BBFC’s Role In An Online World

Friday, January 24 2014
BBFC’s Role In An Online World

During the brouhaha that followed the unveiling of the BBFC’s classification guidelines, some of the more important elements of the findings – and the research efforts that went in to them – went almost unnoticed.

For as the Daily Mail went into overdrive about the supposed loosening of some of BBFC’s ratings, frothing about a “free-for-all”, key elements of the painstaking research were ignored.

For among its clear findings were key elements such as the fact that parents are becoming increasingly concerned about online content, what’s available and what their kids are watching.

“During [the] recent Guidelines consultation, which began in December 2012 and carried on throughout most of 2013, parents said they are particularly concerned about the sexualisation of girls, music videos and the ease of accessibility of online pornography,” says the BBFC’s chief digital officer Mark` Dawson.

“They also flagged risks to vulnerable adolescents including self-harm, suicide, drug misuse, including what some describe as the ‘normalisation’ in films and videos of behaviours which they consider inappropriate for their children.”

It’s the first time that the Guidelines, updated roughly every four years, have been worked up in the video on demand and digital era, and it’s clear that respondents believe that classification is, if anything, more important online than in a physical world.

As Dawson notes: “We apply the same standards to digital content as we do for physical content, however what was clear during the Guidelines consultation, is that online content is of a higher concern for parents than content on DVD/Blu-ray or at the cinema.”

And the BBFC is, of course, ideally placed and still commands trust from parents. “We began talking about how digital changes the classification process back in 2007, when we were first approached by the home entertainment industry about applying BBFC classifications to their content online,” explains Dawson. “It has become very clear that the British public wants to see BBFC age ratings online, just as they would see them when buying a DVD/Blu-ray. It has also underlined their trust in the system.

“We carried out some research to find out if the public want BBFC age ratings for online content back in 2011. It showed that 85% consider it important to have consistent BBFC classifications for video-on-demand content, with this figure rising to 90 per cent among parents of children under 16.”

Of course there’s no legal obligation for online rating, nor is there any likelihood of it being introduced, certainly not as far as the organisation is concerned. Says Dawson: “The legislative position hasn’t changed and we’re not lobbying for a role in regulating the Internet. The voluntary system for classifying online content is working well and with wider take up of parental controls and an increase in the number of platforms using BBFC age ratings, we expect to continue to see the voluntary system grow and become even more efficient as a tool parents can use to protect their children from unsuitable content.”

The fact that there’s no online legislation has enabled the BBFC to tailor its service and offer something more financially workable for online content. As Dawson explains: “There’s no legal requirement for classification in the digital world, which means we can offer digital content providers a lower cost service, which we call Watch&Rate. The Video Recordings Act requires us to undertake additional tasks during the classification process, archive all of the content that we see and liaise with law enforcement officials; accordingly, we are able to make Watch&Rate available at a reduced price.”

The BBFC has also looked at classification with a view beyond the BBFC borders too. What about the international aspect? “We haven’t seen much impact since digital services often have regional variations and the platforms are happy to use BBFC age ratings for UK customers only,” notes Dawson. “What an international perspective has done is encourage us to test an international tool for User Generated Content, which allows the crowd to age rate videos on digital video hosting platforms and for the rating to be in line with the standards in whatever country they happen to be in.”

Its online work has brought results for the BBFC. As Dawson states: “We work with over 20 vod platforms, including Netflix, iTunes, Blinkbox, Kaleidescape, Sainsbury’s Entertainment and Ultraviolet. We also provide age ratings for in-flight entertainment for airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

As well as providing age ratings for content that’s also available on physical formats, the BBFC is increasingly providing that service for exclusive content. “For example, Netflix submits all its original premium content for BBFC classification. Platforms can use BBFC age ratings to calibrate parental controls and also be confident that the content that they are carrying has been subject to the same legal tests and standards as content distributed at the cinema and on DVD/Blu-ray.”

All this has helped the volume of content submitted for classification at the BBFC rocket. “We saw a rise of 204 per cent in the volume of video-on-demand content submitted in 2013 compared to 2012 and saw 34 new companies begin submitting video-on-demand content for classification in 2013. This, coupled with the major platforms using BBFC age ratings, reflects the value attributed by these platforms to being able to use recognised and trusted BBFC classifications online.”

Of course, not everyone online uses the BBFC, but, to conclude, what would the BBFC’s chief digital officer say to online operators yet to sign up? “It’s not a legal requirement to use BBFC age ratings online, but what we would say is that the public tell us they trust BBFC age ratings and want to see them on platforms. We can also offer digital platforms the same support for customer feedback about the classification of a piece of content, just as we do for DVD/Blu-ray and theatrical customers.”

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