NEW YORK — You gotta love a show that can upstage MTV's raunchy reality hit, "Jersey Shore."
"Skins" has done it.
In a week of TV happenings that included Ricky Gervais going comedically postal at the Golden Globes, Regis Philbin announcing his retirement from his daytime show, and the return of "American Idol," "Skins" soared to most-talked-about status, even reducing the reprise of attention-sucking "Jersey Shore" to the level, for the moment, of "Snooki who?"
Way to go, MTV! For a network that's no stranger to provocative fare or controversy, here's another buzz-blessed smash!
Most people know by now that "Skins" is a steamy scripted drama about overwrought teens, spun off from the acclaimed British series of the same name. It began its 10-episode season last Monday on the wings of heavy promotion by MTV, generally positive reviews and high anticipation by its young target audience.
There was also a smattering of pre-opening outcry, mainly as an inevitable protest from the Parents Television Council, a TV watchdog group. It declared that "'Skins' may well be the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seen," which had to be as welcome a critical rave as MTV could wish.
The premiere of "Skins" drew 3.3 million viewers, 1.2 million of them under 18, the Nielsen Co. reported. This was a robust turnout, though hardly in the league of "Jersey Shore," which, a week ago, seized 8.4 million viewers for its Season 3 debut.
But this is only the beginning for "Skins." With its new wave of publicity, it has nowhere to go but up.
On Thursday, a front-page story in The New York Times introduced the notion that "Skins" may – with the emphasis on "may" – be trafficking in kiddie porn.
"Skins" producers have boasted of its gritty realism. In that spirit, many of the teenage characters are played by actors who are 17 or younger, and therefore legally minors.
Executives at MTV "in recent days" have become concerned that some scenes "may violate federal child pornography statutes," the Times reported, without naming those executives.
Faced with the possibility that future episodes of the show may be breaking the law, those unnamed MTV executives "ordered the producers to make changes to tone down some of the most explicit content," the Times reported.
Oddly, the only potentially problematic scene the Times identified occurs in the third episode, airing Jan. 31. Jesse Carere, a 17-year-old actor playing the tragicomic character Chris, is shown from behind, naked, striding down the street. In the preview of that episode provided to critics, the played-for-laughs sequence lasts about 10 seconds, and it's impossible to tell whether Carere was really in the buff when shooting the scene.
In the face of brewing controversy, MTV said "Skins" is a show "that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way.
"We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards," the statement continued. "We are confident that the episodes of 'Skins' will not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers."
Any scenes that might leave MTV, well, exposed will be up to the lawyers to determine, if it comes to that. In the four episodes shared with critics, "Skins" shows almost no skin. Despite all the talk of sex, there is almost no explicit sex depicted.
Nonetheless, by raising the specter of kiddie porn, the Times story made "Skins" notorious with new urgency. And it gave the show's detractors a fresh new front for attack. (Viewers who condemn a show like, say, "Jersey Shore," must acknowledge at least that its degenerate house mates are adults, whether they act like it or not.)
Within hours of the story, the PTC called for the U.S. Senate and House Judiciary Committees and the Department of Justice to "immediately open an investigation regarding child pornography and exploitation on MTV's 'Skins.'"
Meanwhile, Taco Bell announced it would pull its advertising from "Skins," explaining in a statement, "We've decided that the show is not a fit for our brand and have moved our advertising to other MTV programming."
Though Taco Bell will be missing, "Skins" will air its second episode Monday at 10 p.m. EST. People who would never have considered watching it, who may never have even heard of it until the current uproar, will likely be there sampling in droves.
They'll be watching a show that may or may not have been edited to correct what may or may not have broken the law, but has clearly gotten under everybody's skin.
As a publicity spectacle, this couldn't be going better if MTV had masterminded it.
MTV is owned by Viacom.
EDITOR'S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.