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Making wise viewing choices for children and families on free-to-air TV

Posted on 11 December 2015 by Deputy Chief Censor Jared Mullen

SPOILER ALERT: Case studies in this post include previously aired episodes of Family Guy, Criminal Minds, Shameless, and the movie Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Why is it that so many New Zealanders currently wish for more information on television programmes to make wise choices for themselves and their families?

This blog post seeks to answer that question in the light of our recent research:

Hand holding remote control, pointing it at a TV

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Research: Attitudes towards classification labels - 2015

After all, television programmes (other than news, current affairs and live coverage) are already assessed and given a rating by each of the television networks prior to being broadcast, and the networks are overseen by the Broadcasting Standards Authority under the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Yet, when the Office of Film and Literature Classification asked a nationally representative sample of 1000 New Zealanders whether they would find it useful to see classification labels on television shows as well as movies - over two thirds said yes.

Research: Attitudes towards classification labels - 2015

Some of those surveyed pointed out that there are already ratings on television episodes - so why do such a high proportion of New Zealanders want more information about what they and their families are watching on television?

The difference between classification labels and TV ratings

Classification labels have a different purpose to ratings on free to air television.

The classifications assigned by the Classification Office have a specific purpose - they are designed to give guidance and information to protect people from harmful content. Broadcasting codes and standards have a different purpose - to warn of content that people might find shocking, disturbing or offensive (they also have important functions in relation to privacy, fairness and balance in our media).

Protection from harm is not the same as warning against offense and shock. For instance, it's possible to view a broad range of content with an AO (Adults Only) rating on free to air television and be thoroughly warned of possible offence and shock, while still being presented with programming that may be harmful to younger viewers. The same content may receive an M, R13, R16 or even R18 classification when viewed on DVD or a responsible online service such as Netflix.

Viewers who wish to be alerted to harmful and restricted content (rather than merely be warned of possible shock, offence or disturbance) could well prefer classification labels.

Classification labels are clear, authoritative and easy to understand

Another reason may be that New Zealand classification labels continue to enjoy a high level of awareness. 81% of those surveyed agreed that they would be guided by the classification label. So some of those who said they would like to see these labels on television programmes might be looking for the familiar, authoritative information that is clearly and simply conveyed by the classification labels as set out in the table below.

Classification labels compared with TV ratings

This table provides a comparison of film and video classification labels with ratings for free to air television.

The table shows the range of film and video classifications together with examples of descriptive notes for each classification; and contrasts these with the comparable ratings that are currently applied to free to air television. The current AO (adults only) rating for TV covers a very wide range of material and is therefore broad and non-specific.

Classifications and examples of notes Ratings for free to air television*
G label

G - General

Programmes which exclude material likely to be unsuitable for children. Programmes may not necessarily be designed for child viewers but should not contain material likely to alarm or distress them.

G programmes may be screened at any time.

PG label

PG: frightening fantasy scenes & violence
PG: coarse language, sexual references & drug references
PG: some scenes may scare very young children
PG: violence, coarse language & nudity

PGR - Parental Guidance Recommended

Programmes containing material more suited for mature audiences but not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to the guidance of a parent or an adult.

PGR programmes may be screened between 9am and 4pm, and after 7pm until 6am.

M label

M: drug use, offensive language & nudity
M: horror, offensive language & content that may disturb
M: offensive language, nudity, drug use & sexual references
M: violence, offensive language, sex scenes & content that may offend

AO - Adults Only

Programmes containing adult themes and directed primarily at mature audiences.

AO programmes may be screened between midday and 3pm on weekdays (except during school and public holidays as designated by the Ministry of Education) and after 8.30pm until 5am.

Material rated M may generally be covered by the AO rating on free to air television (but could also be PGR depending on the judgement of the broadcaster).

RP13 label

RP13: violence, drug use & offensive language
RP13: violence & horror
RP13: violence

Generally covered by the AO rating (but could also be PGR depending on the judgement of the broadcaster).

RP16 label

RP16: graphic content may disturb
RP16: sexual material, offensive language & content that may disturb
RP16: violence, offensive language & sex scenes
RP16: violence, offensive language, nudity, drug use & suicide

Generally covered by the AO rating (but could also be PGR depending on the judgement of the broadcaster).

R13 label

R13: horror, sex scenes, drug use & offensive language
R13: offensive language & anti-social behaviour
R13: nudity & sexual content that may offend
R13: sexual references, drug use, nudity & offensive language

Generally covered by the AO rating on free to air television.
R15 label

R15: depicts graphic & realistic war scenes
R15: violence & content that may disturb
R15: brutal violence, torture & cruelty
R15: violence, offensive language & drug use

Generally covered by the AO rating on free to air television.
R16 label

R16: acts of cruelty & rape, sexual violence & offensive language
R16: graphic violence & sexual violence
R16: graphic animal cruelty
R16: violence, horror, sex scenes, suicide & content that may disturb

Generally covered by the AO or the higher AO - 9.30pm rating on free to air television.

The AO - 9.30pm rating includes programmes containing stronger material or special elements which fall outside the AO rating. These programmes may contain a greater degree of sexual activity, potentially offensive language, realistic violence, sexual violence, or horrific encounters.

R18 label

R18: brutal sexual violence, graphic violence & sex scenes
R18: drug use, sexual violence & suicide
R18: explicit sex, graphic violence & genital mutilation
R18: violence, sexual violence & explicit sex scenes

Generally covered by the AO - 9.30pm rating - although R18 content can in fact appear on television any time from 8.30pm.

*Note that the full description of each free to air television rating as set out in the broadcasting code of practice is included with this table. This full set of information may not be provided to television viewers in printed or online television guides. A changed or abbreviated version may be read at the commencement of a particular television programme.

Sensitivity to children

Sensitivity to children drives the need for better information on television programmes.

Of those who wanted to see classification labels on television, the usefulness of clear labels for determining the viewing of children was the most significant reason. Of those who would like to see classification labels on television, 44% said that it would be a useful guide for deciding what children should watch.

Of those who did not want to see classification labels on television, 23% cited as the main reason that they did not have children or did not think that the classifications were relevant to them. This was the most significant reason for not wanting to see classification labels on television.

The existing code of broadcasting practice for free to air television covers the interests of children under Standard 9, which states:

During children's normally accepted viewing times broadcasters should consider the interests of child viewers.

Supporting this particular broadcasting standard, guideline 9a then goes on to state that:

Broadcasters should be mindful of the effect any programme or promo(tion) may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times - usually up to 8.30pm - and avoid screening material that would disturb or alarm them.

Standard 9 is not particularly directive. Stating that broadcasters "should consider" children's interests is not the same as stating that broadcasters must protect children. Guideline 9a is more specific but it focuses on material that would disturb or alarm children rather than harm them - and it is just a guideline. Unfortunately, as the following case study shows, there is a wide selection of material that, while not necessarily disturbing or alarming for children, may nevertheless be harmful for them and, under the current code of broadcasting practice, be screened in peak family viewing time prior to 8.30pm.

Case Study: Family Guy Season 12 Episode 6 - Thanksgiving

Image of main characters from TV show 'Family Guy'

Classified R13 on DVD by the Office of Film and Literature Classification

Rated as PGR by Mediaworks when broadcast on Channel Four at 7.30pm on 11/11/2015

The show satirises contemporary American society and focuses on the dysfunctional suburban family of Peter Griffin, his wife Lois, children Chris, Meg, and Stewie, talking dog Brian, wheelchair bound next-door neighbour Joe, and seedy next-door neighbour Quagmire. Each episode contains a rapid-fire storyline and numerous references to and appropriations of popular culture, such as parodies of well-known movie scenes, politics and celebrities. The series also contains heavy slapstick and innuendo-laden humour, often made with crass sexual references.

Episode 6: Thanksgiving concerns Kevin, Joe's long-thought-dead son, returning from the Iraq war during Thanksgiving dinner. The group is shocked to discover he is in fact a deserter, disenchanted with the war in Iraq.

There are explicit sexual references, unsuitable for children throughout the episode. For example, Meg asks Kevin, "When you get sexually abused in a coma, do you know what's happening?" Subsequently Chris exclaims during Thanksgiving dinner, right after hearing Kevin's tale of desertion from the army, "If you think I'm going to masturbate after this tonight, you're right".

The humour in this episode, as through the series, is often coarse. Peter, when surveying Thanksgiving dinner loudly exclaims "This looks fantastic. I can't wait to poop this out. Who's going to get the thanksgiving dump trophy this year?"

The series contains a number of deliberately bad taste jokes aimed at minority groups. The Thanksgiving episode opens with a parade float featuring the "James Woods High School Not Gay Football Review". In addition, Quagmire's transsexual father is the subject of a joke about having a "bone removed" and Lois spitefully tells the transsexual that she is only allowed to urinate in the yard.

The programme poses a risk by presenting sexual material, violence and offensive language within the context of a cartoon comedy. Though the show is targeted to an older audience, the cartoon genre is tailored to children's comprehension. Unlike teenagers and adults, children do not have the maturity and comprehension required to reflect more critically on this material and put it into the context of a show that pushes the boundaries of taste, utilizes subversive humour, and satirises Western society.

An R13 classification was therefore applied to this series on DVD. Parents and caregivers are advised to exercise a high degree of caution in exposing their children to Family Guy on free to air television, and be mindful of the fact that this series is shown at 7.30pm in the evening - well within the early evening viewing time for many children and young people.

Another guideline for broadcasters relating to the interests of children (9b) states that:

When scheduling AO material to commence at 8.30pm, broadcasters should ensure that strong adult material is not shown soon after the watershed.

In practice, a range of strong adult material is shown soon after 8.30pm in the evening - when many younger children will still be viewing. As the decision on what to show and when to show it is made by each broadcaster, there can be a fair bit of variation between networks as to what may be considered "strong adult material". This means that parents and caregivers should be careful of programmes that commence at 8.30 in the evening on free to air television. Some of these programmes, when purchased on DVD or seen in theatres would carry an R16 classification.

The following case study illustrates one prominent example of violent and disturbing material, classified R16 by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, being shown immediately after 8.30pm in the evening and, subsequently, around the clock on-demand.

Case Study: Criminal Minds

Cover art for season 10 of TV show 'Criminal Minds'

Classified R16 by the Office of Film and Literature Classification

Rated AO by TVNZ when screened on Channel One 8.30pm 16/11/2015

Criminal Minds is a prime-time television American crime series, intended for mature viewers. The investigative work of a specialised FBI unit drives the episodes. Crimes shown in the series include torture, murder, assault, abduction, and grievous bodily harm

The episodes in this series are gripping due to the suspense that the sometimes horrific violent and cruel crimes present for the viewer. Although the visual material leaves much to viewers' imaginations, there are brief images of the results of savage attacks, torture and gruesome deaths. There is subject matter that contains a good deal of disturbing material. Notions of threat and fear are also strong.

Season 10 Episode 23: The Hunt

The first scenes of the episode - screened shortly after 8.30pm - show the luring and abduction of two young teenage girls. An agent's niece and her best friend are kidnapped. They are surprised from behind in a dark car and injected with a syringe in the neck. The predator has been posing as a teenage boy and selling girls to serial killers.

At approximately 8.45pm the predator shoots his accomplice in the stomach and chest and kills him. It transpires that the accomplice was the predator's own son.

The young niece is later shown chained to the ceiling as a serial killer says "This is what I'm planning" and shows her a range of knives and torture tools. When she resists and kicks him he strikes her and calls her a "little bitch". The serial killer is subsequently repeatedly shot by FBI agents and killed.

Older teenagers and adults can be expected to be familiar with the type of material routinely included in television series of this nature and are unlikely to be adversely affected. However, children and young teenagers are likely to find these images disturbing and distressing. The storylines generally require some sophisticated knowledge of the darker side of human behaviour. A restriction to older teenagers and adults, for whom the material is clearly intended, was therefore applied by the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

Making our own decisions

New Zealanders want better information to make their own TV viewing decisions.

The next most significant reason for wanting to see classification labels (after the interests of children) was for people to guide their own viewing habits. Of those who wanted to see classification labels applied to television programmes, 17% wanted this information to inform their own viewing habits.

One reason that viewers might want more information could be that the AO (Adults only) label applied by the television networks is very general and non-specific. As shown in the comparative table above, the AO rating can be applied to content that would warrant anything from an M through to an R18 classification if the same programme was watched on Netflix or DVD.

Viewers need to pay particular attention to material screening immediately after 8.30 and rated as AO by broadcasters. Despite a broadcasting code that recommends that stronger adult material is reserved until after 9.30pm in the evening, the transition to strong adult material warranting an R18 classification can sometimes be very sudden after 8.30, as shown in the case study below.

Case Study: Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Cover art for movie 'Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'

Classified R18 by the Office of Film and Literature Classification

Rated AO by Mediaworks when screened on Channel Four at 8.30pm 13/11/2015

This popular film combines action and comedy, with four young men getting involved over their heads in the world of organised crime. Violence and cruelty are key elements in the plot, which also incorporates extensive references to British street culture circa the turn of the millennium. The violence is generally overlaid with humour, and its infliction is seldom focused on by the camera

However, the extent of the violence, and the inclusion of a small number of more extreme scenes, mean that the film is restricted to those aged 18 years and over. Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was also given an 18 classification in the UK.

Although intended to add authenticity, the use of highly offensive language is sustained and strong throughout the film. Excessive alcohol consumption is often glamorised and consumption of cannabis is depicted as relatively routine.

The film contains a number of scenes depicting the infliction of serious physical harm, which result in the deaths of a large number of the characters. The violence is often associated with cruelty. Deaths generally occur in gun-fights; but one character is killed with an axe, one has his head slammed in a car door, and one is killed or seriously injured by being deliberately set alight.

During the scene in which a man is killed by having his head smashed repeatedly in a car door the scene focuses on his assailant rather than the victim, but the sustained nature of the assault is violent and shocking. In another scene, a man has his foot shot several times, with his assailants making verbal threats between each shot. Although the shootings are cut away from, the viewer sees the man lying on the ground, seriously injured and in pain, with his foot covered in blood. The brutality is intended to shock and impact the viewer.

Another scene of cruelty and violence presents a man spitting alcohol over another man, then setting fire to him with a match, after a minor dispute. The burning man runs from the building screaming - enduring serious injury or death. The scene in which the burning man exits the building is played twice - first with no explanation for his state, and later in context.

Classification symbols superimposed on an image of a television

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No more time slots for adult viewing

Time slots for adult viewing no longer apply due to the availability of free to air television on-demand, 24 hours a day.

In the days before widespread broadband internet and online, on-demand programming, the time at which adult programmes were screened could provide some measure of protection for children and families. As noted above, the current broadcasting code for free to air television suggests that adult content should be screened well after the 8.30pm 'watershed' while stronger adult material should be screened after 9.30pm when children are less likely to view the material.

While many New Zealanders and their families still base some of their viewing around scheduled free to air television broadcasts, others are making increasing use of free, online, on-demand services to view programmes when it is more convenient for them to do so. All family members, including children, may now have access to a range of devices capable of displaying adults only online programming around the clock.

The major free to air television networks all provide some form of online, on-demand access for programmes which have previously been broadcast (and some new programmes and films that have not been previously broadcast).

As the following case study clearly shows, parents and caregivers should now be aware that strong adult material rated AO by free to air networks, and sometimes classified R16 or R18 by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, is currently available around the clock, with minimal restriction.

Case Study: Adult material freely available on-demand around the clock

Cover art for TV show 'Shameless'

Shameless: Series 5 - Episode 8

Rated AO by TVNZ when originally screened at 11pm on 9/11/2015 before being screened around the clock on TVNZ On Demand

Previous series of Shameless were classified R16 - R18 by the Office of Film and Literature Classification

The series follows a dysfunctional working-class family in Chicago. The Gallagher family's patriarch, Frank, is an alcoholic who lives in a perpetual stupor while his two young adults daughters Fiona and Sammy are left with the task of keeping their younger brothers and sisters on the straight and narrow. Eldest son Philip (Lip) is a genius-level university student who devises inventive criminal schemes, and middle son Ian struggles being gay in an intolerant neighbourhood and also with severe mental illness. Young teenage daughter Debbie is a thief, while thirteen-year-old Carl is a budding sociopath and drug dealer.

As with other episodes of the series, episode eight has several frank sex scenes. Lip and a woman from his college dorm are shown naked in a brief sex scene - with Lip penetrating her from behind while her disgruntled lesbian lover bangs on the door and shouts in the hallway. A neighbour of the family is shown preparing to use a vibrator for masturbation and is later shown receiving oral sex from a female houseguest beneath bed covers. The candid sexual material and accompanying frank discussion could disturb young children and risk adversely affecting younger teenagers who are still in the process of forming sexual attitudes and behaviours.

The narrative is set around a working class family who operate on the criminal fringe. Crime is at the centre of many of the plot's twists - often leavened by humour. In episode 8, thirteen year old Carl is shown strapping a large quantity of heroin to his younger nephew in order to use him as a drug mule. Lip is shown packaging and selling marijuana to college students in order to pay for his college tuition. The episode normalises these criminal acts. Young and impressionable viewers are likely to be vulnerable to the messages in the material, which have the potential to encourage copycat behaviours or influence attitudes to law breaking.

The casual use of offensive language coupled with some highly misogynistic references, also supports the need for caution by parents and other viewers. The work "fuck" and its derivatives are used throughout the episode from the beginning. The episode re-cap prior to the opening credits starts with Mikey (a closeted gay hoodlum) explaining "So here's what you fucking missed". This is a clear attempt to confront and engage the viewer.

At the beginning of episode 8, Frank explains to his young son Carl, "It's important to know the difference between a skank bitch and a deranged psychopath. Your sister is the latter."

Thirteen year old Carl is influenced his father's opinion of his sister and later remarks, "Why don't you just use her face for target practice."

Adults are likely to be able to put the above exchange into context of the wider social satire and dark humour that underpins Shameless while children and young teenagers are not.

At the end of the day, the responsibility lies with parents and caregivers to ensure their children are being protected from harmful content. Broadcasting content ratings and classification labels are both designed to help people make wise viewing choices, however, as shown above, there are some significant differences in how they are applied, what they mean, and the opportunities available for people to use them.

With the range of content available to view on-demand around the clock increasing daily, it is becoming more and more pertinent for those making viewing choices in the household to have access to the best information. Classifications are designed to protect people from harmful content and to help you make safe and informed viewing choices.

Let us know what you think

We'd love to hear what you think about this research. If you have any feedback you can find us on Facebook and Twitter, or contact us by phone on 0508 236 767, or by email at info@classificationoffice.govt.nz.

Jared Mullen is Deputy Chief Censor at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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