For any industry, self-regulation is a prized and often fleeting privilege. Pharmaceuticals, energy extraction, news broadcasting– all were either never granted the right to self-regulate, or lost the privilege as a result of spurious or irresponsible business practices. Whatever its reasoning may be in a particular situation, the government tends to end an experiment in self-regulation when it feels as though a given industry is utterly–and sometimes painfully– incapable of monitoring its own behavior, and public costs emerge as a result.
A significant portion of media has been put under governmental regulation: news (both print and broadcast), television and radio have all been brought under federal and state regulation for both control and content to a degree. Notable exceptions to this trend are the video game and feature-length film industries. These media industries, which are two of the most prominent and far reaching media industries in the country, consistently govern themselves primarily with regards to age-sensitive content. For them, the priority is not necessarily freedom of expression or advocacy of truth; what’s most important is the bottom line, and in the 21st century this increasingly necessitates pushing the boundaries of cultural sensitivities, as seen in the success of the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise and the works of Sasha Baron Cohen (i.e. Ali G, Borat, Bruno, and The Dictator films, known for their astoundingly offensive satirical humor).
The two regulatory bodies don’t censor content directly, but instead allocate potentially age-restrictive ratings, the more stringent of which dissuade producers from distributing particularly offensive or sensitive content (e.g., the producers of a film that receives an NC-17 rating for its first cut will often edit out the most offensive content from the film, in the hopes of receiving a more marketable rating).
The regulatory bodies of the video game and film industries began at very different eras in significantly different ways. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a consortium of Hollywood’s six largest studios, instituted the current rating system in 1968, replacing the far more censorious Hays code that had been in use since 1930. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), responsible for assigning age and content ratings to products of the video game industry in Canada and the United States, was established in 1994 as a reaction to consumer criticism of violent video games in the early 1990s. The exact stories are different, but the main intent remains the same: both regulatory bodies are industry efforts to stave off government intervention by demonstrating that such intervention is unnecessary.
Media producers, consumers and the government benefit from these self-regulatory bodies when they are properly functioning. Audiences are made aware of which media products are appropriately gauged to their personal tastes and sensibilities; the government enjoys the benefits of regulating the industries in question without the monetary and political costs of enacting that regulation itself; and media producers enjoy a significant level of autonomy–at least relative to what it could be– without sacrificing artistic integrity, creative license, audience appeal, or profitability.
I think the more industries that can effectively self-regulate, the better. If the video game and film industries can avoid wandering into press responsibilities (and consequently, press regulations), these two industries should continue to enjoy significant regulatory autonomy in the years to come.