Cracking the code for 'Created in China'

Updated: 2012-01-10 11:19

By Harvey Dzodin (China Daily)

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The long-simmering debate in China about film ratings has come to the boil again with the release of Zhang Yimou's graphically violent Flowers of War. I think the time is ripe to think about an advisory code with Chinese characteristics for entertainment programs and games, not only for films but also for TV and the Internet as well.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has recently given much publicized guidance to TV channels and now is the right time for them to establish a fully fledged advisory code for parents and audience members. China is in the enviable position of being able to learn from the experience of advisory codes in the United States and elsewhere in this regard.

All too often Chinese regulators adopt a blanket ban rather than recognizing that audiences are composed of a variety of ages and therefore that the same content may be suitable for some but inappropriate for others. This lowest common denominator approach deprives the rest of the audience of appropriate content and at the same time stifles creativity and interesting content. As the government and the creative community want to move from "Made in China" to "Created in China", maintaining the current rules will do nothing to advance this goal.

This approach can be seen in the new draft law on promoting the Chinese film industry. Rather than restricting dramatic elements that are considered unsuitable for younger viewers from this specific audience age group, the proposed law totally bans these elements outright - for everyone.

The government has a legitimate interest in completely banning certain content, such as that which promotes violence or promotes hatred, but beyond these there are various gradations. Currently, however, policymakers have to choose between all or nothing.

Interestingly, the ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which dates from 1968, was in reaction to a body of self-regulatory guidelines called the Hays Code established in 1922 that had many similarities to the current SARFT regulations. For example, the Hays Code only permitted "correct standards of life". Depictions of "lustful kissing" or "suggestive dancing" were not allowed. Entire films would be permitted or rejected based on these quaint standards.

Current MPAA ratings are merely advisory. They exist to inform parents about film content. They range from G ("contains nothing that would offend parents for viewing by their children") to NC-17 ("Patently adult. Children are not admitted."). One of the reasons that the ratings work is that cinema owners generally enforce them.

Not only does the MPAA provide a rating for a film but they also provide descriptions that amplify the rationale for the decision. In the case of Flowers of War, the film received an R rating (Restricted. Children under 17 require an accompanying parent or adult guardian) with the specific rationale that the film contains "strong violence, including a sexual assault, disturbing images, and brief strong language".

In TV, there is a similar but more detailed self-regulatory rating system. In addition, with the so-called "V chip" technology, parents can control which programs, based on their ratings, to block or allow. For video games, an industry group assigns age and content ratings which are displayed on all computer and video games, as well as enforcing advertising and marketing guidelines.

Parents appear to like the ratings and to find them useful. In a national survey of parents with young children conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a group sometimes at odds with the media industry, 84 percent said that they used the MPAA ratings and 93 percent of these found them "very useful" or "somewhat useful". This is consistent with the MPAA's own data.

In addition to exploring the MPAA rating system model, it is my firm opinion that China and the MPAA can and should develop meaningful partnerships on many levels. Despite some negative feelings from the MPAA and its member studios about China's strict limit on imported films, as well as intellectual property rights concerns, the MPAA and its media- and government-saavy new chief, former senator Christopher Dodd, have sought to build partnerships with the Chinese side. Working on a new model within China for rating films would help build confidence and cooperation, especially now that China is increasingly a player in the international film market. Moreover, such cooperation would help combat intellectual property rights infringements.

The author is a senior advisor to Tsinghua University and former director and vice-president of ABC Television in New York.