Primed For Profit: The BBFC’s Double Standards

The British censors allow wealthy streaming giants to self-certify at a reduced cost, while still bleeding physical media distributors dry.

The British Board of Film Classification has just issued another self-congratulatory press release about how they have convinced yet another platform – this time Amazon Prime – to take on their ratings rather than having content either unrated or else using non-BBFC standard age classifications. This follows a similar triumph for the constantly-lobbying censors with Netflix a while ago and increases the Board’s stranglehold on film and TV, boosting their importance and their finances – which streaming video threatened to severely dent – under the guise of having a uniform rating system across all media.

The BBFC has always been very good at hyping the importance of their specific ratings, which they tell us are the result of mass consultation (i.e. public opinion surveys) and which are the result of a century of experience even though they change every few years based on whatever the general public are fretting about at that time and have shown a wild inconsistency, with films deemed beyond the pale at one point passed uncut less than five years later and age ratings of movies going up and down for no good reason beyond current trends and modern panics. As they constantly tell us, 90% or so of people think age ratings are as important for streaming as they are for physical media and that similar numbers think the BBFC are just the best at providing such services. Just how the questions are posed and what alternatives are also suggested remain mostly undiscussed points. The BBFC’s suggestion is that only they are capable of making such decisions, but while age ratings and content advice are certainly useful as advisory warnings, there is little evidence that this can’t be done by other organisations, including the streaming service/broadcaster. Channels like Talking Pictures TV offer a BBFC-style age rating system (no one ever seems to step outside the U/PG/12/15/18 format despite there being significant criticisms of its rather arbitrary age restrictions) and warnings of strong language, nudity, violence and ‘outdated views’ for those people who might be taken by surprise that a 1960s TV show does not reflect current attitudes. If anything, this system is overly cautious – the trigger warnings tend to be standard procedure, with some channels repeating them after every commercial break in the hope of mitigating any malicious viewer complaints to OFCOM. Clearly, there is no need to pay the BBFC to do this for you, but the Board has successfully convinced the government otherwise, and so streaming channels (but not, you might note, regular TV channels) are now being ‘encouraged’ to adopt BBFC age ratings – which means making an agreement with the BBFC rather than doing it themselves.

I don’t have a particular problem with Netflix, Prime etc adopting BBFC ratings based on the Board’s guidelines as long as it stops at ratings – the BBFC have a tendency to make cuts to allegedly ‘dangerous’ content that has not been proven to actually be dangerous and still ban films outright, and if that level of interference starts to take place we might have cause for concern. At this stage, it seems unlikely because Netflix and Prime will not have to actually submit content to the censors. Rather, they will self-certify based on BBFC guidelines – and good luck there, given how wildly vague and inconsistent they are. Given that we know that many BBFC ratings are the result of split votes, with their ‘expert’ censors often unable to reach a unanimous decision as to whether a film should be a 15 or an 18, for instance – so you can probably expect some wild inconsistency from the streamers’ ratings that are likely to be based on algorithms rather than a couple of people sitting down to view the film and then debate the nuances of where it falls on the rating scale. But I’m sure that, for the most part, it will err on the side of caution and be adjustable if ‘mistakes’ are made. It is not really in the interests of Netflix and Prime to underrate content, so if anything there will more likely be more content rated 18 than is necessary than less.

But of course, this just takes us back to the complaint that we’ve made before. If streaming services can self-certify based on BBFC guidelines, why can’t the distributors of physical media? If you want to release anything on Blu-ray that doesn’t fit into the increasingly narrow definition of ‘exempt’ (mostly sport, education, bland music and non-contentious documentary content), you’ll have to pay £8.65 – plus VAT – a minute. Yet with the decline of physical media as a mainstream format and with very few non-specialist stores even selling films on disc any more, there’s a strong argument to be made that this content is less widely available – and less likely to be casually consumed by possibly underage viewers – than ever. Yet these films – even the ones only sold through mail order – still have to submit everything to the BBFC for approval. Why, we could ask, can’t video labels also self-certify? It would help out a beleaguered industry that is already feeling the financial pinch and allow a wider variety of content to become available – more uncommercial and niche content that right now is simply not worth the effort because the BBFC fees make the difference between profit and loss.

For the BBFC to allow huge, wealthy corporations to self-certify and use BBFC assets for a small fee (free for up to 100 titles, then from £573.90 plus VAT – less than it would cost to certify one feature film on disc – for up to 250 titles a year through to a maximum of £4,591.22 plus VAT for anyone releasing 5000+ titles a year) while still charging much smaller distributors through the nose and making them pay for every element of a film including all the extras – well, that seems outrageous. British film censorship is a broken system, one that the BBFC seem uninterested in fixing – and it’s the indie physical distributors who are paying the price while global giants get to do as they please. It’s time for the Video Recordings Act to be rewritten for a modern age, or ideally scrapped entirely.


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  1. Excellent point. Looking through narrowed eyes, it’s almost a protection racket that’s slowly bleeding the smaller companies dry or at best keeping them in their place so they don’t get too cocky. And all for the crime of expanding choice for the film obsessives who still give a shit about physical media. Intentional or not, it feels like revenge for past greivances, and with that in mind would it be too much of an extrapolation to suggest that tiered charges might eventually come into being based on genre/controversy levels? The more fretting involved, the more money there is to be swiped from the distributors? And how different is the UK system for physical media releases compared to well known specialist companies in the US?
    Couple of questions….can companies selling streaming rights to Prime and Netflix make back much of the BBFC outlay for a physical release? And did anything come of the ‘unrated for adults’ campaign that some UK filmmakers ran with not too long ago but which seems to have dropped out of sight?

    1. I can’t answer the question about streaming sales – I suspect it depends on whether or not they own those rights or not. As for the campaign – well, like most of these things it seems to have fizzled out.

  2. Outrageous. As you well know, it was the VRA that consolidated the BBFC’s grip on power. All the evidence suggests they are little better than an intermediary for large corporate operations. My current theory is that horror and sex films were given such a hard time because they offered independent producers a potentialo hit without needing big stars and suchlike. The majors had their running-dog BBFC nobble the competition until they were ready to dirty their hands. It’s a bent, bent world (and not in a good way). Crooks, charlatans and gangsters run things (etc., and so on).

    A couple of thoughts: was reading of Brian DePalma’s difficulties with the MPAA over Scarface. At one point, he said he had consulted his lawyer and been advised he might have a case for suing the MPAA for restriction of trade. Since a blatant and egregious double standard appears to be in operation, it’s a shame no one has the financial muscle to level a similar suit against the BBFC.

    Further, without wanting to wade into Brexit mire, how about a ‘pirate’ DVD/media label, operating outside the BBFC’s ‘jurisdiction’ (?), and selling wares by mail order. Registered in Jersey, or wherever.

    I’d table a motion that all ratings for films made prior to, say, 1960 or so be waived, bar perhaps a voluntary, advisory certificate?

    I believe ratings are a marketing gimmick – Amazon know full well it is underage punters who seek out ’18’ rated fare, and that ’12’ and ’15’ are simply indicators that the content isn’t anodyne, ‘safe’ or childish (‘you can have one ‘fuck’ at 12, two and it’s ’15”). But I also enjoy them, in a strictly advisory sense – simplified as U, PG, and X (16 and over). I struggle to imagine what happens in the three years between 12 and 15 that justify such distinctions.

    Of course, the priestly BBFC can also use their arcane methods to rout heretical works, and pour soothing oils on the tabloid, broadsheet and berliner beasts, lest they become inflamed.

    The BBFCs continuing existence, indeed, their present buoyant fortunes, represent the regressive nature of society. I am that Manchester factory worker, and I want my honey. What became of local authorities issuing their own certificates? Need I ask. Also, if an adult has no children, never will, and avoids the blasted things as if they were the plague, can he or she not dispense with the certificate as an irrelevance. Who speaks for them?

    PS as a historical footnote, did anyone else encounter the sight of pre-cert vids stickered with PG, 15, 18 certs bearing the legend MRVAG rather than BBFC? What, or who, was Mr Vag?

  3. I heard a podcast with Will Sargent of Echo and the bunny men discussing the punk/post punk days ’40 years before that was like 1937′ so I suppose next year is the anniversary of the video recordings act there a clip on you tune of a man dress in brown with a huge kipper tie and moss bros suit interviewing a nice chap with early eighties beard and splatter sweatshirt interviewers comment ‘you seem like a nice chap, how are you into this?’ As if to say all horror is devoid of merit think it always been this way it might be great getting blu rays from the independents with comments and interviews but its a shrinking market (looking forward to the Mr Vampire sequels never seen them) It might be 40 years ago with its remix in 2014 but all sorts of pressure groups still there ready to give out ‘common sense’ see the issues of books being removed in Florida called it a ‘media invention’ then find some pressure group has given ‘push back’ We usually had a pre kyle style bearpit with a vicar Mary Whitehouse and an MP speaking ‘common sense’ about films. I don’t mind the warnings as long as they are given once ( a recent Goodies episode on the That’s entertainment channel possibly did need it guess we can’t edit the knighted friend of prime ministers from history) the British Library has some good horror short stories books and ‘they reflect the attitudes of the time’ which would be 1897.

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