On a regular basis wrestling fans across the UK are exposed to one of the best known and most respected brands in the world. No, we don't mean WWE nor TNA but rather the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) which is perhaps best known by the small coloured shapes with letters or numbers ranging from U to 18 that can be found on videos and DVD's across the country. Like the Motion Picture Association of America or its independent oversight body, the UK's BBFC sets the age ratings (U, PG, 12/12A, 15 and 18) which help guide retailers, parents and others as to the suitability of wrestling and other film and video/DVD content. Whether it appreciates the fact or not, the BBFC has played its own part in helping WWE to transition to and appropriately brand the "PG era".
We were lucky enough to spend some time with and learn from a BBFC examiner whose job it is to sit and review TNA and WWE content before it goes out for distribution (imagine that, being paid to watch wrestling!) and found the classification process to be impressively thorough and robust.
One of the notable results of the BBFC's privileged overview of wrestling content is the broad themes that the organisation has observed over a long period of time. We were told that the company receives regular submissions of 3-4 hour products but less than ten years ago, which neatly ties in with the end of WWE's "attitude era" and might indicate a diminished demand for content.
Together with the change in volume, the BBFC also reports a softening of approach, particularly from the WWE. This is to be expected and has resulted in many works falling within the '12' age category. As wrestling has become less aggressive and the availability of online content exponentially increased, there has also been a drop-off in submissions of "Backyard Wrestling" works which sold reasonably well when ECW was at its Zenith and YouTube was just an idea.
The BBFC has a sensible and well tested approach to the act of classification. Wrestling works are categorised under the general heading of "Sporting Violence" which, despite WWE being more entertainment focussed, also encompasses Mixed Martial Arts.
Anyone that has watched WWE programming will likely know by heart the words to the "Don't Try This At Home" auto play warning. For both WWE and the BBFC, potential imitability is a key concern. Having been to a WWE live show, the examiner we met had witnessed just how family friendly those events can be. The appeal to a young audience is obvious and pile drivers, ear claps or chops to the throat delivered at home, potentially harmful or even deadly. Thus most works receive a minimum '12' rating although all content is judged on its merits and some documentaries have even received the official 'PG' stamp. The '12' classification certainly does not upset distributors whom having been awarded '15' certificates for years, tend to welcome the lower age rating.
Whilst imitability is the key concern, the BBFC has a number of guidelines against which a work will be assessed - sex, drugs, violence, language etc. Given these principal guidelines are somewhat broad, there is an accompanying set of indicators for each category which help examiners to adjudicate borderline cases. These indicators for wrestling can, for example, include "ring settings". According to this indicator, an examiner will consider whether a match is in the open ring, a cage, a chamber or whether the ropes are made of barbed wire! A change doesn't necessarily mean a higher rating but it helps to guide the reviewing process.
Another indicator is "location", according to which consideration is given to whether the action is in the ring, in the audience or in the car park! One luchador match which saw the audience smashing light bulbs over competitors didn't receive the customary '12' and a Nexus attack on Bret Hart in a car park was a borderline '15' for WWE, given the group attack on an individual outside the ring. Predictably it was ECW that pushed the limits and received an '18' for Rhyno attacking the Sandman's on-screen wife at home whilst commentators revelled in the action.
Other indicators include the use of weapons. Examiners appeared somewhat bewildered by the diversity of objects that are left at ringside - including knives and forks! They accept that these objects are designed to protect the talent and so do draw a distinction between a chair and a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. However, exposed turnbuckles or ring mats, thumb tacks and kitchen utensils may merit a stricter rating depending on aggravating factors such as blood or the focus in the match on the damage inflicted by the weapon. In order to keep within the '12' classification boundary, the BBFC considers that a work should not include too much blood. An incidental cut to the Miz's forehead, quickly addressed by the medic did not give cause for concern but in retaining his title as the king of hardcore, Mick Foley's match against Kevin Nash in 2009 took TNA to 18 for the "quite sadistic, repeated blows" and focus on blood, which examiners considered to be closer to MMA than sports entertainment. Whilst that level of violence has not been seen in TNA for some time now, the company does set itself apart from WWE and repeatedly receives 15 certificates for its more edgy show. This includes a "Bound for Glory" match in which Mike Tenay appeared to relish Abyss being worked over with a cheese-grater!
For WWE's part, whilst it is aiming for a '12' rating, it is somewhat hamstrung by its past endeavours. The most recent "Best of Sting" received a '15' because at the end of one bout Sting half-strangles, half-hangs his opponent with no significant repercussions and so the imitability risk was high. WWE will need to look out for such brutality in future compilations should it wish to stay at '12'.
The BBFC guidelines both specific and broad are reviewed every 4-5 years and significant changes in public opinion can impact upon the guidance offered to examiners. In 2001, concerned that the trend in wrestling content was for increased violence and bloodletting, the BBFC instigated research into audience perceptions and even at that time it was clear that viewers engaged more in the drama and showmanship of the product than the violence. Aggression has been dialled back in recent years and so the level of concern that prompted that research has dissipated. Nonetheless, the findings helped to guide examiners to consider the drama and rivalries as part of the adjudication process -although the Kane/Katie Vick storyline might have pushed the boundaries.
Whether drama, documentary or action, once regulated an item is also certified for online platforms. Mobile phone content and online videos are certified on a voluntary basis and given Netflix submits original content like the "House of Cards" show for scrutiny, it will be interesting to see what transpires with the WWE network.
Overall, it was revealing to see the depth of consideration that is involved in categorising the various works. As we explained, a sole examiner will sit through hours of wrestling and whilst some biographical pieces might be interesting, spare a thought for those non-wrestling fans that have to watch dozens of pay-per-views and other content every year. The Royal Ramblings team was set to volunteer for the job until we discovered that there are days when we might have to sit through five hours of SpongeBob Squarepants. We'll be leaving this to the experts for the time being....