Monday, April 25, 2005

Ratings Systems

I just read on Yahoo News where the wireless industry has begun work on a ratings system for wireless content. This has been precipitated by the emergence of ringtones that are actually song clips (some lyrics not being particularly suitable for minors) and interest on the part of the adult entertainment industry in offering wireless content. The ratings system would essentilaly filter content so that those underage would not be able to access it.

I am not absolutely sure what the first ratings system classifying the content of any given medium was. I am thinking that the first ratings system may have developed with the foundation of British Board of Film Censors (now the British Board of Film Classification or BBFC). The organisation was founded in 1913 as an independent group, free of the government. At that time their ratings system was very simple, consisting of only two ratings: U (Universal, meaning the film was suitable for all audiences) and A (Adult, meaning children must be accompanied by an Adult). The ratings system has undergone many changes throughout the years.

In 1932 they introduced the "H" rating (for Horror, in which no one under 16 could be admitted). In 1951 the "H" rating was replaced by the "X" rating (essentially the same thing at the time). While here in America the "X" rating would become associated with pornography, in Britain at the time it was not unusual for horror movies or action films with significant violence to be rated X. Of course, the Sixties saw more sexual content emerging in films, so that in 1970 the age for attending an X rated film was raised to 18. For those British Invasion fans, you might recall the line from Peter and Gordon's song "Lady Godiva:" "He directs certificate 'X'...," sung of the movie director in the film. Since the Seventies, the British ratings system has changed even more, to where it resembles the American MPAA ratings system to a large degree (complete with a PG rating).

While the British utilised a ratings system, here in the United States, the motion picture industry had depended upon the Production Code of the Motion Picture Association of America since the Thirties to control content in movies. While many, many great films were made under the Production Code, it was so restrictive that many subjects could not be covered in film at all and many situations could not be portrayed realistically. By the Fifties many producers and directors defied the MPAA and simply distributed their films without Production Code approval. The Production Code was then abandoned. Not surprisingly, as the Sixties progressed, films became more explicit in violence, sex, and profanity. Both Bonnie and Clyde and The Dirty Dozen pushed the envelope on screen violence for the time. The "F" word was used in both the screen adaptation of Ulysses and the movie I'll Never Forget What's His Name in 1967. The MPAA then decided to create a ratings system based on the content of any given movie.

The original ratings system instituted in November 1968 consisted of: G (General Audiences, meaning everyone), M (Mature audiences, parents are advised to accompany their children to the movie), R (Restricted, children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult), and X (Children under 17 not admitted). The ratings system initially caused some confusion, as many people thought that the "M" rating indicated content that was more adult even than that of an "R" rating. In 1969, M was then changed to GP (General audiences/Parental guidance suggested). GP would be changed to PG (Parental Guidance suggested) in 1970.

Since then the ratings system has undergone two changes. The first was the creation of "PG-13 (indicating parents should think twice about taking children under the age of 13)" rating. In 1984 two PG-rated films were released that caused controversy among parents of young children as to their content. One was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which featured a somewhat graphic scene of human sacrifice. The other was Gremlins, which included a scene in which one of the title creatures meets his end in a microwave oven. The MPAA decided it might then be time to create a rating for content suitable for older children, but which might be objectionable for younger kids.

The second change was the replacement of "X" with the "NC-17 (No one under 17 admitted)" rating. The reason for this was that the "X" rating had become associated with pornography, making it impossible for any serious movie with such a rating to have any sort of audience. Exhibitors simply refused to show them. As to why the "X" rating became associated with pornogrpahy, that was because the MPAA did not trademark the rating as they did others. As a result any producer could simply place the "X" rating on his product, which pornographers naturally did. The creation of NC-17 (which is trademarked) gave the MPAA their own "adult" rating, but it still did not entirely solve their problems. While pornographers are not running around rating their own movies NC-17, many exhibitors simply refuse to show movies with the rating. As a result, most producers and directors try to avoid an "NC-17" rating as much as they once would have tried to avoid an "X" rating.

While the idea of a ratings system originated with the movie industry, movies are not the only medium subject to a ratings system. In the mid-Nineties, the American television industry once more found itself under attack for violent content. The relatively adult content of TV series like NYPD Blue (then a brand new show) and the violence of mini-series, such as Murder in the Heartland (a 1993 mini about mass murderer Charley Starkweather), even attracted the attention of lawmakers. There were two end results of this backlash against the TV industry. The first was the creation of the V-chip, a chip installed in television sets that permits parents to screen out objectionable content. The second was the creation of the television ratings system. The TV programme ratings consist of: TV-Y (programmes suitable for all children, even those under 6), TV-Y7 (programmes suitable for children over 7), TV-G (programmes suitable for all audiences, but not specifically made for children), TV-PG (Parental Guidance recommended, the programme may not be suitable for younger children), TV-14 (the programme is unsuitable for children under the age of 14), and TV-M (Mature audienes only, unsuitable for children under 17). In addition to these ratings, there are also content descriptors, indicating possibly objectionable content, such as langauge (L), graphic violence (V), and so on.

While ratings systems originated with the movies, they are not the only media which utilise them. The Entertainment Software Rating Board is a voluntary organisation which enforces ratings on video games. The system uses the ratings EC (Early Childhood), E (Everyone, suitable for everyone over the age of 10), T (Teen, suitable for anyone over the age of 13), M (Mature, suitable for anyone over the age of 17), and AO (Adults Only, the equivalent of an "X" rating--for those 18 and over only). The ESRB also uses a number of content descriptors, indicating everything from alcohol use to violence.

While many media have opted for ratings systems as a means of regulating content, others have sought different means. In 1954, when the comic book industry was under attack for violence and other objetionable content, the Comic Magazine Association of America (CMAA) did not even consider a ratings system (of course, even the American movie ratings did not exist at this time). Instead they created the Comics Code Authority, which determined what content was acceptable in comic books. The problem with the Comics Code was that it was very restrictive, so much so that it reduced most comic books to little more than children's literature (the classic EC horror comics were impossible under the new code). Over the years the Code was revised so that it was not quite so strict, but eventually publishers would seek other ways of dealing with objectioanble content. In the Eighties, DC Comics started labelling certain titles for Mature Audiences Only. In 2001 Marvel Comics went one step further and abandoned the Comics Code Authority entirely. They chose instead to institute their own ratings system.

While ratings systems now exist in many different media, there are some instances where they simply have not taken hold. I remember in the Eighties, when the PMRC (the Parents' Music Resource Centre) created a tempest in a teapot over the lyrics in rock music, there was some talk of a ratings system where music was concerned. In the end, no such ratings system emerged, although the music industry started placing "Parental Advisory" labels on certain titles.

While ratings systems have existed at least since 1913 (with the creation of the British film board) and are utilised by many media, they have always had their share of detractors. Indeed, the MPAA ratings system has been under attack by various individuals and groups for years. Perhaps the most common complaint is that the system seems somewhat arbitrary. In 2001 the produers of the independent film L.I.E. appealed that film's "NC-17" rating, feeling that the MPAA had arbirarily given the movie that rating. In 1999 star and co-producer of the film This is My Father, Aidan Quinn, complained about that film being rated R. The reasons given for the movie being so rated was brief profanity, a sex scene (tame by the standards of some films), and a hanging scene which was no more intense than Judas Iscariot's suicide in Jesus Christ Superstar (in 1973 that film was rated G). In fact, some independent producers have gone so far as to accuse the MPAA of being more lenient on films from the major studios than they are on independent films. In some ways I find it hard to argue against this. While This is My Father was rated R, the Austin Powers movies, Saving Silverman, and Eight Crazy Nights all recieved "PG-13" ratings. It seems to me that either the MPAA does go a bit lighter on films from the big studios or they simply don't find raunchy humour that objectionable.

One complaint about the MPAA's ratings is what is known as "ratings creep"--that is, the idea that what would have once been ratied R is now being rated PG-13. I am not so sure that this is actually happening. I can think of plenty of instances in which a film rated PG-13 years ago contained material that would warrant an "R" rating now. A perfect example of this is the first grown up movie I ever saw, Logan's Run. Released in the mid-Seventies, the film was rated PG, yet it contained both nudity and violence. Another example is National Lampoon's European Vacation. Released in 1985, the film actually featured nudity, yet it was only rated PG-13. Today, with but few exceptions, nudity in a movie warrants an "R" rating. Even if there is no "ratings creep," the fact that what is acceptable in a "PG-13" rating varies from year to year would create a bit of a problem. Consider the dilemma of a parent trying to determine what movies are acceptable for his or her children to watch? It is quite possible that they might let their kids watch National Lampoon's European Vacation, not realising that in 1985 nudity was accetpable in movies rated PG-13.

Yet another complaint levelled at the MPAA ratings system is that it tends to be stricter on langauge and sexual situations and more lenient with regards to violence. Crtic Roger Ebert has argued consistently for the creation of an "A" rating that would restrict teenagers from attending films with high amounts of graphic violence. There have also been questions as to how much profanity, violence, nudity, and so on. in a film warrants a "PG-13" or an "R" rating.

While ratings systems have their drawbacks and will probably always have their detractors, I do think that they are preferable to the alternatives. First, I do not think that there are very many of us who want children to be exposed to material for which they simply are not ready or simply are not psychologically equipped to deal with. For that reason, a laissez-faire approach, in which films, TV shows, video games, et. al. are released with no sort of parental advisory or any means of keeping children from accessing objectionable material is not favourable to me.

Second, if we wish to regulate the content of movies, TV shows, books, and so on, the only other alternative to a ratings system of which I can think would be some sort of code. Knowing my history of pop culture, however, it seems to me that this would not work. I do not think it can be denied that many great films were produced under Hollywood's Production Code from the Thirties into the Fifites, but the fact remains that the Code was so restrictive that many great films made since that time simply could not be released. As mild a film as The Graduate (from all the way back in 1967) might seem to us today, it could not have possibly been released in 1937 under the old Production Code. A more severe example may be the Comics Code instituted by the comic book industry in 1954. For many years thereafter, content in comic books were so restricted that they became little more than children's literature (as many thought them to be anyhow). Ratings systems permit content that may not be suitable for children, while at the same time insuring that, for the most part, such material does not reach children.

I then think it is a good idea for the wireless industry to create a ratings system for regulating content. I will admit that I do not like the idea of adult entertainment being accessible through wireless technology myself, but as a supporter of the First Admendment I cannot see banning it either. Since a "code" for the wireless industry could impede creative expression, it seems to me that a ratings system might be the best route to go.

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