Classification categories

Existing categories

9.7 Under the Classification Act there are currently seven classification categories for films and five for computer games as follows:

Classification

Descriptor

G

General

PG

Parental Guidance

M

Mature

MA 15+

Mature Accompanied

R 18+ (films only)

Restricted[2]

X 18+ (films only)

Restricted

RC

Refused Classification[3]

9.8 There are also four classification categories for publications:

Classification

Descriptor

Unrestricted

 

Category 1

Restricted

Category 2

Restricted

RC

Refused Classification[4]

9.9 The television codes of practice for commercial free-to-air television, subscription television, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) provide for the following classifications:

Classification

Descriptor

P

Pre-school[5]

C

Children[6]

G

General

PG

Parental Guidance

M

Mature

MA 15+

Mature Audience

MA 15+

Not suitable for people under 15[7]

MAV 15+

Not suitable for people under 15: Strong Violence[8]

AV

Adult Violence[9]

R 18+

Restricted[10]

Common classification categories for media content

9.10 The ALRC recommends the introduction of common classification categories— G, PG, M, MA 15+, R 18+, X 18+ and Prohibited—for uniform application across all classified media content. This would mean that the same classifications and markings would be used in cinemas, on television, on DVD and computer games packaging, and on websites with classified content. In line with two of the guiding principles for reform, consumers would benefit from information that is clear and consistent and the approach reflects the goal of platform neutrality.[11]

9.11 Many individuals favoured the use of classification categories, markings and guidelines that are common to all forms of media content because, as one submission argued, ‘different classification of the same content, according to different criteria, across cinema and DVD as compared to television is inconsistent and confusing’.[12] Others described it as ‘illogical’ and ‘archaic’.[13] In particular, some submissions to the Issues Paper (ALRC IP 40) suggested that the different categories for publications are not well known or understood nor are some of the category variations used by certain television broadcasters.[14] As MLCS Management asserted:

Simply use the same classification categories and markings for all types of content. There is no reason to differentiate. Consumers find understanding and applying information easier if it is not complicated.[15]

9.12 There was also support for uniform classification categories from industry and other stakeholder organisations because the disparate categories across media platforms contributes to consumer uncertainty in relation to the meaning of respective classifications and this ultimately undermines the value of classification information.[16]

9.13 The ALRC considers that the full range of classification categories should also be available for all media content and notes that the July 2011 decision of Censorship Ministers to introduce an R 18+ classification for computer games is consistent with this position.[17]

Abolition of publication-specific classification categories

9.14 The introduction of common classification markings would mean that the existing publications classifications—Unrestricted, Category 1 Restricted and Category 2 Restricted—would no longer be used.

9.15 In Chapter 6, the ALRC recommends that publications should not generally be required to be classified. In Chapter 10, the ALRC recommends that, other than content that must be classified, all other media content that is likely to be R 18+ or X 18+, must be restricted to adults. However, if a publication were classified voluntarily, it should be given one of the common classifications recommended above: G, PG, M, MA 15+, R 18+, X 18+ or P.

9.16 The ALRC considers that these classifications are not only more familiar to consumers than those currently used for publications, but they would provide more guidance. The broader range of categories would also provide classifiers greater flexibility to assign a classification to a publication that better reflects the content of the material. For example, an adult magazine with realistic depictions of actual sexual activity between consenting adults might be assigned the X 18+ classification, while a book such as American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, that is currently classified Category 1 Restricted, might be classified R 18+, with consumer advice for high level violence and sexual violence.

9.17 Some submissions expressed concern that because the distribution of X 18+ films is illegal in most of Australia, the introduction of common classification categories would mean that X 18+ magazines could also no longer be lawfully sold.[18] Banning these magazines is not the intention of this recommendation. The aim of this recommendation is to provide for consistent and accurate classification information and labelling of content. This reflects guiding principle 4 that consumers should receive information about media content in a clear manner.

9.18 The Australian Government could choose to prohibit the distribution of some types of X 18+ content (eg films), and not others (eg magazines). This would be no less consistent than the current situation whereby the distribution of X 18+ films is not allowed but the distribution of pornographic magazines is permitted.[19] Whether some or all X 18+ media content should be prohibited is discussed in Chapter 10 and enacting a new classification scheme under Commonwealth legislative powers is considered in Chapter 15.

Abolition of television-specific classification categories

9.19 To harmonise the classification categories, the ALRC also recommends the removal of the MAV 15+[20] and AV[21] classifications, used by SBS and commercial television broadcasters respectively. The ‘V’ in these classifications refers to violence. In the ALRC’s view, consumer advice is the better place to refer to the level of violence in a television program.

9.20 Stakeholders that support the proposal, including FamilyVoice Australia, also observed that the distinction between MA 15+ and AV in the Commercial Television Code of Practice is arguably unnecessary and potentially unhelpful:

While many parents are rightly concerned about the adverse impact of violence on their children, many are equally concerned about the adverse impact of sexual depictions, coarse language, adult themes and drug use. Such parents see no reason to differentiate these elements by separate classifications. The provision of consumer advice meets the needs of those parents who wish to permit their older children to view some but not all material from the adult classification range.[22]

9.21 The national broadcasters and Free TV Australia supported the removal of these classification categories to ‘eliminate inconsistencies across types of classified content’.[23]

Recommendation 9–1 The Classification of Media Content Act should provide that one set of classification categories applies to all classified media content as follows: G, PG, M, MA 15+, R 18+, X 18+ and Prohibited. Each item of media content classified under the National Classification Scheme should be assigned one of these statutory classification categories.

Changes to existing category names and markings

9.22 While there was strong support for uniform classification categories that would apply to all classified media content—irrespective of the platform—few submissions expressed unqualified support for the proposed C, PG 8+ and T 13+ categories.

9.23 Although the Discussion Paper proposed a new category and revised markings for the lower classifications, the ALRC recommends only some minor changes to the existing categories. First, a change of name to the ‘Refused Classification’ (RC) category (to be renamed Prohibited)[24] and secondly, the removal of legally enforceable access restrictions for MA 15+ classified content.[25]

9.24 The ALRC is persuaded by arguments regarding the cost-benefit of changing long standing classification categories with a high level of public awareness that are generally supported.[26]It also considers that the case for change needs to be balanced against insufficient evidence that the existing categories are ineffective;[27] the need for research and consultation on the value of age references and the appropriateness of particular age thresholds;[28] and the absence of evidence that the reconfigured names and markings would be significantly more effective than the existing categories.[29]

9.25 Industry stakeholders, in particular, questioned the cost-benefit of changing classification categories.[30] Free TV Australia contended that the social costs (to the consumer) and the actual costs (to industry) of implementing the proposed classification category names and markings would far outweigh the benefits.[31]

9.26 Financial costs (for industry and/or government) might include: reclassifying the back catalogue of content that is still aired; retraining classifiers; changing marketing information, voice-overs and billboards; redesigning mainframe systems; and providing comprehensive and sustained education campaigns for audiences.[32] Social costs might include consumer confusion, varied community expectations where content is reclassified into different classification categories and consumer uncertainty that may lead to an increase in complaints as people adjust to the changes.[33]

9.27 The ALRC considers that, given that the benefits of the proposed changes are untested, and the potential for them to increase consumer uncertainty at a time when the public might be adjusting to potentially significant changes to the overall classification model, it would be premature to recommend this course of action.

9.28 Some respondents to the Issues Paper indicated that there may be confusion in relation to certain classification categories, for example between the M and MA 15+ classifications and G content that could be for a general audience or children.[34] While issues of clarity could potentially be addressed by the proposed categories, they might also be managed to some extent through consumer education[35] and consumer advice that accompanies classification decisions. Given that an extensive public information and awareness campaign would be necessary if a new classification scheme is implemented, there would be an opportunity to reinforce understanding of the classification categories in that context.

9.29 In the ALRC’s opinion, there may well be room for improving the usefulness of the classification categories and names—for example, the ALRC is concerned that under the ALRC model, there would remain two classifications for a ‘mature audience’: M and MA 15+.[36] Opportunities to further revise the classification categories should be taken when there is sufficient evidence to support change. If a new classification scheme is implemented, research could be conducted once it has been operational for a period of time, for example, to test the adequacy and effectiveness of the categories and markings. If changes were needed, steps to facilitate this—including developing, consulting and testing proposals—should follow.

9.30 It would seem that the existing categories and markings are sufficiently well known and understood by consumers, and there is limited evidence that change is warranted. Therefore the ALRC is not recommending the introduction of new and revised categories as previously proposed.

9.31 Some of the issues raised in submissions about the categories and markings proposed in the Discussion Paper are noted below.

Age references

9.32 There were mixed views on the appropriateness and suitability of the nomenclature and age references identified in the categories proposed in the Discussion Paper.[37] Some submissions commented that the emphasis should be on the knowledge and maturity of the child based on their level of schooling and ability, rather than a given age,[38] and that the age references should reflect research on child and adolescent development to provide for meaningful, rather than arbitrary distinctions between categories.[39] A number of submissions suggested alternative age references, for example 12+, because the distinction between the ages of 13 and 15 was too narrow.[40]

9.33 It was also submitted that age references could cause confusion by signalling that the content was suitable only for those within that age group. There were also concerns that parents would be disempowered as ‘children develop a “graduation mentality”, with eight year olds expecting to move from G to PG content and 13 year olds shunning G and PG content in favour of M content’.[41]

9.34 Others commented that the age references might mean some parents may be less likely to apply critical thought to their particular children’s content options, believing that PG 8+ content must be ‘alright’ for any eight year old.[42] This approach would run counter to the usefulness of current categories that focus on descriptive terms such as ‘Mature’ and ‘Parental Guidance Recommended’ which Free TV Australia submits:

require audiences (especially parents) to consider the likely content of the material and any accompanying consumer advice to determine whether the content is appropriate or desirable.[43]

9.35 Industry stakeholders were concerned that the proposed age references have implications for the content that might be permitted within those categories relative to the existing categories. There were concerns about ‘bracket creep’ and consequences for time-zone restrictions, audience behaviour and advertising revenue.

9.36 For example, the ABC and SBS cited documentary programs that are often not relevant to children and address themes not intended for children that are currently accommodated in the PG classification, yet under the proposed PG 8+ category, would need to be classified T 13+, because they are not intended for eight year olds.[44] This might have further consequences by affecting when the content may be broadcast (eg, only after 8.30 pm), which would prevent many documentaries from being screened early in the evening or during the day on weekends—a restriction that would disadvantage audiences by limiting the availability of educational and socially relevant content.[45]

Use of the term ‘Teen’

9.37 Some submissions supported the introduction of T 13+ (Teen). However, others said the term ‘Teen’, unlike the other categories, prescribes an audience that may not necessarily be the intended or appropriate target of the content. This terminology may lead to confusion, as the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia explained:

T 13+ may work well for a Harry Potter film with a teen viewership, but would be less useful for a film containing moderate impact material that deals with mature concepts, such as Law and Order: Criminal Intent.[46]

9.38 Another stakeholder remarked that the association of T 13+ with teenagers (as opposed to the current M–Mature), may also deter adults from selecting the content—assuming that higher level MA 15+ and above content is targeted to them.[47]

The C (Children) classification

9.39 The C (Children) and P (Preschool Children) classifications are currently only used by free-to-air commercial television networks. These classifications are granted by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA) on application if the content satisfies the requirements of the Children’s Television Standard (CTS),[48] which includes that it:

  • is made specifically for children;
  • is entertaining;
  • is well produced using sufficient resources to ensure a high standard of script, cast, direction, editing, shooting, sound and other production elements;
  • enhances a child’s understanding and experience; and
  • is appropriate for Australian children.

9.40 In the Discussion Paper, the ALRC proposed that the new Classification of Media Content Act should provide for a C classification that may be used for media content classified under the scheme. While some submitters welcomed the idea of information indicating that content would not require any parental guidance or supervision because it was specifically made for children, a range of submissions expressed concerns with the proposal.

9.41 Free TV Australia, for example, noted the potential for overlap between the C, G and PG 8+ classifications.[49] Another stakeholder queried whether this new classification could be sufficiently well-distinguished from the G classification so that ‘it won’t, in practice, be treated as a ‘G’ rating (or vice versa), and, in a few years, cause a confusion similar to that over the M15+/MA15+ film and games categories’.[50]

9.42 In their joint submission, the ABC and SBS submitted that there can be significant differences between content aimed at four year olds and content aimed at eight or 12 year olds—nonetheless, they are both types of content intended for children.[51]

9.43 The critical point raised by several key stakeholders is that the existing C and P classifications are not, strictly speaking, ‘classifications’ at all. As the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM) points out, the ACMA labels are ‘a guarantee of quality, devised for the purpose of enabling broadcasters to fill a quota. It is not a finely-tuned measure for saying whom the material is suitable for.[52] It is this dual purpose that gives rise to the current situation that sees some C material classified PG by the Classification Board (the Board) because it is not necessarily always suitable for all children.[53]

9.44 The ALRC considers that the CTS should not be conflated with content classification. A children’s classification, consistent with the other classification categories, should reflect classification considerations only and be expressly about assessing the content’s suitability for young children. However, explicitly de-coupling classification from the CTS would, among other things, necessitate different markings for CTS content and C classified content. It might also have workload implications as content would need to be both CTS assessed and subsequently classified (against criteria relevant to their distinctly different purposes).

9.45 The merits or otherwise of the CTS, whether it should be retained and its form and content are matters beyond the scope of this Inquiry but may be addressed under the Convergence Review. The ALRC considers that a C classification should not be introduced without fully examining its relationship to the CTS and is therefore not recommending a C classification at this time.

[2] Commonwealth, State and Territory Censorship Ministers have agreed to an R 18+ classification for computer games: Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, Communiqué 21 & 22 July 2011. A bill to amend the Classification Act to establish an R 18+ classification for computer games was introduced by the Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister for Justice, Jason Clare MP, in February 2012.

[3]Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) ss 7(2), (3).

[4] Ibid s 7(1).

[5] The P classification is only used by the commercial free-to-air television networks.

[6] The C classification is only used by the commercial free-to-air television networks.

[7] SBS describes its MA 15+ classification category as ‘not suitable for people under 15’ rather than ‘Mature Audience’.

[8] This classification category is unique to SBS.

[9] This classification category is unique to commercial broadcasters.

[10] R 18+ programs are only allowed to be screened on subscription television.

[11] See Ch 4, Principles 4 and 8.

[12] S Ailwood and B Arnold, Submission CI 2156; J Jago, Submission CI 1935; M Fairhurst, Submission CI 1888; A Orman, Submission CI 1700; E Myles, Submission CI 1615; N Parker, Submission CI 1545; L Murray, Submission CI 1259.

[13] S Bennett, Submission CI 1277.

[14] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521; Collective Shout, Submission CI 2450; A Hightower and Others, Submission CI 2159; M Saunders, Submission CI 2026; C Firm, Submission CI 1962.

[15] MLCS Management, Submission CI 1241.

[16] Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519, Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, Submission CI 2517, Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia, Submission CI 2513; FamilyVoice Australia, Submission CI 2509; Uniting Church in Australia, Submission CI 2504; Foxtel, Submission CI 2497; Arts Law Centre of Australia, Submission CI 2490; Collective Shout, Submission CI 2477; Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Submission CI 2463.

[17] Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, Communiqué 21 & 22 July 2011.

[18] Eros Association, Submission CI 2530; ACP Magazines, Submission CI 2520; I Graham, Submission CI 2507; Lin, Submission CI 2476.

[19] X 18+ films may not be sold in any Australian state, however Category 1 Restricted and Category 2 Restricted publications may be lawfully sold in all states and territories with the exception of Queensland.

[20] This classification is used by SBS for content warranting an MA 15+ classification for the element of violence.

[21] This classification is used by commercial television broadcasters for content that is unsuitable for the MA 15+ classification due to the intensity or frequency of the violence or because violence is central to the theme.

[22] FamilyVoice Australia, Submission CI 85.

[23] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521; Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519.

[24] See Ch 11.

[25] See Ch 10. To reflect the changes discussed in Ch 10, the MA 15+ classification category descriptor should be amended from ‘Mature Accompanied’ to ‘Mature Audience’ and the black ‘restricted’ tag removed from the bottom of the marking. The descriptor ‘Mature Audience’ provides for consistency across media platforms—as this is the meaning of the MA 15+ classification applied under most of the television codes of practice, including subscription television.

[26] In a review undertaken by ACMA, 96.8% of survey respondents stated they were familiar with the classification symbols shown before programs: Australian Communications and Media Authority, Reality Television Review Final Report (2007). This is consistent with the findings of research commissioned by the OFLC in 2005: Office of Film and Literature Classification, Classification Study (2005).

[27] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521; Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association, Submission CI 2494; Classification Board, Submission CI 2485; Australian Home Entertainment Distribution Association, Submission CI 1152.

[28] Foxtel, Submission CI 2497; Australian Council on Children and the Media, Submission CI 2495.

[29] Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association, Submission CI 2494.

[30] For example, Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521; Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519; Foxtel, Submission CI 2497; Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association, Submission CI 2494; Australian Home Entertainment Distribution Association, Submission CI 2478.

[31] Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521; Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519; FamilyVoice Australia, Submission CI 2509; Foxtel, Submission CI 2497; Australian Home Entertainment Distribution Association, Submission CI 2478.

[34] For example, M Buckner, Submission CI 2350; L Geyer, Submission CI 1863; D Cheai, Submission CI 1539; L Wilson, Submission CI 1503; A Wells, Submission CI 166.

[35] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521; Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519; Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, Submission CI 1101.

[36] Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia, Submission CI 2513.

[37] Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519; Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia, Submission CI 2513; FamilyVoice Australia, Submission CI 2509; Foxtel, Submission CI 2497; Classification Board, Submission CI 2485; Australian Home Entertainment Distribution Association, Submission CI 2478.

[38] FamilyVoice Australia, Submission CI 2509; J Trevaskis, Submission CI 2493.

[39] Australian Council on Children and the Media, Submission CI 2495; S Ailwood, Submission CI 2486; Collective Shout, Submission CI 2477.

[40] Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, Submission CI 2517; National Association of Cinema Operators - Australasia, Submission CI 2514; Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia, Submission CI 2513.

[41] For example, FamilyVoice Australia, Submission CI 2509.

[42] For example, Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia, Submission CI 2513.

[47] Foxtel, Submission CI 2497.

[48] Australian Communications and Media Authority, Children’s Television Standards 2009.

[49] Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519.

[50] A Hightower, Submission CI 2511.

[51] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521.

[52] Australian Council on Children and the Media, Submission CI 2495.

[53] Ibid.