Andrew Jack: Don't give rating system the flick

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Cost of retaining an independent body in NZ to classify entertainment products is a price worth paying.
Parents put significant faith in the official ratings to help decide what their children should be allowed to watch. Photo / Getty Images
Parents put significant faith in the official ratings to help decide what their children should be allowed to watch. Photo / Getty Images

Alively, competitive entertainment industry is important for New Zealanders. Competition ensures the widest variety of entertainment and a profitable industry ensures we can continue to enjoy our favourite movies, shows and programmes into the future.

Films, DVD/Blu-ray, games and video on demand are big, highly profitable businesses pulling in $600 million in New Zealand sales each year (at a conservative estimate).

And it's a growing industry. Despite the growth in on-demand services such as Netflix, the film and game industries are continuing to enjoy increased sales.

Compare that $600 million in sales with the cost of New Zealand's light touch labelling and classification system, which costs the industry around $2 million a year - less than a half of 1 per cent of industry revenue - and wonder, why is the entertainment industry complaining to the Government that it pays too much for labelling and classification?

Big business also complains that New Zealand's labelling and classification of films and shows is slow. That's also untrue. Shows arriving from overseas have been examined and classified in a matter of hours - ensuring New Zealanders can enjoy them the same day as their overseas release.

Industry submissions on the Government's recent discussion document "Content Regulation in a Converged World" provide a chorus of complaints over any official interference in their business.

But behind the industry's smokescreen lies a desire for bigger profits. Every time an age restriction is applied to a film or programme, the potential audience gets smaller and the potential revenue for big business is cut - through, for example, reduced ticket sales or fewer subscriptions for on-demand content.

That's why industry are currently lobbying the Government harder than ever before to be allowed to classify their own material. No doubt the entertainment industry's profits would be even larger if the Government grants their wish. Other industries would also love preferential treatment.

The liquor and hospitality industry would no doubt like to set their own age restrictions and licensing requirements and increase liquor sales to younger people.

Big tobacco would make more money if all of the restrictions New Zealanders have placed on cigarette sales were axed. It is just as well New Zealanders resolutely restrict the activity of these industries to protect our society, particularly our young people.

The same is true of entertainment. Restrictions imposed on entertainment that features sex, horror, crime, cruelty and violence serve to protect children and ensure that New Zealand families have independent, accurate information to make decisions about what they watch and play.

A recent UMR survey showed 81 per cent of New Zealanders rely on official classifications at least some of the time to make viewing decisions. The most common reason for using official classifications is for adults to choose what their children watch.

The survey also showed 60 per cent preferred the independent official classifications to those placed on television programmes by the networks. This is a humbling level of public trust and confidence that money can't buy.

Keeping pace with the volume and diversity of entertainment in a digital age is not easy. But handing the responsibility to protect our children and families to those who have most to gain from their exploitation is not the answer.

The entertainment industry has already sought to have lower classifications applied to content including extreme violence and sadistic cruelty.

Recently we have had another example of big business acting against the interests of the community with Lightbox (a subsidiary of Spark) withdrawing from the official labelling and classification system and applying their own, misleading labels to programmes featuring violence, sexual violence, sex scenes and drug use.

New Zealand spends an increasing amount of its health and welfare budget trying to undo the harm caused by violence and sexual violence - as if such harm can truly be "undone".

Non-government organisations and charities supporting the victims of such violence are more overworked than ever. Surely larger profits for big business must take a back seat to the interests of New Zealand children and their families.

Dr Andrew R Jack is chief censor in the Office of Film & Literature Classification.

- NZ Herald

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