There’s no such thing as bad press — unless that bad press is of the “possibly running afoul of federal child pornography statutes” type, because that’s what sends advertisers running for cover.
"Skins," MTV’s racy adaptation of the British series about the secret lives of teenagers, bowed Jan. 17 to a healthy tune-in of 3.3 million viewers, with 2.7 million of them in the core demo of 12- to 34-year-olds, the most to date for a show launch on MTV. Now the network is in the awkward position of having a hot show with fewer and fewer advertisers willing to pay for it.
Of course, MTV is no stranger to controversy. Traditionally conservative Dominos’ pizza backed off "Jersey Shore" in 2009 after groups including the National Italian American Foundation registered disapproval over the cast’s use of the ethnic slur “Guido.”
But the sponsor defection from "Skins" is more serious. Nearly half-a-dozen have bailed — reliably progressive Taco Bell was first, followed by Wrigley gum, General Motors, Subway and Schick. And H&R Block, not exactly a teen-targeting brand, was compelled to issue a statement explaining that one of its ads ran in "Skins" “by mistake.” The second episode was heavy on network promos, movie studio commercials and in a telltale sign of advertiser defection, multiple direct-response ads for a stretch-mark removal cream.
It’s not just the volume of advertisers that have come out against "Skins," which an industry source estimates could cost MTV $2 million in lost revenue an episode. It’s that the show was supposed to be MTV’s re-entry into scripted fare under new programming chief David Jonollari, and the higher CPM (cost per thousand viewers) rates it can bring. (This year, MTV plans to bow its second new scripted series: a 21st century "Teen Wolf.")
“There are few advertisers that are willing to put their neck on the line for any show,” one advertising insider says. “There is no lack of youth to reach in the marketplace. Why court backlash when you can find this audience somewhere else?”
MTV’s need to wean itself off of reality alone is evident in "Shore." Although the train-wreck docusoup might rake in boffo ratings, the content scares many image-conscious advertisers. One network insider confirmed that the "Shore" ad revenue has never kept up to the ratings.
Lately, the network has become the repository for the consequences of youth transgression with unscripted staples "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom." While MTV can sell these shows by polishing the “scared straight” pitch, "Skins" offers no such pretense.
“It is one thing to be documenting reality, it is an entirely different matter when you are manufacturing a representation of the youth lifestyle,” an insider says. “Drug use or sexual activity as ‘news’ is very different than those same subjects as 'entertainment.'"
MTV declined comment and instead pointed to a previous statement expressing “confidence” that Skins “will continue to connect with the audience it was created for and that advertisers will take advantage of the opportunity to reach them.”
At least one observer speculates that the network, which has toned down some of "Skins' " racier elements, might eventually move the show from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. in hopes of muting criticism. If the network can put out this particular fire, it might be possible to turn bad press into good ratings — and eventually dollars.