As MTV's Skins airs its most controversial episode yet I wonder; is this scandal about TV's cultural differences?
Is it possible that all this fuss over MTV’s take on the British teen drama hit Skins is just about a difference in TV culture?
The controversy has become the rage of morning TV and drive time radio, with protests from the conservative Parents’ Television Council presaging a New York Times article describing MTV executives’ own fears the sexy teen drama’s use of teen actors might violate child pornography laws. Such reports were provocative enough to send Subway, Taco Bell, General Motors, Wrigley and H&R Block fleeing from the advertiser lineup.
The exodus may turn into a stampede after tonight's episode, which features a teen character taking a Viagra-like pill and admiring the results standing in his underwear before a full length mirror. Later in the episode, two teen girls flash (unseen) breasts at their friends and the character who took the Viagra runs down his street nude — his naked backside seen, full length, from behind.
On Wednesday in Manhattan, MTV executives will have to explain themselves before potential sponsors during its “upfront” presentation for next season’s advertising sales But Dr. Janet McCabe, a professor at the University of London and expert on TV drama, suggested some of the Skins controversy was rooted in the difference between how people watch TV in America, compared to their compatriots across the pond.
In short, British audiences find the violence of shows such as CSI and Law & Order far more objectionable than sex, even among teen actors playing high school students.
“It seems the moral Christian right in your culture really has embedded itself in the (American) cultural landscape,” said McCabe, noting Queer as Folk, an explicit drama about the lives and loves of gay men, aired on a broadcast channel in England, while the American version was a Mature Audiences product on premium cable channel Showtime.
“You’re terribly moral about sex and band language but quite permissive of the violence,” she said, “We can’t get our heads around the contradiction.”
In years past, Hollywood rubbed the rough edges off remakes of British series, hiring prettier actors and using brighter locales. McCabe suggested that was because American TV shows are aspirational, showing characters in idealized, upper middle class settings, while British series focus on the working class realities most viewers face.
But a new wave of American remakes have changed much less; Skins’ British author Bryan Elsley also wrote MTV’s version and Paul Abbott, creator of the English drama Shameless, is a producer on Showtime’s American remake with William H. Macy. Which means all the salty language and nudity that engaged British TV audiences may shock their American counterparts.
“(American) series don’t like to offend and we Brits like offending people,” said Kat Montagu, a British-born writer now working on Canadian TV shows and films. “Americans like to pretend Sandra Bullock could be considered homely...(But) it can make enemies for America, because people really think Americans live that way.”
British comic Ricky Gervais may have bumped against that sensibility when he hosted the Golden Globe awards, bringing a passion for fearless button pushing to a clubby, Hollywood event. Bill Young, program director at public broadcaster KERA-TV in Dallas-Ft. Worth, a station which helped pioneer importing Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the 1970s, said U.S. audiences still react a little differently to material from Britain.
“If Robin Williams or Billy Crystal had said the same jokes (at the Golden Globes), they would have been accepted,” said Young. “To be honest, I couldn’t understand what all the uproar was about.”
McCabe also said the British TV system is structured differently, focused on small groups of writers and performers working mightily to hammer out series. So for British audiences, a show's quality and unique voice may help overcome the controversy of content in ways American series, assembled with teams of writers, might not manage.
"If its sold in a package of smart drama that well-performed and acted, it helps (defuse controversy)," the professor said. "They're saying something about the modern Britain, which people find compelling."