On January 18, MTV premiered “Skins,” an egregiously semi-pornographic television show featuring underage kids engaging in drug deals, sex, and sex talk of every sort, while consistently outsmarting their enraged and clueless parents. The reaction on the right has been predictable: Parents Television Council led the charge for advertisers to pull their dollars from “Skins,” and has thus far succeeded with General Motors, Taco Bell, and Wrigley, among others.
Equally predictable was the reaction from the Hollywood left, which deployed the usual responses from its dog-eared culture war playbook.
First, the Hollywood contingent claimed that “Skins” merely reflects reality, and that the conservative reaction merely demonstrates ignorance of how reality is changing. As MTV explained, “Skins is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way.” Liberal columnists likewise celebrated the show’s purported “realism.” Sofia Black-D’Elia, 18, who stars as a lesbian cheerleader, stated, “It’s what teens are doing.”
Of course, promiscuous sex and drugs are not what most American teens are doing. Despite Hollywood’s best effort, most teenagers remain too awkward, gawky, shy, or (yes) principled to indulge in this kind of behavior. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2006-2008, only 42 percent of never-married females and 43 percent of males aged 15-19 have had sex. Even those who have don’t do it regularly. Just 12 percent of females and 10 percent of males had had sex four or more times in the month before the interview.
Drug use among teens is even lower. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, just 10 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 used illicit drugs in the last month of 2009, including a mere 7.3 percent for marijuana.
The “realism” argument, then, is inaccurate. Yet from the Hollywood perspective, these shows are realistic. That is because most of those who populate Hollywood attended the sex- and drug-infested prep schools of New York and Malibu. Moreover, members of the television industry live in a closed echo chamber; they believe that their personal experiences reflect those of the entire country.
Hollywoodites further defended “Skins” by appealing to laissez-faire principles. They are simply responding to market forces, they claim, adding that if parents don’t like what their children are seeing on TV they can always turn it off. Viewers should be able to “choose for themselves whether it is appropriate.”
This is an old dodge whose main purpose is to strengthen the left’s deathgrip on television. Hollywood liberals cite the market to justify everything from lesbian sexual references on “Glee” to real and open discrimination against Hollywood conservatives. Meanwhile, conservatives themselves refuse to challenge the overwhelming liberalism of the television industry, since it’s presumably what the public demands. Only when something truly egregious hits the airwaves do they mobilize in full force.
The result is a game of political whack-a-mole that leaves the underlying liberal structure of Hollywood intact, while stopping only the most extreme television offenders—and only temporarily. Anyone who watches MTV on a regular basis knows that “Skins” is hardly an anomaly – MTV routinely broadcasts sexually explicit material, often featuring underage characters. Moreover, when conservatives attack such shows on content grounds, they accomplish precisely the opposite of what they seek, bringing more publicity and higher ratings to controversial shows, and inuring the public to less overtly gross material.
A better strategy is to focus on Hollywood’s fallacious market argument as a whole. In fact, the market does not dictate that exploitative shows like “Skins” see the light of day; rather, advertisers have been gulled by networks run by politically-oriented executives. Network executives are not pure businessmen seeking the broadest possible market – they are motivated political actors who run in the same circles as the Hollywood liberals who think they produce “realistic” content.
Such executives can green-light extreme leftist fare because they have successfully promoted the fiction that young audiences are more valuable than broader demographics. “Skins” is on air because advertisers have been wrongly convinced that it delivers the best kind of audience, even if it alienates the vast majority of Americans.