Changing with the times

14 June 2024

BBFC CEO David Austin OBE web

David Austin OBE, chief executive of the British Board of Film Classification, explains how the BBFC engages with key stakeholders to keep its ratings relevant

Our core mission at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is to help audiences choose what’s right for them. We primarily do this by providing age ratings and content advice to films, series, and other content released in cinemas, on physical media such as DVD or Blu-ray, and on online streaming platforms.

All of our age rating decisions are based on a published set of standards known as our Classification Guidelines. These are built on expert advice, the BBFC’s many years of content classification experience, and widespread public consultations.

Every four to five years, we reach out to people from all over the UK to understand what they want and expect from us. In turn, we update our guidelines to ensure we best reflect the views of people in the UK, and this is why we remain so trusted.

In March, we published the results of our latest and biggest guidelines review to date. With the help of a research agency, We Are Family, which specialises in engaging families and young people, 12,000 people from across the UK contributed to this research through a range of innovative methods.

Through focus groups, cinema screenings, an online community, teen film-viewing parties and an extensive online survey, we tested 33 feature films, 31 trailers, 152 clips and a television episode, depicting a range of classification issues across the age rating categories. We were particularly interested in cases in which content was on the borderline between two categories, such as 15 and 18, and whether people would give it the higher or lower rating and why.

Our research provides insight into which subject areas are of most concern to audiences, and in 2024, sexual violence remains at the top of the list, as it did in 2019, when we last conducted this research. Suicide and self-harm, however, has risen from the 2019 results to become the second biggest area of concern, although there is widespread support for how the BBFC is classifying content with these challenging subjects.

Violence and sex were also highly ranked on the list, which corroborates the responses to the stimulus material used. Participants regularly erred on the side of caution for borderline scenes of violence, preferring a higher rating for content they deemed intense, impactful, tonally dark or notably bloody, sadistic or distressing. We are therefore adopting a slightly more restrictive position on borderline scenes of violence when these factors are present.

Similarly, on the 12A and 15 borderline people were concerned by scenes of sex. Our guidelines have been updated to reflect a slightly more cautious approach to classifying sex scenes if they are of longer duration, contain sexual detail or nudity, or the sex appears rough or aggressive.

At PG, language was also felt to be an issue. The concern among participants, especially parents, was that certain terms could be normalised among children who may then repeat them and cause offence. We are therefore adopting a stricter position on language, with certain words previously passed at PG now requiring a 12A.

There was relaxation in other areas. People were less concerned by certain depictions of cannabis misuse at 12A, such as incidental depictions, but those which contain instructional detail or appear to promote cannabis misuse, or content featuring frequent scenes of cannabis misuse, are still likely to result in a 15.

People were also more nuanced in their response to material featuring solvent misuse. Our current policy is notably restrictive, but following these findings we sought expert advice and received support for a careful relaxation of this policy, in line with our approach to classifying drugs.

Lastly, the findings also showed that BBFC age ratings remain valued and trusted by UK audiences. 97% of respondents see value in content being age-rated, with 99% recognising at least one of our age-rating symbols and 78% recognising them all. With this recognition also comes trust: 85% of respondents said they trust BBFC age ratings when making viewing decisions all or most of the time.

We are proud of the trust people have in our work and are extremely grateful to everyone who took part in this research. While the changes to our guidelines are relatively minimal, they represent the subtle shifts in societal attitudes, which ensures our classification decisions continue to reflect the expectations of UK audiences.

The latest BBFC Classification Guidelines came into effect on 1 May 2024. The full research report and Classification Guidelines documents are available online here.

Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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