Censoring Skins and Censorship on TV
MTV’s Skins seems to have attracted a lot of attention: there have been demands for cancellation or, at the very least, changes to the series. On January 19, 2011, The New York Times reported that the show's producers had toned down some scenes for fear of breaking federal pornography statutes. Shortly after The New York Times story, the Parents Television Council’s (PTC) filed a complaint that relies heavily on the notion of “belief” of wrongdoing since, no doubt, if the show actually contravened any law some action would’ve been taken already.
PTC’s complaints seem to mainly rest on the argument that statutes on pornography were broken by MTV and Viacom during the making of the show because some of the actors were minors. However, because of a legal gray area concerning censorship, I believe all complaints should be viewed as a shot across the bows that might be acknowledged by tweaking the script in some minor ways rather than something that actually threatens the show’s future.
Ironically, the one certainty flowing from the complaint is that it will boost viewership even further. Also, serious critics have defended the show arguing that most of the attacks come from those who haven’t either taken the trouble to watch it or were willfully misinterpreting it. But, I suspect, more important than any legal challenge will be the response of advertisers and the number of viewers. Some advertisers feel that it will hurt their image to be associated with a show that has been a lightening rod for criticism but others will be more concerned with the show’s demographic – the majority of viewers being in MTV’s core age group of 12 to 31 year-olds reports AdWeek. Although a couple of advertisers have already withdrawn their support of the show, others will be drawn to its desirable demographic.
Given the current laws, a reasonable response by MTV is to only show the program at a time when adults are more likely to be present to uphold that household’s censorship rules. In reality, if a minor doesn’t have supervision or a filter installed on his or her computer or TV, a child will be able to access far worse than Skins and censorship becomes a moot point. And even if there is a filtering system at home, there will always be a friend who doesn’t have one. The Internet is the elephant in the room when these sorts of discussions take place.
The most serious and compelling part of the argument for censorship is a concern that younger viewers or minors are particularly susceptible to undesirable influences. It is a belief that is acknowledged in both law and practice in all democracies, although each country has chosen to deal with the issue in different ways. Anyone wanting to see how the US has viewed the issue of censorship and minors has to take a brief history tour to see why children’s rights differ dramatically from those of adults. The tour also shows the Supreme Court’s reluctance to support any law that seeks censorship of the Internet.
Why Children’s Rights Differ from Those of Adults’
In democracies, the belief in most censorship rests on the notion that some minds are susceptible to undesirable influences and that might well lead citizens to behave in antisocial and, possibly, even in criminal ways. The balance between the rights of the individual and those of society differs between democracies. The US’s Constitution’s First Amendment has always protected free speech, and in 1989 and 1990 the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of expression had much the same guarantees as freedom of speech. For instance racism, sexism and many forms of hate speech are permitted in the US but would not be allowed in other democracies. (If freedom is judged solely on the freedom of speech, certainly the US is freer than any other democracy.)
Implicit in the protection of free speech is the notion that mature minds are not easily persuaded to behave poorly or even criminally because they are exposed to some words or images. Preserving the freedom of speech and expression is judged as more important than any harm or misfortune that follows from such a guarantee. But children do not enjoy the same guarantees, rights or responsibilities as their parents.
Both the lack of children’s rights and the belief in the dangerous nature of some materials for children was dramatically brought home to me at the age of 13. I happened to be reading a book bought by my older sister called Tom Boy . (A publisher’s note in the 1950s describes the book as ‘A novel of juvenile delinquency ... the utterly revealing story of a teenage girl gang-leader in the slums of New York.’) Also, at that time I was questioning my father’s authority, and after an argument he took my sister’s book from my room and threw it on the fire. He saw a direct relationship between my bad behavior and the material in the book reinforcing his beliefs, although I viewed his response as one more example of his unreasonableness and unfairness. I wasn’t and children still aren’t protected from parents censoring what they view or hear.
Originally women, African Americans and children were regarded as dependent on white men and were not protected by the same rights. Now only children are not fully protected by the Constitution. Children or minors are regarded as a special class of citizens because they are so dependent. Also dependence implies a special need for censorship since this group’s minds are regarded as not experienced and mature enough to properly form opinions when confronted by damaging material. Even worse, it follows that children will behave badly or become poor future citizens if they’re exposed to disturbing materials.
Democracies and other forms of government all recognize that children and young people belong to a separate class; children everywhere are governed with separate laws and held responsible in a different manner to adults. The notion that young minds, even more than mature minds, are particularly vulnerable to dangerous influences, and the idea that bad role models and anything that might subvert young minds often do, seems central to the argument for censoring material that’s considered harmful in some way. In 1982 the Supreme Court’s recognized that the First Amendment didn’t protect child pornography unless obscene, Wikipedia notes. But, it goes on to argue, the Court recognized that “government has a compelling interest in safeguarding the physical and psychological well being of minors.”
Parents, guardians or those who have authority over children are both allowed and expected to take on many responsibilities including bringing up their children to be good future citizens – however they wish to define what is meant by the term.
Democracies in particular allow great latitude for parents and guardians to censor and control what information is made available to their children. Home schooling, religious schools, private schools and military ones are just some of the choices of schooling available. There is a core curriculum children are meant to master but great latitude in teaching the tools children need to make decisions of their own whether they involve economics, science or morality. The state leaves it up to parents and guardians to decide on what materials should be censored in the home.
Censorship is used by totalitarian and other authorities in an attempt to shape or even control the thinking and views of others. And censorship in democracies rests on the same assumptions as in these other states or organizations – although censorship in democracies is meant to reflect the values of the people rather than the ruler or governing classes. However, in every instance of censorship, whether it’s in a school or a country, the censorship rests on the belief that exposing minds to harmful writing, images and sounds can influence their behavior and thinking in alarming ways.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed in many democracies but the US Constitution’s First Amendment has been interpreted over the years to guarantee greater freedom than in other countries. For instance racism, sexism and many forms of hate speech are permitted in the US that would not be in other democracies. Free speech is so important that many individual states within the US have also passed their own Bill of Rights or other legislation to guarantee freedom of speech.
However, it wasn’t until the 1989 and 1990 flag-burning cases before the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of expression had much the same guarantees as freedom of speech. There were attempts to regulate new media when Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) in 1998. COPA’s intent was an attempt to shield youngsters from having easy access on the Internet to prurient material of a sexual nature in particular by requiring commercial providers to take on this responsibility. However, it remains unenforced since various constitutional challenges on the basis of both the First and Fifth Amendments have been successful.
On the other hand, at its inception The Constitution did not ascribe rights to children since they were regarded as being in the same category of women and blacks, i.e., dependent on white males. The rights of both women and African Americans were eventually recognized by the Supreme Court; however, children have continued to remain a special entity. Because of the dependent nature of children, children are not extended the full protections of the Constitution in either freedom of speech or expression.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was passed in 2002 and used a funding incentive, (E-rate discounts), to ensure libraries and schools purchased and used technological methods to ensure “against access through such computers to visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors . . .” Libraries willing to forgo the attractive discounts to limit minors access to the Internet were not forced to adopt software to filter or limit children’s access to the Internet. As of 2007, Wikipedia reports, approximately one third of libraries had chosen not to limit children’s access.
January 25, 2011
Bloomberg reports that viewership for Skins "plunged to 1.6 million Monday night, a drop-off of more than half from its premiere a week earlier, according to Nielsen Co. ratings." Also, The Daytona News, Bloomberg and others have suggested that the dramatic drop in viewership has been something of a triumph for the Parents Television Council (PTA) since their views also helped a number of advertisers to pull their commercials. (H&R Block, Wrigley GM and Taco Bell are all advertisers who have pulled their ads to date.) It seems strange that few in the media are challenging PTA's viewpoint or defending the show on its merits. Perhaps Skins attracted a much smaller audience because many were disappointed in the premiere, particularly after the hype. Sometimes it's more about the marketplace than the politics. However, the series still has a number of episodes to play as does the story that surrounds it!
Episode 3 -- Chris
David Connell, writing in wetpaint, brings us the latest update on Skins. We learn that viewership is down marginally for the third episode, “Chris”. (1.5 million viewers tuned in versus 1.6 million the previous week.) However, MTV quickly quashed any rumors about the show's cancellation although another advertiser had jumped ship bringing the total to nine! The head of programming says that advertising dollars have not fallen off and the show is here to stay!
February 15, 2011
TV by Numbers reported that viewership for Skins had dropped to 0.962 million viewers. The marketplace is voting and perhaps the need for censorship will prove to have been moot. However, Skins furor should mark the beginning of a sensible debate on the rationale for censorship, if nothing else.
February 23, 2011
TV by the Numbers reported that 0.974 million viewers tuned into MTV’s Skins this week and that the show had reversed its downward trend and was up a tenth to a 0.4 adults 18-49 rating! I have given up making any prognostications regarding this show – keep watching this space as the story still has legs – but perhaps too much of them showing has ceased to be a controversy! Yet the questions regarding censorship that the show originally raised remain whatever the ratings.
March 2, 2011
TV by the Numbers reported that the Parents Television Council (PTC) had sent an email to its supporters asking them to complain to Viacom that their stock price was being hurt by Skins. A claim that the publication suggested was a fund raising exercise on PTC's part since the show was clearly making money. Skins snagged 1.17 million viewers this Monday.
March 8, 2011
Skins, in it's yo-yo-like way, dropped a tenth to a 0.4 adults 18-49 rating for a viewership of 1.088 million viewers last night, reported TV by the Numbers. The PTC could easily be seen as having tried to use Skins as a convenient whipping boy to build up both political and financial capital.
The statistics for the Skins show that a large numbers of PTC warriors that can usually be counted on to help fight censoring sex rather than violence are in need of a little R and R, since they've failed to arouse significant funds for themselves or arouse political outrage against the show. Perhaps some sort of normalcy will soon return and Skins will become viewed as another TV show that focuses on kids making love rather than war to the obvious disappointment of some sad adults!
The reviewers see Skins as rather a pale imitation of its UK counterpart and its slightly disappointing viewership reflects its quality rather than any controversy that the Parents Television Council has tried to orchestrate; attempting to make the show a cause célèbre is an allegation that shouldn't be taken lightly, since it does suggest that an organization that's reputedly primarily in the business of guarding our morals might be just as interested in picking our pockets.
Sources and Notes
1. The Washington Post, June 23, 2003 Supreme Court Upholds Internet Filters
2. National Conference of State Legislation, January 13, 2011 this link provides information regarding the states that have adopted laws that work in harmony with CIPA as well as other useful information.
3. In Australia, Internet censorship laws attempt to force Internet Service Providers to filter out material that shows child sexual abuse material. The laws are the strictest in the Western World but agencies responsible for enforcing it show little interest! Electronic Frontiers claims that the laws have been ‘a miserable failure’.
5. Author’s notes on the Constitution and Censorship
Rather than include the following in the body of the article, I’ve added these paragraphs as a note, since the material will be of interest only to those wanting more details about the thinking that informed both my article and the unique treatment of minors. However, some text appears in the article that I’ve left in the notes for reasons of continuity.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed in many democracies but the US Constitution’s First Amendment has been interpreted over the years to guarantee greater freedom than in other countries. Many individual states within the US have also passed their own Bill of Rights or other legislation to guarantee freedom of speech.
Rulings of the Supreme Court suggest that the Constitution regard it the duty of parents and other guardians to guide children rather than it being the responsibility of government to act as censor for children. Also the majority of states have laws that require both schools and libraries take steps, either through developing policies or installing software, to ensure minors don’t have access to harmful material. (A handful of states have legislation that only applies to public libraries or, in a few others, schools only.) The Supreme Court upheld a challenge to CIPA in a 6-3 decision in June 2003.
Both the ruling of the Supreme Court and the majority of states seem to suggest that both schools and libraries have the responsibility of either installing software or having policies to stop children accessing harmful material, particularly of a sexual nature, on their computers; the school or library is, in effect, acting in locus parentis . Most parents believe that their children shouldn’t have opportunities to explore harmful materials on computers when at school or in libraries but, none-the-less, the law was unsuccessfully challenged.
However, it wasn’t until the 1989 and 1990 flag-burning cases before the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of expression had much the same guarantees as freedom of speech. There were attempts to regulate new media when Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) in 1998. COPA’s intent was an attempt to shield youngsters from having easy access on the Internet to prurient material of a sexual nature in particular by requiring commercial providers to take on this responsibility. It remains unenforced since various constitutional challenges on the basis of both the First and Fifth Amendments have been successful.