Our content classification system is about to be reviewed to ensure it remains relevant in the digital age, allowing Australians to make informed content choices. Miguel Gonzalez reports.
Just before Christmas, Attorney-General Robert McClelland and Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O’Connor announced they would ask the Australian Law Reform Commission to review the nation’s classification categories and, indeed, the entire classification system. O’Connor said it needs to be modernised to accommodate current and future technologies, and to allow people to make informed choices about their content consumption The last enquiry into classification laws took place in 1991.
Videogames that have received most of the attention, with some members of the community the introduction of an R18+ classification for violent games, as well as a review of the current MA15+ and RC. More traditional screen content, however, is not free of controversy, with the occasional groups openly complaining about the ‘soft’ rating of certain films, such as last year’s US releases Kick-Ass (Universal Pictures, classified MA15+) and The Karate Kid (Sony Pictures, originally rated M and reclassified PG after an appeal by the distributor).
Sony managing director Stephen Basil-Jones believes the suitability of The Karate Kid for a young audience was ultimately demonstrated by the film’s $13m box office: “The ones that make the headlines are a minority who decide to make a storm in a teacup. If you look at the small number of people [who said the film was too violent for PG] versus the silent majority who went to see it and enjoyed it, there’s no doubt that the film was suitable. This is not publicity that we would want. We strongly believed that it was a PG film, because it’s an interpretation of martial arts violence; we were confused when it was given an M and appealed the ruling successfully.”
Ratings can have a significant impact on a film’s marketing strategy and box office results.
“A restrictive category limits the films we can trailer with, the TV advertising activity, as well as the ability of people to attend,” explained Basil-Jones.
But at $8,000 per application, review requests are rare and not to be taken lightly. There’s so much at stake that distributors often use the services of law firms to support their applications.
In 2010, two reviews were requested: The Karate Kid, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial 1975 film Salo – which was rated R18+ for DVD distribution after being banned for 12 years, with Brendan O’Connor unsuccessfully trying to get the Board to reconsider the decision. The previous year saw more activity, with two failed reviews (Paramount’s Friday the 13th and Stone Bros, requested by O’Connor), and two that did achieve their goal. The first was Sony’s Julie and Julia; the second, the youth-oriented Australian horror film The Loved Ones from independent distributor Madman Entertainment, which used the services of media law firm Holding Redlich to successfully get the rating changed from “R18+: High impact violence” to “MA15+: Strong horror violence; strong themes”.
“We weighed up the cost of the review against the value that we placed on the release of the film and the impact that R18+ certificate would have for its theatrical potential. It was absolutely worthwhile and it paid off in terms of getting the classification changed,” said Madman theatrical manager James Hewison.
Hewison believes even if content classifiers attempt to establish rules to make their processes more “scientific”, it will always be “tricky” at best: “It’s very hard to be prescriptive about consumer advice, particularly when you’re dealing with content, which is quite difficult to define.”
The film remained unchanged for the review process; what changed was the perception of its content. The review board found that the film reflected the expectations of those familiar with the horror genre and therefore, the acts of violence depicted in it were ‘strong’ in impact rather than ‘high’.
“Although there are detailed guidelines, at the end of the day it’s a matter of human judgement as to where something sits in the rating system,” said Holding Redlich managing partner Ian Robertson. “A lot of the
Board’s decisions are subjective; two people can look at the same film and probably come out with different answers, applying the same rules. The vast majority of films are classified without any problem, in a pretty
According to Basil-Jones, Hewison and Universal’s managing director Mike Baard, the Australian classification is not as liberal as some western European markets, or as conservative as the US, but rather somewhere in between.
“We’re less tolerant to violence than the US, and more accepting of sex and language,” said Basil-Jones.
Reflecting those attitudes is part of the Classification Board’s mission; to look at content and assess its impact taking into consideration the sensitivities of the Australian community.
“If we identify a pattern in the complaints that we receive from the public – about items that were classified either too harshly or too liberally – that means there might be a shift in the community standards, and we need to take it on board and move in the direction that society is moving,” explained the Board’s senior classifier Greg Scott.
Scott lamented there is a misconception that the organisation serves as “a censorship board”. “We don’t cut any films as other jurisdictions around the world do, and we don’t give editing ‘tips’ to creatives. We just try to balance what’s put before us with the code, to allow people to make informed choices and protect minors from harmful or disturbing material, as well as the freedom of speech that Australia enjoys and allows adults to be able to read, hear and see what they want,” he said.
THE BIGGER CONVERGENCE PICTURE
O’Connor’s upcoming review will not, however, affect the way television is classified, due to a divide between systems.
In Australia films, home entertainment releases, games and certain publications are the responsibility of the Classification Board under the National Classification Code.
Television works under a system of codes of practice developed by broadcasters in consultation with the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which monitors the codes and deals with unresolved complaints made under them. Programs are dealt with by in-house classifiers operating under the Commercial Television Industry, ABC, SBS and Subscription Broadcast / Narrowcast codes of practice.
The in-house system was set up partly due to the huge volume of programming available on television.
“You couldn’t fund enough classifiers to go through 24×7 programming across 16 different channels,” said Free TV CEO Julie Flynn. “We don’t ‘self-classify’; before the code is registered, the ACMA must be confident that it reflects community standards.”
While convenient, not everybody agrees there should be different classification systems. In an editorial published in The Australian, Holding Redlich’s Robertson suggested that “One system, operated by the Classification Board, which classifies most content in Australia other than free television programs, should be sufficient.”
He told Encore that “the networks believe the classification system they have under the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice is more appropriate for TV and gives them greater freedom. It’s not a big problem, because their classifiers are very experienced and they tend to get it right, but my own opinion is that it is confusing for consumers to have different classification systems, and it would be better to have one for all films and TV programs.”
It is unclear whether the different systems will be unified in the future, but Flynn believes classification is only one of the issues that must be included in Stephen Conroy’s Convergence Review of media regulation.
“We’ve got a Broadcasting Services Act (1992) that predates the introduction of pay TV and the development of the internet and fast broadband. It’s not appropriate in 2011 and it won’t be in the future, so what we need to do is to get ahead of technological changes instead of being constantly behind. Regulation should not be platform-specific; we have to look at these changes and determine what we want to regulate and how to regulate it consistently across the variety of platforms that will be providing content in the future,” she said.
In the meantime, industry and public will have to wait at least a year to see how both reviews reshape the way our content is classified.