Who's got the TV control?

People keep asking me if there is any point having censors in the age of the Internet and satellite TV
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ISN'T THE work of the British Board of Film Classification soon going to be a waste of time as satellite TV starts to beam down from the skies a profusion of objectionable material and, like the Internet, remains unregulated? This question is often put to me as President of the Board. It came up repeatedly in a series of public meetings we held all over the country recently, and Ann Widdecombe MP raised the same point when I saw her the other day.

At present, all mainstream films (as opposed to fringe) follow roughly the same route through the marketplace. They start off for a period of months in the cinema alone. Then films are released into the video market, where they make the bulk of their revenues. After that, they go to pay- TV and finally they end up on ordinary television where you watch them for free. In the cinema and in the video market, films are regulated by the BBFC; then the Broadcasting Standards Commission takes over our work.

People fear that the arrival of digital TV, with its multiplicity of channels and facility for supplying films straight to subscribers' television sets whenever demanded, will have adverse consequences from the point of view of regulation. And digital TV is coming quickly; the BBC, for instance, commenced transmitting its first terrestrial services last week, timed to coincide with the opening matches of the World Cup.

It is argued that the sheer convenience of the digital system will both substantially reduce the attraction of going to the cinema and, in time, kill off the video retailers. Moreover, satellite dishes will be able to capture transmissions from broadcasting stations which lie outside the reach of our national laws. As a result of such developments, the work of the regulators will be set at naught.

All this could well come to pass, but I think if it does, it will happen slowly. The cinema is in rude health. Admissions have been rising for a number of years. While audiences remain predominantly in their late teens and twenties, it will be interesting to see whether older age groups get caught up in the trend.

The higher attendance is partly explained by an improvement in the quality of cinemas themselves. Many have been refurbished and the multiplex system has increased the variety of what is available at any one time. There may be more than 20 different films from which customers can choose during the course of a single week, including so-called art house movies. And there are always good films to see, as anybody who goes regularly will attest. Last Friday, I went to our local cinema and saw Robert Duvall's excellent film, The Apostle. Before that I saw Pedro Almodvar's Live Flesh. Nowadays, there always seem to be films about of such high quality.

It has also become clear that people continue to value collective experiences. For every nerd staring intently at a computer screen, or couch potato lounging in front of a television, there are as many others who relish human contact at sports grounds, clubs, pubs, shopping centres, even occasionally at public meetings and on marches, and certainly at the cinema.

The long-term outlook for video retailers is less good. Broadcasters are now experimenting with "near-video-on-demand", which means that, using a number of digital channels simultaneously, the same film could be started at, say, 15-minute intervals so that subscribers could be much more flexible about when they watch. No need to dash home for something that begins at 7.30pm for, under this system, you would also be able to start viewing at 7.45 pm, or at 8 pm or at 8.15 pm, and so on. And before long, broadcasting companies will hold large electronic libraries of films which subscribers will be able to call on to their television sets when they please.

Nonetheless, the major film distributors will tread carefully. The video retail market is a profitable outlet which has been built up steadily since the 1970s. It has become a golden goose which the distributors won't rush to kill off quickly. But in the fullness of time, depending upon the terms they are offered, they may begin to bypass video outlets in favour of pay-TV.

Even so, regulation would not thereby be weakened. Broadcasters take notice of BBFC classifications and have their own codes of practice to observe. These govern, for instance, whether something is shown before or after the 9pm watershed. Here, I must emphasise, I am referring to mainstream material that has begun life in the cinema and has therefore already been classified.

However, a great volume of work available in the video market has arrived there without first being shown in the cinema; it goes straight to video where it is classified under the Video Recordings Act. Some of it lacks the production values necessary for the cinema; some of it is experimental and is the means by which young film makers get going; some of it is foreign- language imports for ethnic communities; some of it is soft porn; some of it caters for minority sexual tastes. Little of it would ever end up on ordinary television because there, it would appear too tacky, or inappropriate, or unlikely to sit well with TV advertising. But in future, quite a lot of it might be made specifically for pay-TV and miss out what would then be a declining video market.

This material would pose two problems for regulation. Having neither been shown in the cinema, nor been made available in the video market, it would have escaped classification by the BBFC. I say classification, for placing films in their appropriate age category makes up the bulk of the Board's work; in only some 6 per cent of cases is there also censorship, which is asking for cuts in order to reach the desired age classification.

Yet even the absence of this process would not be a difficult problem to handle to the extent that broadcasters of pay-TV channels were subject to our national regulations. A future government could require that classification was undertaken in line with the standards laid down in the Video Recordings Act as a condition of pay-TV broadcasters' licences.

Yet this does leave a nightmare scenario - unregulated broadcasters, operating outside our national laws, offering pay-TV facilities for unclassified material that may be harmful to children. Such films can, for instance, frighten them, subject them to inappropriate sexual material, glamourise the taking of hard drugs or show them the techniques of using them.

Of course, a credit card transaction would be required to access the material. And this would be a bit of a barrier, unlike the present case, where an adult brings into his or her family, say, an 18-rated video which children may get to see. Nonetheless, the prospect is troubling.

The possibility is very real that unregulated pay-TV would begin to create a new black-market in unclassified material. As the video market declined, and with it one might suppose the substantial black-market in unclassified videos that currently exists, so off-shore pay-TV would fill the gap. In this respect, my questioners are correct to be fearful.