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A step in the right direction

Posted on 23 December 2019 by Chief Censor David Shanks

As a parent with children spanning the ages of 6, 12, and 15, I am keenly aware of the challenges facing parents and caregivers in today’s broad ranging digital environment. Online game platforms, streaming services like Lightbox, massive content hubs like YouTube and apps like Tik Tok provide huge opportunities for entertainment and engagement. But I worry that my kids find these things a little bit too entertaining, and I struggle to stay on top of what they are playing and watching. Lots of parents tell me they feel the same.

And this isn’t just a parent thing. In order for the Classification Office to do our job effectively as a media regulator, we have increasingly been investing in research and spending time consulting with experts, community services and young people themselves. The messages we are receiving from teens in particular is very clear. While for the most part they enjoy the freedom they have to explore the digital world, they can encounter things that impact them in various ways. This is particularly true for those young people that have experienced some trauma in their lives.

One of the key messages we get from both parents and young people is that they want better information about content, so they can make informed choices.

This makes sense, but it presents a challenge here in New Zealand, as it does in most countries. Our approach to regulating media, and providing consumers with the right information is based on an early 1990’s view of media. Back then we had the Broadcasting Standards Act covering radio and television broadcasts, and our Classification Act that dealt with Cinema and physical media products like VHS tapes, game discs and DVD’s. Obviously since then media has undergone a massive transition to online delivery, but we still rely on these aging acts.

That is one reason why the online content world can be such a confusing and challenging place to navigate. The same film might have a classification and warning placed on it by my Office when it is released in the cinemas, but then appear with multiple different classifications and notes (or even no information at all) when it appears soon after online, for rental or on one of the commercial streaming services. Every streaming platform has their own approach to age rating and providing consumer information.

That isn’t good enough in our view. It makes decision making harder than it needs to be, and NZ consumers also have different needs and wants to those in other countries. We are one of the few countries in the world to provide content descriptions that include ‘rape’, ‘self-harm’, ‘domestic violence’ and ‘suicide’. This is the direct result of our engagement with young people and the community.

We simply have different needs and concerns in this space than, say, a North American audience, who will be very concerned to be warned about offensive language or nudity, but will not require a warning for rape content.

Bringing our media regulation framework up to date will take some significant work, and earlier this year Minister Tracey Martin announced a broad media regulation review, with work to commence on this substantively next year. That is a good idea, but in the interim we thought that there was a relatively simple change that could make things better, clearer and more consistent for NZ consumers right now. That is to require ‘Commercial Video on Demand’ (CVoD) services including subscription services like Lightbox and Netflix and rental services like iTunes to use New Zealand classifications, and apply a New Zealand framework to new content.

This is the thinking behind the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification (Commercial Video on-Demand) Amendment Bill introduced to the House on the 17th of December. Where a film or series has been classified in NZ, digital providers will need to use that classification. And where they are making a new film or series available to Kiwis, these providers will need to apply a NZ framework, and provide age ratings and information that is consistent with what we expect.

That should make things a bit easier for all of us who want to make informed choices, or who have children or young people in our care that we want to look out for. And for the providers, we have broken down the NZ classification system into a digital classification tool that they can use to self- classify content relatively quickly and easily. We are talking to our equivalent agencies in countries like Australia and the UK who are also developing digital tools. We think down the track international collaboration will make the generation of good consistent ratings and information even easier.

This amendment certainly isn’t going to fix everything in the area of media regulation, and nor was it intended to. It is a meaningful step in the right direction. Getting the ratings and information right now, and putting in place an effective framework that streaming businesses can apply themselves will result in reduced confusion straight away, and will have significant downstream impact as the platforms continue to evolve. The next generation of smart parental filter systems and locks, as well as recommendation engines all rely on key information being right – such as age ratings.

We welcome the changes, and know they’ll be of benefit to both industry and consumers.

David Shanks is New Zealand's Chief Censor.

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