Is it possible that all this fuss over MTV's take on the bawdy British teen drama hit Skins is just about a difference in TV culture?
The controversy has become a staple of morning TV and drive-time radio, sparked by a New York Times article describing MTV executives' own fears the explicit 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.
On Tuesday, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that the skin care company Proactiv has asked MTV to move its ads out of Skins. That news broke before the channel's "upfront" presentation selling potential sponsors on next season's advertising spots, scheduled today in Manhattan.
The advertiser exodus may turn into a stampede after Monday's episode, which featured 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 flashed (unseen) breasts at their friends and the character who took the Viagra was shown running down the street nude — his naked backside seen, full length, from behind.
But Janet McCabe, a professor at the Birkbeck University of London and expert on TV drama, suggested some of the Skins controversy is 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 bad 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 American TV shows often are aspirational, showing characters in idealized, upper middle class settings, while British series focus on the working class realities their viewers face.
But a new wave of American remakes have changed much less; Skins' British author Brian 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. That 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."