It is difficult to fight Hollywood's love of violence

'I remain unpersuaded that the Americans will reduce the amount of violence shown on screen'
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The Independent Online

A Government body in the United States accuses the film industry of directing violent entertainment at youngsters; Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for the White House, gives Hollywood six months to clean up its act; the US Senate prepares to hold hearings on the issue next month. But I remain unpersuaded that the Americans will reduce the amount of violence on screen.

A Government body in the United States accuses the film industry of directing violent entertainment at youngsters; Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for the White House, gives Hollywood six months to clean up its act; the US Senate prepares to hold hearings on the issue next month. But I remain unpersuaded that the Americans will reduce the amount of violence on screen.

So strong is the constitutional protection of free expression in America that government regulation of the content of films, computer games and so on is prohibited. That is not going to change. Self-regulation has to do the whole job.

Under the American system, films are classified in a less elaborate manner than in the United Kingdom. The key points in the scale are the "PG13" label, which means that children below 13 must be accompanied by an adult, and the "R" rating, which similarly applies to kids below 17. Note that there is no outright prohibition. In this country, a 17-year-old could turn up to the cinema with his entire adult family in tow and still not be admitted to an "18" movie.

Mild though it may be, however, the American system fails to meet the standards it has set for itself. The Federal Trade Commission has found that just under half the movie theatres it surveyed this summer admitted children aged 13 to 16 to R-rated films even when not accompanied by an adult. Again I compare this with the UK, where cinema staff make a pretty good job of observing age categories.

In turn, weak supervision in American cinemas is cynically exploited by Hollywood. It deliberately targets advertisements for R-rated movies at children under the age of 17. The Federal Trade Commission asked itself two questions: do the entertainment industries promote products they themselves acknowledge warrant parental caution in venues where children make up a substantial percentage of the audience? and are these advertisements intended to attract children and teenagers?

The report found that the answers are "plainly 'yes'". Again, at the risk of appearing superior, I contrast this with the situation here. So far as advertising within the cinema is concerned, exhibitors are not allowed to show trailers for, say, 18-rated movies to an audience which is about to watch a 15-rated film.

But in the United States the FTC discovered evidence of marketing and media plans that deliberately aimed at children under 17 and that promoted and advertised products in media outlets likely to reach youngsters. As the chairman of the FTC, Robert Pitofsky, said: "Companies in the entertainment industry routinely undercut their own rating restrictions by marketing violent films, records and video games to young audiences. These industries can and should do better."

That is the question. Will the US entertainment industry do better? To get at the answer it is worth reminding ourselves that it isn't virtue that keeps British cinemas well regulated, but a strict system of local-authority control.

For 90 years, cinemas have only been able to operate if they have obtained a licence from the local town hall. It is an invariable condition of the licence that the cinema owner undertakes to regulate entry according to the ratings of the British Board of Film Classification. If such a system isn't already in place, given legitimacy by long usage as in Britain, then it is very difficult suddenly to create an arrangement of similar robustness. Even if there were a will to act, at least at the level of the trade associations of the entertainment industries in the United States, it would be hard to ensure compliance. Tightening up the arrangements would reduce the revenue of both film-makers and exhibitors and would on that account be strongly resisted.

That is why I am doubtful that the FTC report and accompanying political furore will make much difference in practice. In any case, public opinion is everywhere the ultimate regulator of what appears on our screens. Where countries differ is in the degree to which they interpose voluntary or statutory bodies whose task it is to codify the public's views and secure compliance. In the UK we have strong arrangements.

The United States has weak arrangements, and I doubt whether there is a political will to strengthen them. The whole weight of US constitutional practice is resistant to such change. Moreover, Americans are more used to violence in their daily lives than are the British. And despite its many virtues, the American political system is not very good at regulating powerful industries that pay their dues to the two main political parties, as Hollywood has always been careful to do.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

The author is president of the British Board of Film Classification

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