23 December 2013

Good Grief, Charlie Brown! It's Different Community Standards

This Christmas, Charlie Brown helped me learn how community standards can be different in two different communities. This experience helps illustrate why I believe Internet Border enforcement will continue to increase - even between "friendly" countries with similar community standards.

Good Grief! Charlie Brown Rated PG

My wife and I recently ordered some DVDs to watch during the holiday break. When they arrived, we were surprised by the rating given to one of them. A DVD collection of six "Peanuts" animated children's specials from the 1960s arrived - rated PG by the British!

"How is this possible?", we wondered. The Peanuts animated television specials (aka Charlie Brown and Snoopy) were the quintessential "family viewing" television of our youth. Many were classics repeated every year on a cycle linked to major holidays, especially "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965). These almost served as the definition of "rated-G" entertainment in the USA.

DVD Cover


Highlight British PG Rating

A close examination of the disks reveals that the Irish have blessed this same collection with a "G-rating". So the Irish say rated-G while the British say rated-PG. (I wasn't expecting that.)

Where did the mysterious British PG rating come from? The BBFC claims that this collection of six short films "Contains potentially dangerous behaviour which could be copied". The certificates on individual disks tell me that this (alleged) dangerous behaviour is not in our beloved Christmas special (on disc 1), but is instead somewhere in the three episodes contained on disc 2.

Disc 2 - Highlight British PG and Irish G ratings

Eventually I will sit down and watch "dangerous" disc 2. Until then, I am left to marvel at the unexpected PG rating.

Rudolf the Under-Rated Red-Nosed Reindeer

In the meantime, my wife believes that the British have gotten this seriously wrong. She points to another DVD we ordered at the same time, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", which received a both a British "U" and Irish "G" rating (roughly the same thing).

Rudolf the Very Scary Rated-G DVD
(Spoiler Alert: If you are one of the seven people in North America who can read and have not yet seen this show, then do not read the next paragraph if you want to be surprised.)

Having watched endless re-runs of this American holiday television classic as a child, my wife claims to have been traumatised by many elements in the show. There is, of course, the very scary abominable snow creature. There is also the emotionally crippling plight of the abandoned misfit toys. And with the benefit of adult hindsight, consider the blatant unlicensed practice of dentistry that resolves the danger to the protagonist. Although we are treated to a happy ending that includes the now-tame monster, how is this large carnivorous (and probably endangered) beast expected to survive on a soft diet of gruel and vegetable soup?

Dangerous behaviour, indeed. My wife claims that this television classic should now be rated at least "PG". Possibly higher. But the British and Irish authorities both disagree with her.

Community standards depend on your community

Applying British community standards, one group of officials reached the conclusion that there was something "dangerous" about Charlie Brown. Dangerous enough to warrant a "PG" telling parents to exercise caution before allowing a child to watch. This is clearly not agreed by officials in the US or Ireland, who are more than happy to put an unattended 6-year-old in front of the show.

Equally clearly, community standards in all three countries seem to disagree with my wife about Rudolf. (Sorry, Sweetheart.)

Such differences are not unusual. A quick review of our home DVD collection demonstrates that officials applying Irish community standards warn that both Heathers and the Lost Boys should not be watched by anyone under the age of 18. The British believe that 15 is old enough. (I haven't yet asked my wife her opinion on these.)

Each of these certificate decisions is intended to reflect community standards - the standards of the community from which they are issued. Although one could argue that some decisions have been made incorrectly (as we do), it is nonetheless up to each community to deal with this issue on its own.

Divergence of community standards prompts border enforcement

I think I owe it to Charlie Brown and Rudolf to keep the discussion here G-rated (or at least PG-rated). So I am not writing today about other community standards where divergence between two communities is extreme, and the legal penalties for violating those standards is severe. I will leave that for another day.

Our communities remain predominantly defined and organised geographically. They remain primarily delineated by state borders. So long as that remains true, the pressure to reflect and enforce community standards will create pressure to enforce geographic borders on the Internet.

All of us here in London, me, my wife, Charlie Brown, and Rudolf, wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!