Skins arrived during a period of significant change within the media industries, as established media like television struggled to respond to the challenges and opportunities of digital technology. Much of the rhetoric here was based on claims about the distinctive characteristics of techno-savvy ‘digital natives’; and in order to reach and retain this seemingly elusive youthful audience, Skins needed to develop an active and multi-faceted online strategy.
The series’ web presence was designed both to raise viewers’ expectations of upcoming episodes, and to keep them engaged long after they had aired. It offered teasers, extensions and elaborations of the narrative, including back-story material and video diaries or blogs by the characters, as well as a range of related merchandise and giveaways. On the official Channel 4 website, there were MP3 downloads, competitions, trailers, publicity stills, interviews with the cast and writers, and a mailing list. Much of this material was exclusive to the website, not least in the form of ‘unseen’ episodes and ‘cut’ scenes. In many instances, viewers were alerted to new developments before the programmes actually aired; and new ‘generations’ of characters were profiled online before they appeared on screen. More than five years after the series ended, a great deal of this material is still online, both on the Channel 4 site and on other platforms: YouTube has numerous ‘official’ trailers and tasters, as well as compilations focused on specific characters (‘The Best of Pandora’, ‘Effy’s Story’).
However, Skins’ digital strategy also made use of emerging social media, where viewers were invited to interact and share their own content. There was a dedicated space on the youth-oriented social network MySpace (and subsequently on Facebook), which enabled fans to discuss characters and episodes, and to speculate about future developments. Also on MySpace (and in some cases subsequently on Twitter or Facebook), each of the leading characters had a profile, in which they posted content ‘in role’, for example about their media tastes and preferences, and about their back-story. Meanwhile, fans could sign up to a ‘Skins Messenger’ service on MSN Messenger to receive automated alerts about upcoming developments, as well as music credits, gossip and trivia.
These kinds of developments are typically accompanied by a familiar rhetoric about the democratic possibilities of online media. In the digital age, audiences are apparently becoming ‘empowered’, and television is becoming a more participatory medium – or so it is alleged. As the consumption of television becomes more of a cross-platform activity, the ‘text’ of television is certainly extended, and potentially made more open, in various ways. By moving beyond the limits of the broadcast programme, these approaches appear to provide new ways of relating both to characters and to narratives. Characters enjoy a ‘life’ beyond the series itself, and viewers are invited to join in a more intimate personal relationship with them, for example via video blogs, and to imagine that they are communicating with them directly. As ‘teasers’ and ‘cut scenes’ are released, viewers are also actively invited to speculate and share ideas about future developments in the narrative.
To some extent, this approach can also speak to – and perhaps help to create – a more ‘media literate’ audience. Viewers are given insights into what goes on behind the scenes; they are encouraged (albeit within limits) to express their own opinions, and to make suggestions about what they would like to see. For all the reasons I’ve suggested, these approaches are typically seen as more appropriate for a younger audience. In Jacqueline Rose’s terms, they appear to address the ‘impossibility’ of youth television. They promise to overcome the gap between the producer and the audience, literally drawing the young viewer ‘into the text’, and positioning them as active and engaged.
Nevertheless, there are some significant caveats here. For the media companies, these ‘participatory’ opportunities serve primarily as means of promotion. They help to engage the audience and bind them more fully into the world of the text, and thereby to promote consumer loyalty. In the case of Skins, some of the series’ more lurid and controversial elements were more apparent online, and viewers were invited to take on the task of defending the series from (adult) criticism. In the process, at least with commercial television, these online resources also provide further opportunities for targeted advertising (the streamed episodes on the 40D website seem to have a good deal more advertising than I remember from the original broadcasts). To this extent, digitally ‘active’ fans might well be seen as the quintessential consumers.
Furthermore, much of this audience activity – responding and commenting via social media – can be construed as a form of work, or ‘digital labour’. While there is no way of telling how representative the most active participants may be, they do nevertheless provide producers with valuable market research data, and they do so voluntarily, for free. As Michael O’Neill describes, season 2 of Skins was accompanied by a promotional campaign entitled ‘Skins needs you!’, in which fans were invited to send in questions and comments that subsequently featured in a podcast. However, none of this ‘fan labour’ was paid, and very little of it had any influence on the development of the series.
It could be argued that these kinds of activities merely exploit willing fans under the guise of offering participation. Platforms like the ‘Skins Messenger’ service mimic and co-opt peer-to-peer social media practices, but merely with the aim of keeping audiences within the approved official channels (and thereby maintaining profitability). Indeed, one of the key aims of these ancillary forms of ‘participation’ is to incentivise the core activity of live viewing, not least because this is most valuable to advertisers: viewers are encouraged to anticipate and prepare for the live broadcast, even if they might well be using digital media as they watch.
Ultimately, there is a fundamental dilemma here for producers. As O’Neill suggests, broadcasters need to exploit the potential of new technologies and social media, yet they also have to keep audiences consuming content in ways that serve their own economic purposes. As far as possible, they need to contain viewers’ participation within the ‘branded enclosure’ of the television channel and the official site, and thereby retain control of their brand. In this respect, audience activity should not be confused with agency: a more active, participatory audience is not necessarily any more powerful than one that ‘passively consumes’.
Indeed, there are many instances where this fan activity becomes the focus of a struggle for control between producers and audiences. This is partly about copyright, as fans illegally upload episodes and extracts to sites like YouTube, and thereby recoup the advertising revenue that comes from this. Nevertheless, fans (and indeed those who are more critical of the series) can also take the opportunity to create their own versions, in the form of re-edited ‘mash-ups’ or ‘swedes’, where they recreate scenes to comic or satirical effect. Such material may encourage further ‘bonding’ between the viewer and the text, but in some instances it may also subvert and challenge the programme brand. As such material proliferates, the companies have to work hard to eradicate it or at least keep it under their control. In the case of Skins, Channel 4 repeatedly closed down ‘unofficial’ fan channels on YouTube and fan-created profiles on MySpace and Facebook. Most of the material that remains today is linked back to the official site, although fans’ drawings and designs can easily be found on generic platforms like Pinterest and Flickr, as well as specialist fan sites like Fanpop and Fanart, while Youtube still hosts fans’ mash-up compilation videos relating to their favourite stars or moments from the series.
Social media platforms can also become the vehicle for viewers to express their criticism and dissatisfaction, as much as positive appreciation. Some researchers have found that such forums are dominated by ‘snarky’ and ironic commentary. For example, Mark Andrejevic discusses the US site ‘Television without Pity’, where viewers congregate to share their responses, primarily to reality shows and soaps. This may be simply a matter of summarizing episodes, or drawing attention to continuity errors or inconsistencies in the narrative; although in some instances, the criticisms can be much more forthright. Viewers participate partly in order to entertain each other, and to make the shows more interesting, although there is also the hope of ‘having their voices heard’ by producers. However, Andrejevic finds that participants are often quite cynical about the idea that they will ever be able to influence the producers – and in this respect, while participation might feel ‘empowering’, it can often reinforce the audience’s sense of powerlessness.
My own research (with Jose-Maria Masanet) on the official Skins forums found that participants were under no illusion about the constructed, fictional nature of the series, and were sometimes equally cynical about it. Even so, they were keen to engage because of the appeal of the show, and not despite it: they were not primarily seeking to make it more interesting. Furthermore, the series also provoked some sincere discussion of personal issues – especially about relationships and sexuality – that went well beyond the fictional world of the narrative. Participants were effectively using the forums as an informal, peer-to-peer method of learning about sex and relationships – which, as we argued, was important in a context where formal sex education is generally so limited.
Even so, this interaction between audiences and producers in social media can sometimes become quite fraught. This was particularly apparent in relation to the lesbian storyline of Naomi and Emily in generation 2 – which became known, first by fans and then by the producers, as the ‘Naomily’ story. As Deborah Hunn describes, the feedback on the forums led to the storyline being given greater prominence, and encouraged the happy ending which concluded season 3. However, fans became disenchanted as the couple’s relationship began to fall apart during season 4, even though they were uneasily reconciled by the end. In some respects, the ‘fantagonism’ here reflected the classic dilemma: on the one hand, viewers were calling for ‘positive images’ of gay couples; yet on the other, they wanted those representations to be ‘realistic’. This is especially difficult in the case of a serial narrative: the story has to continue beyond the moment of romantic fulfillment (and in this case, of ‘coming out’), but in doing so it cannot simply be a matter of ‘happy ever after’.
However, in this case, the complication in the narrative came primarily from the existence of a third character, Sophie, with whom Naomi had a brief relationship, and who kills herself at the very start of season 4. Naomi and Emily eventually discover that Sophie had been stalking her for some time. Hunn argues that this character is a further instance of the ‘dangerous lesbian’ stereotype – although in fact there is an equivalent heterosexual character in season 2, a girl called Sketch who stalks the gay male character, Maxxie. Interestingly, Hunn argues that Sophie is also a kind of surrogate of the ‘obsessive fan’ – and perhaps implicitly a means for the producers of Skins to push back against the perceived excesses of some of their online followers.
A rather different fan phenomenon in this case was the Skins parties – which were remembered very clearly by a couple of my informants. It seems that, during the first season, groups of young people spontaneously organized house parties intended, as Vice puts it, ‘to be every bit as nasty as those on the show and in its ads’. The term ‘Skins party’ became part of the lexicon of youth culture: it was defined by the Urban Dictionary (which always approaches such matters with a heavy dose of irony) as ‘a huge party in someone’s house where nearly everything is broke, lots of people are having sex and almost everyone is either drunk or drugged up’. A few spectacular cases attracted media attention, which may then in turn have become part of the appeal: again according to the Urban Dictionary, such a party ‘self consciously aspires to be infamous, preferably on the evening news’. Despite some of the media coverage, the Skins parties were obviously not just a ‘copycat’ phenomenon: as Hannah Ewens puts it, ‘teenagers have been doing drugs and having sex for decades’, although it’s possible that the show might have exposed some underage young people to ‘a form of party culture they might not have encountered until university’. In addition to these house parties, several commercial club venues – not only in the UK but across Europe – also mounted Skins party nights, sometimes marketed as ‘Skins secret parties’.
While the producers might initially have found this a little hard to deal with, they joined in fairly rapidly. As early as 2008, official ‘Skins Live’ tours were visiting major UK cities, with promotional parties promising live music, DJs and lightshows (and implicitly, sex, drugs and alcohol). Tickets were obtained through style or music competitions online, and lucky winners informed by text message – again pointing to Skins’ early use of social media. It was promised that the crowd would be filmed, and that scouts would be looking for potential cast members for upcoming series.
As this suggests, these kinds of fan phenomena can be highly ambivalent and difficult to manage. On one level, cultivating active forms of fandom can help to overcome the ‘impossibility’ of youth television. By drawing viewers in, by offering at least the illusion of participation and dialogue, such activities reinforce the claim for youth-centredness, and can help to establish a kind of youth cultural credibility. Yet in the process, they can also become another focus for the continuing struggle over authenticity and power between producers and audiences.
In this essay, I’ve used Skins as a means of illustrating some of the broader problems at stake in the whole phenomenon of ‘youth television’. Skins was undoubtedly innovative and influential in all sorts of ways: it is worth revisiting for its own sake, although I would probably caution against too much binge viewing. However, it also points to some of the broader difficulties and dilemmas at stake in attempting to create television that speaks to, and on behalf of, young people. These are apparent at several levels – in how the programme seeks to engage and address its viewers, and in how it purports to represent youthful perspectives and experiences. As television loses its former dominance in young people’s media lives, the difficulties that are raised here are likely to become significantly more acute – and youth television itself may well come to seem increasingly ‘impossible’.