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Department of Comstockery

Who’s afraid of unrated content?

When Netflix co-produced Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, an exposé of the mysterious and powerful Motion Picture Association of America, it was the perfect alliance. With its lack of a rating, the documentary was likely fated for a limited theatrical run since the National Association of Theatre Owners, the film industry’s largest coalition of exhibitors, doesn’t screen movies without MPAA ratings. (The film’s intentional goading of the MPAA probably didn’t help either.) And because retailers like Walmart don’t carry movies without MPAA ratings, the documentary had limited retail options as well. Netflix, then, with its million-strong online subscriber base and its ambition to expand past DVD rentals, offered Dick’s film a life it couldn’t have found elsewhere. The partnership worked for Netflix and Dick alike.

It’s hard to imagine that arrangement existing in 2020. Streaming has swollen into an industry-wide arms race, and Netflix is no longer just a distributor or platform. In the decade-plus since Dick lampooned the MPAA, Netflix has grown into a studio itself, breathlessly cranking out content and positioning itself as a premier Hollywood tastemaker. As if certifying this transformation, a year ago Netflix became a member of the MPAA. Twenty years after Netflix’s former in-house DVD recommender James Rocchi publicly chided the MPAA’s “insistence in holding films to an arbitrary, archaic standard of ratings set by a bunch of blue-haired librarians and Eisenhower-era housewives,” Netflix is now part of the establishment.

Streaming has swollen into an industry-wide arms race.

It’s an odd turn, not only because Netflix has historically postured as Hollywood’s great disruptor but because it has defined itself as the great recommender. Emphasizing customer service over competitor advantage, the company’s CEO, Reed Hastings, has described recommendations as a necessary tool for navigating their vast library. “I think that once you get beyond one thousand choices, a recommendation system becomes critical,” he’s said. “People have limited cognitive time they want to spend picking a movie.” This ability to reliably connect content to audiences is the cornerstone of the company’s mythos and the selling point of streaming giants more broadly. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and now Apple TV+ and Disney+, distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill video-on-demand services by insisting that they offer not just content you can choose but content made and chosen for you.

Some things remain unchanged, however. Despite streaming services’ talk of change and innovation, they still rely on MPAA ratings and the TV Parental Guidelines to shape and present their content. As Covid-19 has accelerated the long-brewing drift toward home viewing, the ratings have felt increasingly out of touch—as if there were still a need to block anyone under the age of seventeen from sneaking into a theater to see an R-rated movie without being accompanied by a parent or guardian. If this is truly the era of choice and recommendation, it’s perplexing that streamers remain in thrall to a ratings system that improves neither service. Why do technology companies that pride themselves on custom algorithms and intricate platforms maintain standards that have long been proven inconsistent, unclear, and largely unused? Why is Netflix, a storied Hollywood outsider, now allied with one of the industry’s most powerful and conservative institutions?

In the Realm of NC-17

Long before today’s familiar MPAA ratings system was in place, the earliest Hollywood films were subject to outright government censorship, most often by restrictive state laws. Film studios moved quickly to practice voluntary censorship, which allowed films and scripts to be modified before censorship boards could veto them. The forerunner to the MPAA was set up in 1922, with Will H. Hays as its director. By 1930, an elaborate set of guidelines that became known as the Hays Code was in place—a tedious production standard, full of goofy provisions banning topics as arbitrary as white slavery, banditry, and indecent dancing. As the Hays Code became unpopular among filmmakers and the United States Supreme Court weakened state censorship authority with decisions in 1952 and 1954, the code was modified by the MPAA. By 1966, it was scrapped entirely; Jack Valenti, a former aide to President Lyndon Johnson, became the president of the MPAA, and by 1968 a new self-regulated system was in place that rated movies G, M, R, or X. The next decades saw alterations to that system, eventually resulting in the setup in place today. Enforced by CARA, the Code and Rating Administration (changed to the Classification and Ratings Administration in 1977), the ratings are administered by a staff of arbiters hired to approximate “the way a majority of American parents from across the country would rate it,” according to an MPAA brochure.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated revealed CARA classifications to be mostly a commercial enterprise. In a series of recorded phone calls with Joan Graves, the still reigning chair of CARA, Kirby Dick was told his documentary would receive an NC-17 for graphic sexual content and was continually shot down when he asked for notes he could use to achieve another rating. Of course, he anticipated this hostility: earlier in the documentary, South Park co-creator Matt Stone noted that between his independent release Orgazmo and his Paramount release South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, he got specific feedback for the studio film. When Dick went before the MPAA appeals board in a closed-door session that he wasn’t allowed to record and where no board members disclosed their identities, the rating was upheld. In a fun reversal, though, he already knew their identities, and ends the film by revealing that the Appeals Board is composed of National Association of Theater Owners members, strongly suggesting that ratings are a business consideration above all.

Howard Fridkin, a former rater who now advises filmmakers how to get their preferred ratings (and who was revealed in This Film Is Not Yet Rated to not be a parent himself), describes ratings as “merely a traffic sign, just alerting you what’s up ahead and how fast you should go.” In a phone interview, he described ratings as both a service for parents and an economic boost for studios. Acknowledging the ease of skirting ratings on the ground, he said, “At the multiplexes it’s so easy to bounce from one theater into the next. You hardly have ushers policing the theater. So a lot of kids jump from a [PG]13 and go see an R picture. So it has nothing to do with protecting the kids from seeing content that they shouldn’t. It’s just the box office. The R will lose money at the box office because the wider range of audience appeal is of course the [PG]13. Parents are very sensitive, especially nowadays with everything that’s going on with sexual content. Violence, they don’t seem to be that up in arms about.”

Kevin Sandler, a historian of the film industry, casts the relationship between commerce and ratings even more starkly. Describing the MPAA before and after CARA in his history of the rating system, The Naked Truth, he writes, “The linchpin of self-regulation, then and now, has always lain with the collusive support of the major distributors and exhibitors.”

Reached by phone, he elaborated, detailing how unrated films are diminished in the marketplace. “There’s various exhibition houses that won’t screen movies without a rating. Most of them won’t,” he told me. “Several of them, particularly Southern movie chains, won’t show things that have an NC-17. So they have marketing challenges if it’s unrated. If it’s going to be unrated . . . you can’t advertise. Most people aren’t advertising in those traditional sites that always had problems: the newspapers, the television, and the magazine spots. You just do it through social media, so that challenge has kind of been overcome. Still, the problem in terms of movie houses is that it’s still controlled by a handful of major chains.”

Jank Rankers

The pandemic has allowed us to see Sandler’s charges of collusion in a new light. Throughout the crisis, the film industry has clung steadfast to theaters as the premier space for viewing movies despite the proliferation of rental and streaming services. From physical theaters coming up with “virtual cinemas” that charge top dollar for remote access to their offerings, to chains like AMC and Regal suing to reopen, there’s been a brutish insistence that movies require theaters. This summer’s campaign for the potential box-office smash Tenet to be released in theaters has been particularly morbid. “To be safer and to be more profitable, we’re going to open our movie theaters right up before Tenet,” AMC CEO Adam Aron promised during a June earnings call. “Don’t worry about seat capacity limitations, we will double or triple or quadruple the number of auditoriums that we allocated to showing Tenet.”

Tenet’s director Christopher Nolan took a rosier but no less self-serving approach to centering theaters. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, he described moviegoing in quasi-humanitarian terms: “Hardest hit right now are workers from businesses such as movies theaters, whose entire appeal is based on humanity’s greatest instinct—and the one now turned against us, which makes this situation so damned hard: the desire to be together. Maybe, like me, you thought you were going to the movies for surround sound, or Goobers, or soda and popcorn, or movie stars. But we weren’t. We were there for each other.” Theaters are so important for recouping the inflated cost of modern filmmaking that millionaires pose as friends of the people.

Television has long challenged the view that theaters are the natural home of movies, but the television ratings system also helps maintain collusive power. Like the system that evolved for Hollywood, TV’s rating game is voluntary and self-regulated. Created by the television industry at the behest of the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress in 1996, the TV Parental Guidelines are enforced by television networks, which rate their own content. The FCC, which only regulates broadcast networks, has no authority over these guidelines, meaning that the bulk of content on cable, streaming, and premium networks is rated by the networks themselves.

What’s allowed and what’s banned is as confusing for creators as it is for viewers. Aaron Augenblick, founder of Augenblick Studios, the animators behind shows like Superjail!, Ugly Americans, and The Jellies!, describes highly variable experiences with ratings. “All networks are sort of sensitive to different things and it depends on what the airtime is for the episodes,” he told me.

“If you’re talking about kid shows, you can be bizarre and surreal, and in some cases violent, but you can never touch anything sexual or with relationships or anything like that. Whereas certain networks have their own taboos,” he continued. “When I worked for MTV, they had a whole thing about fire, that you couldn’t do anything in your animation that was related to fire because I guess a couple of kids had watched Beavis and Butthead in an episode where they were lighting fires, and they lit their house on fire, so there was a whole standard about not doing anything related to fire or people setting fire.”

Those kinds of specific taboos would emerge during production but were never written down. “I’ve always wanted to see some sort of actual guidebook on what is and what’s not permissible and I’ve never seen one. It’s all fairly arbitrary and decided by lawyers,” Augenblick explained. “I’ve never gotten some sort of book from anyone that said these are the things you can’t do, these are the things you can’t say, these are the things you can’t show. I’ve never seen that. I just get told when we do it wrong.”

Augenblick ultimately finds his exchanges with network attorneys helpful because it fosters creative solutions (and minimizes lawsuits), but he acknowledges inconsistencies between shows. “The success of a show allows more permission for standards and practices,” he explained. “When you’re a goliath like South Park you’re gonna get to do a lot more than smaller shows, like when we did Ugly Americans.”

What’s allowed and what’s banned is as confusing for creators as it is for viewers.

That perfunctory attitude toward content ratings extends to production. Krystle Drew, a showrunner’s assistant for an unannounced Apple TV+ series, described ratings as a secondary concern. “Our showrunners try to make sure our writers don’t already inhibit themselves or lessen things because we’re afraid of what might happen down the line. We just write what we wanna write and if they need to pull us in later, they will,” she told me by phone. She could not recall the writer’s room ever discussing the show’s rating. Vikram Gandhi, director of Netflix original series Trigger Warning with Killer Mike, didn’t even know the rating of his show. “Is there a rating on Trigger Warning?” he asked during a phone interview. I laughed. The rating of his other Netflix production, the Barack Obama biopic Barry, was also unknown to him. Both are rated TV-MA. It’s unclear why either has a rating, especially a television rating.

This is the janky rating system that streaming services have inherited and continue to enforce. It’s mostly decorative, and creators don’t seem limited by it. But that makes its persistence even more peculiar. Consider the conventions of broadcast (NBC, CBS), cable (USA, FX), and premium networks (HBO, Showtime) of prefacing their shows with disclaimers and flashing the ratings at the start of shows and when returning from commercial breaks. As Hulu, Amazon, and other streamers have continued this tradition, I’ve often wondered: What does that disclaimer prohibit? What does it tell the presumed parent or babysitter or teacher about what will follow? There was once a time when potentially mature content would air at night in “safe harbors,” which were designated airtimes planned for after children’s bedtimes. But given the ubiquity of on-demand content, airtime is any time. It’s hard to fathom these feeble disclosures actually preventing anything.

For Children’s Eyes Only

When the television industry proposed to regulate itself, it created the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board to help iron out disagreements between shows and networks. Composed of various broadcast networks, as well as powerful lobbies like the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Internet and Television Association (NCTA), along with organizations concerned with children’s well-being, like the National PTA and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Monitoring Board arbitrates ratings disputes among its members. In a written email response, the board explained that at annual meetings, it discusses and adjudicates contested ratings, reviews research, and “facilitates regular calls among industry standards and practices executives to discuss pending and emerging issues in order to promote ratings consistency across companies.” The board has no formal ties with any government body.

It’s not unusual for creative industries to regulate their own products. The Entertainment Software Rating Board rates video games, the Recording Industry Association of America stamps albums with parental advisory stickers, book publishers employ sensitivity readers, and comic books were once subject to the Comic Code Authority. Arguments differ among industries, but the original proposition for television to be self-regulated was because of the sheer quantity of content. In his letter to the FCC proposing what would become the TV Parental Guidelines, MPAA president Jack Valenti (and later the first chairman of the Monitoring Board) described self-regulation as practical. “With two thousand hours of programming to be reviewed each day,” he wrote, “television networks, producers and distributors will apply guidelines to their shows. Logistically, it is the only rational way to deal with such a vast volume of programming.”

Despite the growth of the internet and the proliferation of points of access—phones, tablets, game consoles, streaming devices—the Monitoring Board hews to a single method of enforcement: the V-chip. When the FCC recently inquired about the accuracy of the TV Parental Guidelines and the operations of the Monitoring Board in a public notice, in response the NAB, NCTA, and MPAA jointly extolled the virtues of the V-chip, the blocking device installed in televisions, cable boxes, and other devices to enforce the ratings. “Consumers can block shows with certain ratings by following an easy-to-use on-screen menu of options available on their V-chip-equipped TV sets or parental control systems offered by cable and satellite systems,” the group replied.

The V-chip has been ascribed dubious power since its introduction, by industry and government alike. When former president Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, he described the chip with lofty aplomb. “If every parent uses this chip wisely it can become a powerful voice against teen violence, teen pregnancy, teen drug use, and for both learning and entertainment,” he predicted. In a 1997 letter to the FCC, Jack Valenti described the chip and the ratings as a powerful tag team. “When coupled with the ‘V-chip,’” he wrote, “the TV Parental Guidelines will allow parents flexible options to ensure that their children see only the programs that they deem suitable for them.”

What do these companies have to gain from adopting a contested ratings system that is unpopular, unenforceable, and unbinding?

By the mid 2000s, years into television networks voluntarily rating their shows, and television manufacturers voluntarily installing V-chips in their products, the ratings and the chip were under regular scrutiny. Valenti and other members of the Monitoring Board frequently appeared before Congress to defend both, countering studies that found the technology and the guidelines unused and unclear to most parents by reminding Congress that the current system is precisely what Congress requested. “Beyond issuing this report, the Commission’s authority to act is highly circumscribed,” the organization recently wrote to the FCC. “Any attempt to assert greater governmental involvement in rating television programming would exceed statutory boundaries and would necessarily raise significant First Amendment questions.”

That holding pattern has persisted for decades even as new players have entered the marketplace. It’s a strange, circular dance. The government solicited a rating system to help parents. The industry introduced ratings to avoid government censorship. The government claims parents find the ratings unhelpful. The industry counters that it has done what the government asked. Meanwhile, any human with access to a smartphone and working WiFi is one URL away from virtually anything. This is what makes it so odd that these ratings appear on the original content of platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and YouTube, none of which are members of the Monitoring Board. What do these companies have to gain from adopting a contested ratings system that is unpopular, unenforceable, and nonbinding?

Poison Apple TV+

Streaming further muddles this confusing landscape—unless you think of ratings as branding. By submitting their films to CARA or adopting the TV Parental Guidelines for their original programming, streaming platforms offer content that lives outside the walled gardens of subscriptions and internet connections—and inside the gilded fortresses of the MPAA and the Monitoring Board. To embrace ratings is to travel further, to reach more viewers. For instance, Netflix’s surreal comedy BoJack Horseman made its way to Comedy Central, becoming the first streaming show to be syndicated on cable; YouTube Premium’s Karate Kid spin-off Cobra Kai is now on DVD despite once tweeting allegiance to the web; Amazon Studios scheduled Manchester by the Sea to have a standard theatrical run before streaming it. It won two Oscars.

It’s a strange state of affairs, ultimately. To preserve their longstanding dominance of the cultural marketplace, networks, studios, and now streaming platforms stoke the anxieties of parents, then assuage them with a palliative smokescreen of ratings that can’t be consistently enforced and haven’t ever been honestly applied to the intricacies of the entertainment marketplace. Instead of a tool for helping parents and guardians and plain old curious viewers navigate the cosmos of content, we get a canny mix of feel-good optics and self-serving largesse that inflates viewer choice and obscures network power. The extent of that power has long been outlined by the First Amendment, but the show goes on.

I originally wanted to know why MPAA ratings appear on Netflix, and for a while “money” was a sufficient answer. But the question I’ve kept returning to is why so much effort? Despite being backed by courts and law firms and entrenched economies of scale, the entertainment industry continues to treat concerned parents and incensed members of Congress as an existential threat. Given that no network or studio is meaningfully accountable to any viewer, the baroque defense they’ve mounted—monitoring boards and lobbyists, prohibitive chips and lettered codexes, grave disclaimers and taxonomic descriptions—can’t just be written off as another tale of corporate America absurdia.

Beneath the bizarre, elaborate shell game of the ratings system is a thorough disinterest in viewer input and choice. While no one has been harmed by lawyers and raters making arbitrary decisions about fires and swear words, it feels pertinent to evaluate the one-sided relationship between service provider and consumer not just because the customer is always right but because these kinds of tacit ripoffs are increasingly integral to our political and cultural landscape. Alongside the scourge of robocalls, recurring data breaches, crappy health care, and fracking-induced sinkholes, the farce of ratings systems doesn’t feel benign. As more industries large and small draft self-serving standards in the absence of government oversight, the term agreements of tomorrow will be modeled after the sham boards and associations of today. It’s all a trifle until it isn’t.