Skins is a British ‘dramedy’ portraying the lives of a group of teenagers in Bristol. The TV programme first aired on 25th January 2007 on E4; a channel renowned for its diverse and controversial programming. The programme has had four series so far, with a new cast for the last two series, and two more series currently in production. It focuses on a group of friends, aged 16-18, during their two years in sixth form and deals with the situations that teenagers are faced with, using comic exaggerations of characters to give a comedy edge. The programme deals with issues such as family problems, sexuality, drugs, death, teen pregnancy, mental illness, eating disorders and relationships.
The purpose of this audience research is to find out whether the characters and the situations they are put in are realistic, and whether this is a basis for teenagers to be influenced by the programme. Does it make teenagers go out and buy drugs? Or does it help teenagers by building a community for them to talk about their lives, and helping them feel not so alone in what they are going through? The contrast between adult and teenage viewers has become an important debate focused on the programme. Teenage viewers relate to many of the situations that the characters are faced with, whilst adults tend to focus on the dramatised scenes of drug use, sex, alcohol and violence.
From this audience research, I hope to gain results to back up my personal opinion about the programme; that Skins is a realistic portrayal of teenagers, more so in the first two series, and that teenagers do relate to the characters of Skins but are not directly influenced by them.
We couldn’t find any audience research that had focused only on Skins, but we found one based on teen programming which we could easily relate to our own project. This was called “Teen Television as a Stimulus for Moral Dilemma Discussions” by Sandra Irlen and Aimee Dorr. Irlen and Dorr looked at how teenage programming, which could include Skins, can be used as a stimulus for moral discussion between teenage girls. Findings suggested that popular teenage programmes can be excellent teaching tools, as they present “real-life illustrations of dilemmas involving serious issues that adolescents may face.” After every episode of Skins, its audience write statuses and tweets online about its content, inviting this moral discussion by making connections to their own experiences. The audience can easily relate to the programme, but does that necessarily mean they are influenced by it?
There were also many theorists that we researched into, finding different arguments about the effects of the media on its audience. The Uses and Gratification Theory focuses on why people watch particular media. It assumes that members of the audience take an active role in interpreting and integrating media into their own lives. It argues that the audience is responsible for choosing media to meet their needs and suggests that people use the media to fulfil specific gratifications.
Denis McQuail, in his Mass Communication Theory, argued that people use the media as a diversion; to escape from routine and unpleasant problems. The audience of Skins relates to a lot of the situations featured on it, hence using it as an escape from their own unpleasant problems to see how it was portrayed on television. Stuart Hall said, “The media helps us not simply to know more about ‘the world’ but to make sense of it.” Thus, the audience uses Skins as a means of communication and discussion with other viewers to ‘make sense of the world.’ This can also be said for the Uses and Gratifications Theory, as viewers will interpret the programme in their own way when relating to specific situations, and therefore be watching it for a certain gratification.
McQuail believed that the demands of the audience do not exert any pressure on producers as producers only have a vague image of those who watch their programs. But things have changed since he wrote this. From our research towards Skins, we found out that the writers were at average 21 years old. Director of Television Kevin Lygo said that, “I think there is not a single thing that didn’t happen to one of them” when talking about a similar teen program on E4. He said that E4 had chosen to use younger writers so that “it is very rooted in their own experiences.” Therefore, the producers of Skins had a very detailed image of who watched their programme.
In the same way, James Curran and Jean Seaton, in their book Power Without Responsibility, wrote that writers on the press have credited the media with the power to ‘influence’ and ‘persuade’ their audience to ‘change attitudes’ and to even ‘affect behaviour.’ But John Fiske disagrees that mass audiences consume the products that are offered to them without thought. He rejects the notion of “the audience” and instead suggests “audiences” with various social backgrounds and identities enabling them to receive texts differently.
The Hypodermic Needle Theory is a media effects model, suggesting that the mass media could influence a very large group of people directly and uniformly by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger the desired response. It suggests that audiences passively receive information transmitted via a media text without any attempt on their part to process or challenge the data. For example, the experience, intelligence and opinion of an individual are not relevant to the reception of the text. Therefore, the creators of media texts manipulate its audience and can, as a result, easily change their behaviour and thinking process. Dating from the 1920’s, this theory is the first attempt to explain how mass audiences might react to mass media. It is still used during moral panics to explain why certain groups in society should not be exposed to certain media texts for fear that particular behaviour will influence its audience.
This theory focuses on the direct influences of the media on its audience, which is one of the main questions in our project. As a teenage audience, we understand that the scenes portrayed within Skins are mere extremes designed to entertain, but adult audiences, and maybe even really young audiences, may be convinced that this is how teenagers in modern-day society actually act. There have been many reports and stories in the past about how individuals’ re-enacted things they see on television and within the media. Most people will have heard about reports of “Skins parties” as, apparently, a negative influence through watching Skins. This is something we researched into, which I will later discuss.
In contrast, David Gauntlett, in his book Media, Gender and Identity, believes that the term ‘role model’ remains an important concept, although it should not be taken to mean someone who a person wants to copy. Instead, he suggests that a ‘role model’ serves as a navigation point, as individuals steer their own personal routes through life, therefore suggesting that it is unlikely that the media has direct/straightforward effects on its audience. He believes that our identities are more likely to be shaped by parents, friends, teachers, colleagues and other people in our every day lives.
For our research project, we decided to create a questionnaire which gained 65 results. We used open-ended questions so that the respondent could talk freely about why they felt such a way and include as much or as little as they felt needed. We published our questionnaire online so that anybody could answer it. This made our results more reliable as the sample of people who responded was random, and not a select few people who we chose out of personal preference. The questionnaire was also open to people who disliked the programme so that the results weren’t based on fans of the programme. Both of these options gave the questionnaire a more varied set of replies.
There are, however, a few disadvantages when using a questionnaire. Although we asked ‘Why?’ at the end of each question, not everybody explained the reasons behind their views. I think that if we did this research project again, we should also do a focus group. Focus groups allow discussion and possible argument between the different views of people attending. This would have made a better discussion about the opinions from the viewers of Skins and we would have also found out more about the ‘Why.’
The questions we asked were:
- How often do you watch Skins?
- Why do you like/dislike Skins and why?
- Why do you think Skins is so popular amongst teens?
- How do you think Skins portrays teenagers?
- Is this a realistic portrayal of teenagers and why?
- Is this just in Bristol or all over the UK?
- Which series did you prefer and why?
- Which character, if any, do you relate to most and why?
- Have you ever been influenced by watching Skins? e.g. to take drugs.
- Have your parents ever watched Skins? What was their opinion towards it?
Our first main question was whether Skins was a realistic portrayal of teenagers or not. 55% of people said that it was whilst the remaining 45% disagreed. Although nearly half the amount of people said that Skins was an unrealistic portrayal, many commented that there were still some aspects of the programme that they could relate to but commented that, as a whole, it was too extreme, too exaggerated and too over the top to be realistic, with too much happening in just one episode. But most who believed that Skins was a realistic portrayal of teenagers recognised that it needed to be over the top to be an entertaining TV programme.
We also found many quotes off the producers, writers and cast of the programme who believed that Skins was a realistic programme. Hannah Murray, who played Cassie in Series One, said, “On an emotional level, I feel it’s really truthful. All the characters – I can recognise them in aspects of myself or aspects of people I know.” Nicholas Hoult, who played Tony in Series One, agrees and said, “It is maybe heightened for entertainment but all of it is believable.” The co-writer, Bryan Elsey, commented that, “our brand values are about staying close to the audience and selecting the right storylines for them. We’re about letting our audience feel they are not alone.”
79% of people preferred the first two series of Skins whilst 21% preferred the most recent series and cast set. Replies suggested that this preference was because the first two series were more realistic, the characters were easier to relate to and because and the storylines were more believable. The main view was that the second two series dramatised drugs and violence too much which made it too depressing and unrealistic.
Avid viewers of Skins tend to build a relationship with the programme and its characters. Some fans become really involved, e.g. there are hundreds of fan-made videos, forums and groups etc. dedicated to the programme. Although fans are highly dedicated to the programme, only 9% of the respondents said that they had been influenced by the programme, and even all of this small percentage said that they were never influenced negatively. Influences included connecting with people more, doing more interesting things with friends and facing fears. Most responses suggested that the programme worked as a deterrent. A majority of comments said that the programme had worked as a deterrent (Though this still means they have been influenced by it, just positively). By seeing the effects of drugs, violence, and the behaviour of the characters, viewers were able to see the negative side of their actions. We also found many comments on blogs and YouTube videos etc. reflected this. One fan commented that, “Quite soon after the girl on Skins got pregnant, my friend did too – it helped me to know how I could help her.”
An interesting topic that arose in our project was from a YouTube video that we found by an American teenager discussing the difference between UK and USA teen programming. He commented that you would never see this portrayal of teenagers, based in Skins, on American programmes. He related to American teen programmes such as 90210 and Gossip Girl, who all live “soap opera lives,” are all rich and beautiful and “live lives we will never have.” He contrasts this against Skins and says, “It’s just what teenagers do,” commenting on its realism. He made a remarkable point that if drugs were involved in an American TV programme, the producers would have to fit in some kind of moral reasoning to make up for it. He uses the example that if somebody took drugs in an American programme, they would then have to die in a car crash in the producers’ attempt of screaming “DON’T TAKE DRUGS” as a moral message.
In relation to this, we found an article on the website ‘parentstv.org’, showing the controversial and negative views from an adult based community in America. The group was called the Parents Television Council whose purpose was to encourage responsible behaviour through the entertainment industry and to protect children from violence/sex/bad language. They described Skins as a “foul teenage soap opera” with “rancid content” that “glorifies teens drinking, smoking marijuana and having sex.” The article focuses on the contrast we have recognised between adult and teenage viewers. Although we didn’t receive any survey results from anybody aged over 25 years old, I think it’s fair to say that older generations see the programme as something unrealistic because of how extreme it is, whereas teenagers see more than just a group of teenagers taking drugs and having sex.
There were many replies off teenagers in Britain commenting that Skins is realistic for teenagers, more so in the UK. In reply, the PTC argued that we may believe Skins to be an accurate portrayal of teenagers, but it is in fact just depressing. Their argument seemed to have no point or evidence behind it, as this reply isn’t at all a basis to say that Skins isn’t realistic. The argument ended with a comment saying that the media does affect its audience, providing a link to a research project suggesting that the number of teen pregnancies has risen due to teenagers watching “sexy TV shows” such as Sex and The City to try to prove its point.
The UK media seemed to mainly pick up on the negative influence of Skins as well through “Skins parties.” The two news articles that we found blamed Skins as the influence towards teenagers who had parties that got out of control. An article in The Herald titled, “Filthy party-crashing craze is blamed on teen TV show Skins” suggested that “TV show Skins has started a craze of gate-crashing in Ireland” without any real reason to do so. A more well-known article was from The Telegraph titled, “Police arrest MySpace party girl.” This article was about a teenage girl who had been arrested after her family home was wrecked by gatecrashers. The girl themed the party as a “Skins Unofficial Party” which is why Skins received the blame. But it seemed that the real reason for the £20,000 damage to her house was because she advertised her party on MySpace, inviting hundreds of people who she didn’t know, or didn’t care.
On the other hand, we also found many positive comments from adult viewers in the UK which strongly contrast with the American reviews we found. Gordon Farrer commented that, “the most worthy and important thing about Skins is that it takes the side of the teenagers…youngsters have enough to deal with and don’t need unsympathetic adults, who have forgotten what it’s like to deal with sex, drugs and emotion in an increasingly complex society, adding to their burden. Skins has energy, trades in realism, is honest, and avoids stereotype and easy plot choices, rare qualities in TV aimed at a young audience.” Even Charlie Brooker managed to comment on the realism of the programme, saying, “Instead of attempting to pander to an imaginary audience of whooping teenage cretins, it merely seeks to entertain regular people” and that, “Anyone of any age could tune in to Skins and draw something from it, which makes it weird and somewhat wonderful.”
In conclusion, I feel that our research project was quite successful. It would have been better if we found other research projects that were of a similar subject so that we had more refer to. But we did find many articles and reviews that set up the basis for a decent argument. They were, however, merely opinions of people and not evidential research into the effects and influence of Skins.
I am pleased with the results that we received from the project. Overall I believe that it’s fair to say that we have proven Skins as a fairly realistic portrayal of teenagers and, although the audience is highly involved and can easily relate to the programme, they aren’t directly influenced by it, or at least not in a negative way. There has been no efficient evidence to prove that Skins has influenced any of its viewers but this is still a key debate between theorists on the medias effect on its audience in general.
In relation to other research, I cannot say whether our findings related that well or not because we had different angles towards the project. If we did this research project again, I feel that we should have picked up on whether Skins was a stimulus for discussion on moral dilemmas but I feel that we could easily presume from similar evidence that it is. I also feel that we would need to have a focus group to gain that little bit more insight into the respondents’ attitudes towards Skins, though our questionnaire results were very efficient and gave the results that I had hoped to achieve from the project.
Bibliography of unlinked sources:
Curran, James and Seaton, Jean. “Power Without Responsibility” The Press and Broadcasting in Britain. 4th edition, London: Routledge, 2001.
Gauntlett, David. “Media, Gender and Identity” An introduction. Routledge, 2002. McQuail, Denis. “Mass Communication Theory.”4th edition, London: Sage, 2000.