The Department of Culture, Media and Sport joins with the BBFC and mainstream TV broadcasters in a mission to stop you from watching whatever you want.
Ah, the DCMS. Arguably the most worthless of all the government departments. It’s the department Matt Hancock used to be in charge of before a strategically shaved albino baboon decided his talents were best suited to responsibility for everybody’s health.
Nowadays, Oliver Dowden is the man heading up the DCMS, and deary me, doesn’t he have a Mary Whitehouse-sized bee in his bonnet?
In other countries, the DCMS would probably adopt a more appropriate name, like the Ministry of Good Behaviour, or the Department for Social Adjustments; you know, something appropriately dystopian yet with the passing façade of cuddly bears and lollipops.
Our Ministry for Oppression is fixated on a lot of things right now. Through the Online Harms Bill, the DCMS wants to legislate against the scourge of people being able to say what’s on their mind. Obviously, there are a lot of folks peddling some absolute chuff at the best of times, but when the government expects to be able to step in and rule on which chuff is permitted, there is an uncomfortably authoritarian stench that starts to waft from Whitehall.
However, while I could sit here and criticise the Online Harms Bill, I’d actually recommend anyone who wants to know the scale of the government’s plan to ‘safety-up’ the Internet head over to the Open Rights Group, or Liberty, or any number of expert voices and campaigners trying to raise awareness of this blight on our civil liberties.
Instead, I’m going to talk about one of the DCMS’s other little pet projects – the evils of video-on-demand.
For a while now, VoD in the UK has not been regulated by the BBFC, but by Ofcom, and Ofcom hasn’t really been that bothered. While the BBFC continue to act as arbiters for what is good and wholesome, Ofcom has taken more of an ‘eh, whatever’ approach.
For example, a few years back, I happened to rent the remake of I Spit on Your Grave from Microsoft’s now-retired Zoom video store. What do you know, it wasn’t the BBFC censored-to-shit version. In fact, several movies that do not or did not pass muster with our Soho-based thought police have made it to streaming services in their untampered form.
Emanuelle in America’s infamous horse-schlong scene was not removed from the Prime Video version. Bare Behind Bars maintained all of the hardcore pornography that accounts for the bulk of its final third. Even Cannibal Ferox turned up without the removal of the Man Called Horse-inspired meathooks through the boobs scene at one point. What can we learn from this? Ofcom just doesn’t give a fuck!
And isn’t that refreshing? Sure, that content is beyond the pale for some people. I could have happily gone my entire life without seeing a woman wanking off a horse, and in any BBFC-approved release, they would have ‘protected’ me from that image. Strange, really, as nobody was too fussed about Rebecca Loos wanking off a pig on Channel 5 that time.
However, Oliver Dowden does see a problem here. Because VoD is not subject to the same restrictions as theatrical releases, home video releases, or television broadcasts, he’s concerned that VoD represents another potential attack on the psyches of the British people. Those fragile, delicate little flowers who are encouraged to relate even the slightest inconvenience to Blitz Spirit and shooting Germans, but who simply cannot view a piece of fictional content without a state-appointed nanny holding their hand and whispering ‘It’ll be okay’ into their precious ears.
Let’s be real for just a moment. No legitimate streaming service is currently making available CSAM, snuff movies (and no, Julie Bindel, it’s not a fucking snuff movie even if it’s called ‘Snuff’), or anything else that would be illegal pretty much anywhere. Streaming services aren’t some sort of library where one can watch the suicide of R. Budd Dwyer on a loop or the beheading of a humanitarian worker by a religious fanatic. You don’t need to worry about clicking on Animal Farm on Netflix and seeing the Bodil Joensen version, nor are you going to click ‘Lolita’ on Prime Video and find yourself watching a Color Climax movie from the 1970s.
The worst mistake a streaming platform is likely to make is to mix up the 1984 Ghostbusters with the 2016 version.
So what is Dowden’s problem? First, undoubtedly, there is the ever-present ‘think of the children!’ argument. With such a variety of television shows and movies at our fingertips (or if we’re so inclined, by yelling at a voice in a box), clearly, there is a danger that a poor, innocent child will want to see Jack Frost with Michael Keaton and end up watching Shannon Elizabeth being raped by a snowman.
Except, will they? Honestly, I think you’re more likely to find the Jack Frost issue crop up in a brick and mortar store that sorts titles alphabetically. Look at how children are already protected. I have several streaming devices in my house. I have a Roku Ultra (imported from the US), a Fire TV Cube, and an Nvidia Shield TV Pro—and that’s before we get to my TV itself, my Xbox, my fucking blu-ray player and everything else that can access Netflix and the like. All of them support parental controls.
Not only do the devices support parental controls, but so do many of the apps. Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, etc. all allow the account holder to create profiles and restrict content by age group to prevent a child from watching something inappropriate. If that’s not enough, my fucking router can restrict WiFi access per device so my non-existent child can’t watch anything during certain times.
The ‘think of the children!’ argument collapses rather quickly. Even on a device such as a smartphone, by setting the profile up correctly, your eleven-year-old still isn’t going to be able to watch The Evil Dead unless you let them.
The BBFC, of course, would counter this by arguing that not everybody is adopting their age ratings, and they’ve been pushing Dowden and the DCMS’s buttons over this issue for quite some time with leading questions in surveys. In a recent survey, the BBFC even went as far as to make an appeal to national pride and British superiority by showing out of context clips, then phrasing their questions in a way that painted other country’s rating boards as degenerate foreigners.
Clearly, those dirty Dutch bastards with their relaxed attitudes to sex work and marijuana lack the moral fabric of our glorious BBFC. That must be why we Brits have a significantly higher per-capita crime rate than those sexed-up stoners and their liberal ways. Hmm, maybe these age ratings aren’t as important as the BBFC makes out and the fact that the Dutch don’t go around cutting and censoring films, make them available at younger ages, and aren’t currently awash in a sea of hedonistic depravity is due to something else entirely… Nah, that’d be stupid.
Even so, Dowden still feels it is important to regulate the fuck out of VoD and bring about parity with traditional broadcasters. This is despite the fact there is no parity. One of the most appealing aspects of VoD is that it is not traditional linear television. I am a huge fan of VoD. I have many subscriptions, and it has all but erased my interest in traditional television. I only possess a satellite TV subscription now because Sky keeps giving me massive discounts. The day they stop doing that is the day I leave, and I don’t turn back.
Why? Because with VoD, I watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it. I no longer have to wait a week between episodes. I can watch a whole season of television at a time that suits me. That might be two or three episodes one day and the next episode a week later. It might be that I want to watch three movies in a row on a Saturday evening.
With VoD, I don’t need to care about broadcast schedules. The watershed means nothing to me anymore. No ads are interrupting my enjoyment of a film. It’s glorious. And importantly, right now, the lack of regulation means that those movies that the BBFC think I’m too fucking pathetic to watch without turning into a sex-crazed serial murderer are available to me unmolested.
But this is Britain, and freedom of expression is all well and good providing it is the right type of freedom of expression. For those who think ‘cancel culture’ is a new thing, it isn’t, it just didn’t affect you before. Anyone who has been paying attention has known that we’ve been clamouring to cancel things for decades. Our nation is full of whiny little crybabies who seem to exist largely to be offended by things so that they can get them banned.
I once came across a blog run by some sort of religious nutter who had taken it upon themselves to watch eight or nine hours of Babestation’s day shows per day. Why? Because he was making a list of every bit of side boob, every slight areola, the occasional nipple slip, and anything else that he deemed too racy. Then he was sending his timestamped complaints to the regulators to try and get Babestation taken off the air.
He’s clearly a crank, and nobody should listen to this fucking prick. Controversial perhaps, but I don’t believe anybody – adult or child – is going to experience greater harm from a split second of sideboob than they are from being told the human body is fucking shameful and must be covered at all times.
But he’s not the only crank out there. The DCMS asserts its aims are to protect people, but the only people they are likely to protect are those too fucking stupid to watch something else. These are the people who watched Top Gear week after week and still felt the need to complain about Jeremy Clarkson’s ill-thought views. They’re the folks who never even listened to the Sachsgate shit, but made sure their feelings were known to the BBC and regulators. They’re the ones who don’t read the blurb for a movie, look at the poster art, or check the various content warnings and scream that “something must be done” when they’re confronted with an image their stomach can’t take.
It seems to me that if, despite all of the information available before you click play on a VoD stream, that if something still comes up that is a bit much for you, then the obvious answer is to reach for the remote, turn it off, and find something else to watch. Instead, Dowden is concerned about the apparent significant number of people who find this too intellectually challenging.
If we’re being honest, most people probably feel the same as I do. I would hope they do. My guess is we’re dealing with the small number of cranky fuckwits out there for whom the idea that somebody else enjoys content they feel is offensive is a personal attack. It would be hopelessly optimistic to believe these people will ever understand that nobody should expect to go through life without being offended, but is it too much to ask that people take a little personal responsibility?
Censorship isn’t protection. It is nothing but the demands of one group of people trumping the views of another. I am not some overly sensitive individual, and if I was, it wouldn’t be up to the state to protect me from things that are going to make me have nightmares. I don’t need protection. Nobody needs protecting from fictional fucking content. If you’re the type of person who really thinks that ‘something must be done’, that the BBFC and the DCMS must club together and ensure you are shielded from offensive content on VoD services then please, grow the fuck up and come back when you’re an adult.
There is one last issue to address – Money. Most VoD services aren’t run by the Brits, and those that are are shite (looking at you, Britbox). The PSBs – BBC, ITV, C4 and C5 – have grown alarmed by the rate at which their viewership is switching over to the comfort of on-demand. They’ve been lobbying Ofcom to force streaming platforms like Amazon’s Fire TV, Google’s Android TV, Roku, and smart TV manufacturers to give them a leg-up.
In the PSBs perfect world, when you turn your TV on, you’ll be presented with their content before the content that you’ve paid for. They want to make it more difficult or time-consuming to find The Bridge on Arrow TV or the Wolf Creek TV series on Shudder. While Netflix and Disney will thrive regardless, the PSBs want to use regulatory weight to choke the life from the smaller, niche streaming services that appeal to crowds like me. They don’t want me watching a movie or series on Sundance Now, when I could be watching such epic event-level TV as Dancing on Ice or Come Dine With Me.
Obviously, from the government’s PoV, this sounds fantastic. The DCMS is on-board, Ofcom is on-board. Regulating every other service to play by the PSBs rules is part of Ofcom’s whitepaper on how to restore the dominant market position of the PSBs in an on-demand world. It’s a cynical spit in the face to consumer choice in favour of maintaining the status quo for the benefit of British-based coffers.
While it’s understandable that the British government would want to give advantages to British broadcasters, in truth, the reason the British broadcasters are being so aggressively bitchslapped by the VoD services is that the VoD services are making more content that people want to watch. The PSBs dominance in days of yore was merely due to the lack of choice. Those days when it was a choice between a snooker-based quiz show hosted by Jim Davidson or a golf-based quiz show hosted by Jimmy Tarbuck are long gone. Primetime is no longer a mouldy buffet served up to malnourished masses. It’s a five-course meal and everybody can choose what they want.
If the government wants the PSBs to compete, then maybe they should stop slashing arts funding? Maybe the BFI and Film4 should get the pompous sticks out of their arses when it comes to funding British filmmakers? Maybe they should all be a bit more daring, instead of churning out the same old repackaged tripe?
They won’t though, because the DCMS is all too happy to regulate creativity, and we’ll all be worse off for it.
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It surprises me how everybody seems to have forgotten the government forced IPS’s and phone companies to provide parental controls as standard, so every parent already has the ability to block content if they want. Of course in the usual ill thought out legislative way the free version tends to be an all or nothing approach, while the useful version that allows you to set individual control for different family members costs extra.
I can’t say I’m as big a fan of the general on demand services, like Netflix, as others, I found just as much tripe on them as the PSB’s and can’t help wondering if people give them a break simply because of the convenience of being able to watch whatever tripe they want at the time and pace they want. They’re certianly just as bad at cancelling shows prematurely or not buying all series so you have to go elsewhere to finish them.
I will concur, Netflix is particularly shitty when it comes to cancelling series. I’m honestly not sure why they’re looked at as the holy grail for screenwriters right now when they have a track record of cancelling things around the 3rd season (which incidentally, is when the production costs of shows tend to go up due to contractual fee increases…hmm..).
I’ve even noticed Netflix are pulling this trick where they’re saying that S1 and S2 of a show are actually just S1 Part 1, and S1 Part 2, which I’m sure is another way Netflix are scamming writers (and actors).
But in general, VOD appeals to me because it grants much wider choice than the PSBs. I happened to have a look at the BBC’s schedule up until Saturday this week (BBC1, 2 & 4) and there is *one* show (albeit more than one episode) that would appeal to me.
Meanwhile, VOD services like Arrow Video and Shudder always have something that I’ll give a whirl, and Prime Video has a pretty expansive library including a lot of the current Shameless releases.
I think the biggest issue with VOD is that now everyone and their great aunt’s dog has decided they need their own streaming service, although fortunately, unlike a satellite or cable service none of them have yet proved quite so dickish as to demand an 18-month contract or similar nuisance. The ability to drop in and out of VOD subscriptions as and when there is something on there you want to watch is another big plus for the services.
I agree with you about the lack of variety on the PSB’s. Task Master is about the only program I’ll sit down to watch, although the last series started to feel a little tired, so watching the next one will depend on who they’ve got on it.
And Prime is the one subscription I keep going, partly because of 1 day shipping and partly because, as you say, they do have a more appealing range of content, although I assume this is operating on the same basis as the main website, i.e. they provide some content and 3rd parties provide the rest on a split revenue basis, outside of the channels you can pay extra for.
Dowden is amongst the worst of Johnson’s lot. Mainly cause he is just there in the background, quietly doing his controlling, manipulative crap, whilst other ministers are more prominent.
He singled out the National Trust for gods sake and proceeded to get a not insignificant number of wazzocks riled up over the idea of a few more notice boards being placed around National Trust properties.
Dowden desperately wants to be the Minister that “dealt with” the BBC and is looking to sell off Channel 4 on top of what you’ve written about here.
Oh, and despite Dowden’s claims, hardly any artistic venues have received the corona support money he promised.
Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t ATVOD supposed to be the regulator for on-demand content (nether mind what they actually used there power for) and when they went under there powers went to OFCOM. My point is surely there already is an on-demand regulator it’s just they have more sense to know there not needed these days and except it.
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