Transformers Movies Caught in FCC Content Filtering Inquiry
How did the Transformers movies wind up in an FCC proceeding on content-blocking devices? And what's so bad about them anyway?
August 26, 2009
The Federal Communications Commission has until the end of this week to give Congress the compendium it asked for of just about every content filtering, blocking, or rating gizmo that's out there. And you can bet that a small battalion of lawyers for the networks, cable, gaming, and computer industries would like to read it right now. But the rapidly approaching deadline for the report (August 29, a Saturday, oddly) isn't stopping them or various media reform advocates from advising the FCC right up to the last minute on what they want the agency to say, or not say, in the document.
Interestingly, the Transformers movies have blundered into the FCC's requisite Notice of Inquiry asking for public input on the report. And the concerns various advocates raise about the marketing of these films suggest how subjective it could be to expand V-chip-like regulation, as many filers want (we've got a quick tutorial on the chip here).
Earlier this month the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a response to a key question in the FCC's NOI—"the extent to which inappropriate commercials [are] aired in programming viewed by children and on possible solutions to this problem." CCFC was happy to oblige, updating the agency on one of its key campaigns. The group, a coalition of 30 media reform organizations, wants the Federal Trade Commission to "ensure that PG-13 movies are not marketed to young children." Bottom line: CCFC has asked the Motion Picture Association of America to limit television advertising of PG-13 movies to shows where over half of the viewers are thirteen or over, or just set 9:00pm as the "watershed" for the promotion of these films. That would put the ceiling an hour earlier than when TV stations can broadcast fare that the FCC defines as indecent.
CCFC complains of a phenomenon that it calls "ratings creep." Your typical PG-13 movie these days is more violent and sexual than it used to be, the group says. "In other words, many of the PG-13 films that are routinely marketed today to children as young as seven—and often marketed to preschoolers—are films that would have been rated R fifteen years ago." On top of that, parents have no tools that filter commercials for these movies, and "are left without any options by the current regime."
High on CCFC's list of disliked films are the Dreamworks productions Transformers and its recent sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The advocate launched a veritable crusade against the marketing of the first film in the summer of 2007. CCFC's protest against the campaign pointed out that despite its MPAA PG-13 tag—"intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, and language"—the public has been treated to a tsunami of Transformer toys, games, themed Lunchables, lollypops, and gummy candy. Ads for these items and more have been shown on children's shows like Fairly Odd Parents and Jimmy Neutron, that are rated TV-Y ("appropriate for all children ... including children from ages 2-6"). And indeed, to get a sense of the intensity of these selling sprees, check out toymaker Hasbro's current Revenge of the Fallen webpage.
Where did I leave my glasses?
What's missing from the aforementioned protests though is an explanation of what's wrong with the Transformer movies and exactly what bad influence critics think these flicks could have on kids. The gist of the first film is that earth has become the site of a civil war between two giant robot races: the "Autobots" and the "Decepticons"—you guess who the bad guys are. The Autobots have smuggled a mysterious force called the "All Spark" to earth, and the Decepticons want it, presumably for evil, given the name of their long lost leader, Megatron (coincidentally, the foil in the Canadian animated series ReBoot was named "Megabyte").
Sam Witwicky, an awkward high schooler portrayed by Shia LaBeouf, gets caught in this mess. He's more interested in his classmate Mikaela Banes, a comely car jockey who could easily double as a garage calendar pinup model (Megan Fox plays the role). But it so happens that Sam's grandfather, the Arctic explorer Archibald Witwicky, ran into the dying Megatron about a hundred years ago. The dastardly robot digitally engraved the location of the All Spark in his glasses. Now both Autobots and Decepticons want those spectacles, which Sam has been trying to sell on eBay. Pretty soon they're battling it out over who gets there fastest with the mostest, morphing from funny trucks and boomboxes into mechanized Hulk Hogan lookalikes. For almost two and half hours a good time is had by all, followed by a grudge match in Revenge of the Fallen.
The movies are most certainly violent, but it's a chaotic, lots-of-people-get-killed, but-nobody-gets-hurt kind that is often visually difficult to follow, with mechanical monsters colliding into each other, demolition derby style. There's some raunchy humor, but much of it comes from Sam's parents, a quirky and devoted suburban couple hilariously played by Kevin Dunn and Julie White. And John Turturro's goofy role as a maniacal Black Ops agent will go right over the head of anyone younger than 14.
One wonders what bad behaviors these films might inspire in Junior. Ars can see him having a go at dad's old eight-track player or scrapped lawn mower; not a lot else. But Transformers and Fallen also offer positive themes, including marriage, monogamy, and personal loyalty.
Disagree with this review as you wish, but it raises the question of how much value to attribute to rating systems like the one upon which the V-Chip is based. Many filers in the FCC's NOI want it expanded to include multiple ratings systems, not just one as at present. And almost all the reform groups want it extended to include ads. Another consortium, The Children's Media Policy Coalition, suggests that ads be rated just like programs, "so that parents can block those that contain violent or sexual images or themes," the group told the FCC in mid-May.
Multiple ratings systems for multiple types of content, potentially extended to multiple media platforms. Who knows what grand ideas the FCC will send to Congress by Saturday.