Isn’t it time we scrapped the four-decade-old Video Recordings Act and allowed an even playing field between physical media, streaming services and TV broadcasters?
This week, the British Board of Film Classification announced its latest price increase for the mandatory examination of pretty much every film released on physical media and, increasingly, VOD. If you release video content in the UK, you’ll have to pay up, regardless of content – even if your film is nothing more than paint drying on a wall, regardless of where your film will be sold and how many copies you are likely to sell, you have to cough up the same amount as Disney for your film to be approved.
Right now, that’ll cost you £8 a minute. From January, it’ll rise to £8.85 a minute (with a minimum charge of £86.50, so tough luck if your film is a five-minute short). As the BBFC have stated, this is apparently a bargain – they could have increased the price by 11.6% according to their existing price increase formula. You can work out just how generous they are being for yourself. Interestingly, VOD submissions will be £4.10 a minute, which might strike you as curious, because there is no less amount of time involved in watching one format as there is another – why a physical release therefore costs twice as much is one of the many mysteries involved in the operations of the BBFC. It may, however, have something to do with the fact that physical media has to be approved by law, while VOD is still very much on a voluntary status. You can make of that what you will – to me, it feels close to extortion for the people who have no choice but to pay.
The Video Recordings Act of 1985 is legislation from a lost world – the pre-internet era of VHS and Betamax, high street rental stores and moral panic. It is ridiculously outdated as a legal requirement, a law that was passed as a knee-jerk response to media-created hysteria that has sat effectively unchanged even as the world around it has become very, very different. Over the years, the BBFC has tried very hard to remain relevant, either through persuasion or legislation – hence the inclusion of VOD and the Board’s involvement in classifying websites by age-appropriateness for online blockers. If the Online Safety Bill becomes law, the Board will probably be the designated body for deciding which websites require age verification. But in terms of physically released home video on whatever format, mandatory classification seems outdated, unnecessary and cruel and unusual punishment forced onto niche labels, for whom £8.85 (plus VAT) – for the feature film as well as any extras, though the BBFC have now reduced the price for these by 25% – can mean the difference between profit and loss, commercial viability or otherwise. We do pretty well in the UK for esoteric releases – much better than in the VHS days – but let’s not pretend that we are being denied some titles because of the costs of having a film examined. There ought to be a better way.
And there is. Netflix now uses BBFC-approved ratings, but the Board is not examining that content. Rather, they have supplied Netflix with BBFC guidelines and allowed the streaming service to self-apply ratings. Obviously, Netflix will be paying a licence for this, but it will be cheaper, faster and easier than having to submit each and every title for approval. Why, we might ask, can’t a similar agreement exist for physical products, with labels paying a small annual fee – or maybe nothing at all, given that the BBFC’s age ratings are already copied by TV broadcasters and all you’d be paying for would be a logo design and official approval – to then self-apply ratings?
Why, indeed, should BBFC ratings still be mandatory at all? We no longer live in a world where everything was sold through high street shops or rental stores. Whatever controls that the ratings once brought are long over. So why not make BBFC approval optional? It’s very likely that the major labels will continue to submit their films, just as they currently re-submit the same titles every time they are re-released, even if there is no difference between versions. It’s equally likely that supermarkets and shops like HMV would have a ‘BBFC-approved only’ rule for anything that they sold. But for those labels offering less commercial, more esoteric titles that will only be available through their own websites or mail-order suppliers like Amazon, why not have the option of bypassing the BBFC? Would this be any less controlled than current mail-order supplies, where no one is asked for their age – or at least proof of their age – when buying? Bearing in mind that other laws controlling content – the Obscene Publications Act, the Protection of Children Act, assorted laws governing mistreatment of animals, criminal libel or incitement to violence – already exist, what is the point of the BBFC other than what it started as – a voluntary rating body with no legal standing?
The BBFC serves little purpose for home viewing now, despite their protestations and claims of public support. If they really wanted to help the physical media industry and the smaller labels, they would support a legal change that would allow labels to opt out of a system that unfairly and disproportionately punishes smaller labels, the very labels that it claims to want to help.
Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!
wait, is that true about netflix? well what’s the point of the bbfc then if there not going to have someone independent observe if the content is legal or not (for what it’s worth a few years ago the bbfc did demand a french film have some seconds cut because it violated the Protection of Children Act which is interesting in itself as it means Britain and france have a different definition of child abuse imagery) if there going to let a streaming platform effectively regulate themselves may as well let the whole industry. as for the idea that hmv would only allow content rated by the bbfc maybe (personally i would like some kind of rating as i don’t like horror films so i would like to understand the intensity of what i might watch, and let’s be real parent’s are stupid) but i recently went into hmv and noticed a sale they where having on video nasties (yes actually titled that) and i noticed one of the cover’s clearly had a naked women in the corner, not front and centre but you could still see it, some copies had a sticker covering it some didn’t but curios i skimmed the back and though i admit i could have just missed it to my knowledge i couldn’t find the vprc label anywhere which make’s me think it’s not being as rigorously enforced anymore.
I think the VPRC has effectively bitten the dust – it was only ever voluntary – with the threat that if you didn’t sign up, most shops would not stock your titles, but that was in the days on Woolworth, WH Smiths etc being big stockists. It’s possible that HMV and Fopp would sell uncertified titles, but even so – do you ever see kids browsing the discs in there anyway?
As for the BBFC protecting against violations of the law – yes, that’s their claim and they do consult experts etc. But we’ve seen plenty of other organisations – TV broadcasters etc – that have taken very different views of the law. I remember when a Sky channel had to hurriedly withdraw The Trip from its schedules because it was still banned by the BBFC and regulatory bodies like to back each others decisions up – but plenty of stuff over the years has been broadcast on TV and then cut by the BBFC (or vice versa). The point is that all the laws that the BBFC point to would still remain in force and any label that breaks those laws would potentially face a far worse fate than mere cuts. But that’s true of magazine and book publishers, TV broadcasters etc, none of whom have to have pre-emptive approval from an outside body.
You can read about the Netflix/BBFC system – run by algorithm! – here:
oh i think i did hear about that about netflix, could have sworn i read that the algorithm was classifying horror films as pg’s, or maybe that was another site as part of a user rating system, either way looking up the bbfc seem to be proud of it yet seems like it’s just an omission that they can’t regulate vod’s the same way so outsourcing it to computers, which always make mistake’s. do they do this for all the other platforms they supposedly rate like amazon prime, disney+, pluto tv and if so then how the hell is ofcom supposed to regulate the whole internet, it’s unworkable and one of the thing’s that make’s me hope the online safety bill will be quietly swept under the rug once passed (unless labour get it early because where as the tories want to control what people say but incompetent labour want to wrap everyone in cotton wool and are competent).
as for illegality while it’s true most over’s aren’t regulated in the same way it doesn’t make me less worried when i ago to comic con look at the hentai section and get nervous by the cover’s so don’t buy anything, your right about inconsistency even within the bbfc, i’ve got anime which make’s me go “you’ve cut less graphic stuff than that” i’ve seen anime where nude character’s were cut but more explicit nude scene’s with same type of characters were kept, and then there’s more recent situation’s documented here.
but the interesting thing here is the content in question is still available on hidive and i have no idea if the content is removed because they thought it wasn’t right or just flat out illegal, but having taken a look again the bbfc has passed much worse in anime, while i’m not the greatest fan of the bbfc or too much regulation as a consumer i would like to be sure i’m not viewing or owning something illegal and would definitely like there to be more consistency on content.
I’ve been saying for, shit, actual decades that the BBFC pay-per-minute system charging the same to a tiny indie and a James Bond film is terrible. So although I’d like to see that swept away, as a parent there is great value in having some objective, independent assessment of how strong a film is. With new releases in particular, the parent usually sees the film for the first time with the kid. And while we can safely assume any Disney cartoon is anodine, more adventurous/exciting live action stuff is a judgement call. eg. The Jurassic World films clearly aren’t suitable for very young children, even though there are JW toys squarely aimed at that demographic.
As you say, it’s a judgement call – and there are those who would make a different call to the one made by the BBFC. That includes the BBFC of the past – I saw Jaws when it was rated ‘A’ as a kid; now, it’s rated 12. Other PG-equivalent films of the 1970s are now 15, while X-rated films are now PG. Times changes, yes, but it does suggest that it is all a bit arbitrary.
In any case, major distributors would almost certainly stick with the BBFC. I can even see the argument for maintaining the current theatrical system. I just think that indies releasing films that are clearly aimed at and only appealing to adults on disc should not have to.
Comments are closed.