'Skins' scandal: More drama for MTV
As the network stands behind its controversial new show, it unveils a batch of innovative scripted programs
It’s only 4:30 P.M., but it’s never too early in the day for MTV to throw a frat party. Men with clear plastic cups full of beer ogle comely women from across New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom. A DJ high above the crowd spins hip-hop hits. And look — there’s Snooki, the patron saint of party girls! But the festive atmosphere belies the reason everyone has gathered on this February afternoon. After a record-breaking year — thanks to shows like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom — MTV is presenting the most aggressive scripted-programming slate in its 30-year history to advertisers. The network expects to roll out four to six series this year, including the teen drama Skins. Speaking of, where is TV’s most controversial cast? They’re trotted out on stage just for a moment — after all, despite their onscreen antics, they’re all still too young to (legally) imbibe.
And Skins, based on a British series of the same name, certainly doesn’t need any more scandals to cloud the show’s debut season. Six advertisers, including Subway and GM, have dropped out since the Jan. 17 premiere, due to the frank depiction of teenage drug use and sexual activity. Meanwhile, watchdog group the Parents Television Council has asked for an investigation into whether Skins‘ distribution violates child pornography laws. ”We didn’t need the Parents Television Council to let us know the show is edgy — the show is designed to be edgy,” says co-creator Bryan Elsley. ”For that reason, there’s an exhaustive conversation with MTV’s standards and practices all the time.” (Masturbation and perma-erections are apparently A-OK!) Adds MTV head of programming David Janollari, ”It’s been downplayed, but we did label the series with a TV-MA rating, which is something substantial for this network. We haven’t done that since Jackass.” And while some advertisers have distanced themselves from Skins, others, like Clearasil, have pledged loyalty. ”We had the same problem with Jersey Shore,” says Janollari of the advertiser exodus. ”Will there be some shows that advertisers will react against in the future? Sure. But our goal is to have a balance of tone and type of show.”
Unfortunately, Skins‘ viewers have started to flee too: Premiering to an audience of 3.3 million (boosted by a special Jersey Shore lead-in), Skins now averages about 1.5 million each week in its Monday-at-10 p.m. time slot. But the network says it will definitely air the remaining six episodes. ”We feel very good about it,” says MTV general manager Stephen Friedman. ”It’s exceeding our internal estimates. We saw in the third episode our [young] female audience went up. It’s a great sign that it is growing.” Of course, success at MTV is also measured in cultural awareness (see: Shore, The Hills), and in that regard, Skins is pretty much the biggest thing on TV right now. ”It’s been talked about — not always in the best light, but it’s being talked about,” says Janollari. ”Second week into the run, we’re spoofed on SNL, there’s a Funny or Die spot that’s hilarious, Conan did a bit on it. This is what MTV has always been about.”
Reality shows are also something that MTV has always been about, so the announcement that the network would launch more scripted shows came as a surprise. The slate is diverse — read: not Skins clones — and based on the network’s clips, it’s promising, too. First up is a reboot of the 1985 Michael J. Fox flick Teen Wolf, debuting on June 5. ”When I first talked to MTV about it, I said, ‘What if we do it kind of like The Lost Boys with kind of the pace and fun of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?’ ” says executive producer Jeff Davis (Criminal Minds). Also on tap are the comedic series This Is Awkward, about a high school girl who becomes a local legend after rumors spread that she attempted suicide, and a second season of The Hard Times of RJ Berger. In addition, MTV is reembracing animation with Good Vibes, about two geeky friends, produced by Pineapple Express‘ David Gordon Green. But perhaps the biggest news is the return of the iconic ’90s series Beavis and Butt-head. ”[Creator] Mike Judge felt the time was right,” says Janollari. ”It’s not just gonna be [Beavis and Butt-head watching] videos — it’s gonna be TV shows, movies. Whatever Mike sets his sights on.”
Most of MTV’s previous forays into the scripted business — including Dead at 21 (1994) and Undressed (1999 — 2002) — never clicked. So why the push now? ”Because the audience has proven that they want diversity,” says Janollari. ”For us to not offer them an MTV-branded version of a scripted show, we’re missing an opportunity.” Janollari, a recent addition to the MTV family, certainly knows quality dramas: He was an executive producer on Six Feet Under, and as entertainment president of The WB, he helped launch long-running series like Supernatural.
As Janollari knows, the first step to a successful scripted show is good talent; the network has put out an APB to creators that it is willing to take big risks, and as a result it’s nabbed high-profile names such as Judge and director Doug Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), who is exec-producing the scripted Brooklyn hipster comedy I Just Want My Pants Back. ”The fact that MTV hasn’t got a recent history of scripted drama I think has been an advantage,” says Elsley. ”They do not have ranks and ranks of drama executives intent upon sucking the life out of everything you do.” Or as Beavis and Butt-head might put it, ”Heh-heh, he said ‘sucking.’ ”