Exam date

When's the 2016 exam? Wednesday 8th June, am.

Monday, 30 May 2016

BBFC review and comparison with MPAA

The BBFC is a statutory regulator: it has the power of law behind its decisions. Originally set up by the industry in 1912 to avoid tougher censorship, and to solve the problem of each local council coming up with their own codes, making distribution difficult, its board retains links with industry but its Director is appointed in consultation with government.

It is a typical quango (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation): not part of a government industry but not fully free from government control either. Anti-censorship academic Julian Petley argues that the BBFC effectively reflects the will of the government without the government being accountible for their actoins. Like OfCom, the government set out the duties in legislation which they have to enforce: the 1984 Video Recordings Act greatly expanded their remit to cover video.

The BBFC is self-funding, though the cost of compulsory rating (charged per minute, so DVD extras can add considerable costs) is criticised by some Indie distributors who say it is unfair on low budget releases with limited box office/sales potential, to the point (£2-3k) where they sometimes can't afford a separate UK release.

Local authorities each have the power to overturn a BBFC rating for their own area, a power rarely used but has been seen with:

  • Spiderman (2002) - reduced from 12 to PG by several, helping to usher in the 12A rating which allows younger children to see such films if accompanied by an adult
  • This is England (2006) - Warp's social realist Indie production, a typically low £1.5m budget, got a controversial 18 rating principally because of a racist violent scene at the end (which causes the young protagonist to reject the racist path, but the moral message was deemed unimportant); in this case it was left-wing papers leading the press outcry and some councils agreed, giving it the 15 the producers had originally anticipated
  • The Dark Knight (2008) - is it a coincidence that the $185m tentpole production from Warner Bros, one of the big six Hollywood conglomerates that dominate global cinema, got a favourable 12-rating despite being so violent and indeed marketed on its realism? The BBFC argues this was cartoon in style and so did't require a 15, an interesting contrast with  (which carried an important social message and representation funded by the UK government through the UK Film Council but which lost any hope of significant box office with this rating - in contrast to the ultra-violence of American comic book characters). 2016's Batman v Superman was also heavy on the violence, if less realistic, and got a 12. Backed by a prominent campaign in the Daily Mail and other right-wing papers, several councils re-rated Dark Knight as a 15.
  • 1973's Last House on the Left was screened whilst effectively banned by the BBFC, as some local authorities granted it an 18 for limited screening nearly 30 years after it was banned - the embarassment this caused the BBFC likely contributed to its getting a belated 18 BBFC rating.
Just like the PCC and now IPSO, this film 'regulator' has nothing to say about ownership or monopoly in the film industry, or the dominance of the American big six. There are of course links, with Murdoch owning 20th Century Fox as well as The Times, S*n etc. Thatcher scrapped a quota system in 1985 that had previously guaranteed cinemas would show a minimum of British-made films. Today Hollywood films account for over 80% of UK cinema screenings, much more if we consider the US ownership of 'British' companies like Working Title.

Having successfully used the early 1980s video nasty moral panic to gain legal power over rating videos, the BBFC has since expanded into games (though PEGI delivers most of this) and music videos.

Its openness is probably the key point in favour of the regulator, boosting any argument that it is an effective regulator. Before James Ferman retired in 1999 though, it had been considered secretive and too close to government, especially the right-wing Conservative government led by Thatcher. Today, its Insight service provides specific detail on every decision it makes, and the criteria for age ratings are easily accessible on its website, and it has 12k followers for its Twitter account. It also undertakes regular audience research to see if values or expectations are changing to better represent the British public's views.

There have been relatively few controversies since the end of Ferman's reign, as the BBFC became more open and accountible. This coincided with a period of Labour government, so the liberalisation was perhaps partially due to the different political atmosphere after Thatcher's ultra-conservative reign where she tried to censor the press, TV and film (her successor as Tory PM, John Major, also showed his instincts with a 'back to basics' campaign for old-fashioned moral values).

That lack of controversy (there are few exceptions, but these are important!) is a strong sign of their effectiveness as a regulator, and can be contrasted very strongly with the press self-regulators, now on its fourth iteration as IPSO, the previous three having been disbanded as failures. There have been only 3 movies banned in recent years, and one of these, Human Centipede II, did get a release after extensive cuts. Many of the BBFC's historical rulings are at best dubious (The Wild One, Enter the Dragon, Last House on the Left), but the modern organisation seems unlikely to be viewed to be as out of touch. This statement from the BBFC's website exemplifies the very different approach they now take, partly reflecting a law passed under the Labour government:
In line with the consistent findings of the BBFC’s public consultations and The Human Rights Act 1998, at 18 the BBFC’s guideline concerns will not normally override the principle that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment with some exceptions.
The R18 rating is another element of this, providing a restricted right to distribute pornography (in licensed sex shops only), though the Tory government has introduced a fairly arbitrary list of sexual acts it considers indecent, deviant and harmful, a stance that is likely to be seen as outmoded as the hard line on any sexual depiction that held firm up to the 1970s, and the Thatcher government's determination to limit depictions of homosexuality.

It is notable that the deregulation of UK TV with the move from the ITC to OfCom has not brought any comparable liberalisation, with C4 recently being censured for showing a 12A-rated movie at 6.55pm! OfCom and the BBFC each face a fundamental challenge from digitisation, with the easy access to online content and downloading, not to mention region 1 DVDs (including unrated versions of films not assessed or cut by the MPAA), undermining the effectiveness of age restrictions.

However, while OfCom persists with very stringent application of its watershed regulations even as more of the audience timeshift their viewing, making scheduling regulation seem increasingly outmoded (and again children can very easily access TV and films, including US series not yet broadcast in Britain, online, via Torrent sites for example, or by accessing parents' Netflix, Amazon prime or other streaming accounts), the BBFC is more realistic. The 12A rating is only for cinema; the BBFC are clear that DVD ratings are mandatory for retailers and distributors, but that this cannot be policed within the home - that is a parental responsibility. Perhaps newspaper flak is more impactive on TV cases than on film cases, with the BBC and C4 in particular under intense pressure just to prevent government privatization; when the BBC Director General dared suggest the watershed had indeed been outmoded by the internet the right-wing press was predictably savage, a classic case of what Chomsky's propaganda model would term 'flak' (one of his five filters that remove or undermine counter-hegemonic content from media discourse). See http://mediareg.blogspot.lu/2015/01/bbc-dg-invites-flak-by-suggesting.html.

The BBFC does of course have pressure groups committed to securing tougher censorship, notably MediaWatch, the successor organisation to Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers and Listeners Association, used by the government and BBFC to help build a sense of public demand for what became the 1984 Video Recordings Act (that includes a specific requirement to consider the greater 'harm' that might be done by accessing home media, with the ability to pause and rewind!).

The MPAA has no legal status; it is an industry self-regulator. Distributors have no legal requirement to submit a movie to the MPAA for rating, and exhibitors/retailers are not legally bound by its ratings (though will conventionally enforce these).

In contrast to the UK, where no BBFC rating means a legal ban, US films can be released unrated. This will usually limit distribution - though not as much as the highest MPAA rating, NC-17, which is an absolute kiss of death at the box office.

There are suspicions that the BBFC is more favourable towards studio films; this seems clearer with the MPAA. Trey Parker, director of South Park: The Movie, a rude, crude production backed by big 6 studio Paramount, discussed in  This Film is Not Yet Rated how that film got an R rating after very specific guidance from the MPAA, but his low-budget Indie debut, no more shocking or crude than South Park, got the dreaded NC-17 ... and he was left with no idea why, or how it might have been cut for an R rating: 
Independent distributor October Films purchased the rights to the film for one million dollars after its screening at the Toronto Film Festival.[16] The film received an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, which resulted in the poor box office performance of a film. Parker and Stone attempted to negotiate with the organization on what to delete from the final print, but the MPAA would not give specific notes.[3] The duo later theorized that the organization cared less because it was an independent distributor which would bring it significantly less money.[3] [Wiki]
MPAA ratings are not changed for DVD; the BBFC sometimes does, with the assumption that the ability to pause and rewind presents greater danger of potential harm or influence. 

Whereas the BBFC has sought over time to better reflect the UK population with greater social and cultural (including ethnic) diversity on its board, and is open about who sits on this, the MPAA remains secretive (as explored in This Fil is Not Yet rated) and mandates that only parents can join, and only if they have kids aged 5-15 (whenever those kids reach 21 they must step down).

Their appeals process adds two religious (Christian: Catholic and Methodist) figures into the mix, which seems extremely unlikely to generate favourable outcomes for distributors seeking lower age ratings!
In general terms, it appears that the US ratings board, representing the views of the American public, has a lower tolerance for nudity or sex scenes ... Conversely, the UK public seems to have a lower tolerance for aggression [BBFC]
There are caveats to this. The fact that the BBFC granted 18, not R-18, to two notorious, highly controversial movies that featured unsimulated sex scenes (including extended rape scenes) might seem highly liberal ... but Baise-Moi and Irreversible largely got the 18 rating based on the likely audience: sophisticated arthouse ABC1s, the typical niche audience for foreign-language movies in the UK.

See http://www.bbfc.co.uk/education-resources/education-news/same-difference for more detail on the comparison.

The video below, from 2018, gives a reminder of the 'nipplegate' 'scandal' (Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction' at the Superbowl half-time show, with one boob exposed - the nipple was actually covered). I raise this as it exemplified the very strong difference between US and UK censorship and cultural attitudes. The MPAA is toughest on sexual content, while the BBFC are toughest on violent content - especially sexual violence.
So, the BBFC banned a long list of 'video nasties' especially because of their linkage of sex with violence, and enforced many cuts on films like Enter the Dragon despite its 18 rating, whereas the MPAA looked at American Psycho (passed uncut by the BBFC) and insisted on cutting a sex scene. The sample from a handout quiz makes the point...


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