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.
This argument has a long, manipulative history going back to the late 1960s, when ABC, the struggling third broadcast network with large metropolitan affiliates and a younger audience base, began making the statistically flawed argument that urban viewers aged 18-49 were better consumers than older, rural viewers. Over time, that ageist proposition became an article of faith in the broadcasting community. Even today, shows that target the young are considered more valuable than those that draw a huge Baby Boomer audience.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s young adults are short on cash and fluent in the art of using Tivo – they fast forward through commercials. Older Americans meanwhile comprise a large and growing percentage of the total population. They also tend to earn more until they retire. Many have no idea how to use Tivo. If there was ever a target audience for television advertisers, it is middle-aged Americans and their elders.
These facts are inconvenient to television programmers, however, who have a personal interest in pushing liberal shows. As I have discovered, most network executives – and television creators – will freely admit that they see their objective as more than market-catering. As Doug Herzog, president of MTV Networks Entertainment Group, told me, “[T]hrough the medium of television we try to make the world a slightly better place.”
To achieve that “better” – i.e. a more liberal – world, Herzog and his television colleagues believe they must constantly push the envelope on social and political issues. This is an evolutionary hangover from the 1960s, when legendary producers like Norman Lear, Susan Harris, and Larry Gelbart used their shows to attack the status quo. And they succeeded brilliantly. The television left achieved its goals: abortion on demand, legitimization of the drug culture and draft dodging, moral acceptance of promiscuity, even socialized medicine.
Today’s television liberals don’t want to attack this status quo. Yet in order to redeem the crass commercialism of television they must find a way to remain in the ideological vanguard. They do so by freaking out mom, dad, and the grandparents with ever more exploitative and grotesque material, which they proclaim to be “cutting edge.” In short, the authentic vanguard of the 1960s television generation has become an empty gesture focused merely on shock value. Hence, Sofia Black-D’Elia, speaking about “Skins,” brags that it “is really pushing the boundaries for teen drama because I think Skins goes where other shows are afraid to.”
This is nonsense – we all know that some teens drink and smoke pot and have sex. “Skins” pushes boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries. And the television creators and executives who live in their plush penthouses in New York and beachfront properties off of Sunset Blvd. watch the hubbub and congratulate themselves for their willingness to challenge bourgeois morality.
Unfortunately, the right fails to recognize what’s going on. The market argument has silenced them. Rather than focusing on the root of the problem – the industry’s discriminatory leftism and manipulation of the advertising market – they focus counterproductively on its symptoms. Until conservatives wise up and make the case to advertisers that their money is better spent on mature Americans rather than pubescent ones, the same leftist true believers will continue manufacturing material like “Skins,” defining deviancy down one show at a time.
Ben Shapiro is a columnist with Creators Syndicate and for BigHollywood.com and the author of Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV, forthcoming from Broadside Books.