have occurred to them earlier in the process—especially since the use of teen actors has been one of the show’s best-publicized aspects, and since the show was very directly adapted from a British show that already exists for comparison?
For that matter, since the British Skins was also cast with teen actors, why would it not have already constituted child pornography when it aired on BBC America? (Serious question: perhaps there’s a legal distinction with foreign-produced material that I’m unaware of.)
There’s a lot that’s open to legal and moral interpretation. One objective fact is that Skins was MTV’s highest-rated series premiere ever, with over 3 million viewers. Still, that pales next to the over 8 million now drawn by Jersey Shore. Who would have thought that that show would end up looking wholesome by comparison?