The Cycle of Self-Regulation in the Motion Picture Industry

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

The cycle of self-regulation, as seen through various mass media in the past century, follows the pattern first seen in the motion picture industry. The tension between censorship and self-regulation in the film industry during the first quarter of the twentieth century provides a blueprint for the future struggles in the comic book industry in the fifties, the radio industry in the seventies, and the television industry in the late nineties. The pattern is always complicated by the circumstances and cultural context surrounding the fight for content control, yet the simplicity of the steps leading to the self-regulation is striking.

The cycle of self-regulation in mass media is as follows: first, content included in the medium or conduct within the industry offends or otherwise provokes an individual or a group to protest. Second, protests intensify and begin to impact the success of the medium, often when state and local officials begin to investigate the complaints and consider taking action against the medium. Third, the industry responds to the threat of censorship with an initial attempt at self-regulation that often is more of a public relations campaign than an attempt at “cleaning up” its act. This effort at self-regulation often pacifies the majority of protestors temporarily. Fourth, some event or combination of events leads to disillusionment with the current system, causing the protests to resume with new vigor.

Finally, the fear of federal intervention—or in some cases the actual act of federal intervention— causes the industry to form a self-regulatory body that exerts substantial influence over the content of the medium. This five-step pattern is seen first in the motion picture industry, then with the comic book industry, and to a lesser degree within radio broadcasting. In the 1990s, the television industry took a step further toward organized self-regulation with the Television Parental Guidelines and the implementation of the v-chip.

This article contends that the pattern leading to self-regulation traverses specific circumstances and cultural contexts to provide a better understanding of the struggle between censorship and regulation in mass media in the United States. This article argues that self-regulation was inevitable in these specific cases and was not the result of one person or one group’s crusade to regulate the medium. This pattern, however, is not conclusive or exhaustive, as is evident in the radio industry, the music industry and the video game industry at this time. This article does not assume that all media will follow the same pattern, but at the same time argues that this cycle toward self-regulation cannot be ignored when investigating content control of a mass medium. A closer historical look at the different examples in mass media should provide a better understanding of the steps leading to content self-regulation.

Through a brief sketch of the motion picture industry from its beginnings to 1934, one can identify the patterns leading to the strict implementation of the Production Code by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). These events set the standard that would be followed by other media in later decades, as is evidenced in the situation surrounding the crime and horror comics and the comic book industry in the late forties and early fifties, leading to the formation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) and their code, which closely resembles the MPPDA’s Production Code. These examples also shed light on the current regulatory situation, though American culture and its view of censorship have changed over the past decades. The pattern of self-regulation can also be identified in the 1990s with the federally “encouraged” Parental Guidelines and v-chip technology, and more recently with calls to address the “problem” of videogame and Internet addiction. Though some of the circumstances and approaches have changed, the basic arguments and reactions seem to have changed very little.