Content that must be classified by the Classification Board

7.33 While the ALRC proposes that most content that must be classified may be classified by authorised industry classifiers (or the Classification Board, if the content provider chooses), the ALRC also proposes that some content should continue to be only classified by the Classification Board.

7.34 The Classification Board’s greatest value perhaps lies in its role in providing an expert benchmark for classification standards and classification decisions. In line with the principle that communications and media services available to Australians should broadly reflect community standards, the independent Board, whose members are intended to be broadly representative of the Australian community, is suited to a bench-marking role.

7.35 Benchmarked standards are far more important under a system that anticipates decision making by many different decision makers and where more content may be classified directly by industry. There is already a high level of public confidence in the Board’s decisions, given its independence, depth of experience and expertise.

7.36 While post-classification audits might be one way to signal benchmarks, original classification decisions made by the Board provide frequent, proactive and publicly visible benchmarks by an independent statutory authority. The benchmarking benefit is amplified as Board decisions must carry over to the same content subsequently delivered in any other media format on any other platform.[27]

7.37 As an independent expert body, the Board’s decisions are perceived to be objective and free of self-interest. However, in order to maintain the level of expertise and experience expected of a benchmark decision maker, the Board needs to continue to routinely make classification decisions across media content that must be classified and is produced across the range of classification categories.

7.38 Industry should also have certainty and clarity regarding the content that must be submitted to the Board for classification. This is best achieved by identifying a discrete and distinct group of content from the mass of media content that must be classified, for which the Board will have statutory responsibility. This also means having regard to what constitutes a manageable volume of media content that would allow the Board to continue to deliver decisions in a timely manner.

Feature-length films for cinema release

7.39 The ALRC considers that feature-length films for cinema release provide a useful category of content that may be used to benchmark classification decisions. These films have a high public profile and a large audience reach over time and across other media platforms—they may be downloaded online, sold on DVD, or screened on television subsequent to their cinema release. Cinema release films also often spawn major franchises, including merchandise and other media content such as computer games. Ultimately, this is media content that, in all its forms, will be consumed by a significant proportion of the Australian population.

7.40 Furthermore, there appears to be stronger consumer expectation of reliable and independent classification information for films screened in cinemas. This is due, in part, to the costs incurred by people attending the cinema relative to other media content. This expectation may be reflected in the higher number of complaints and reviews of decisions for this content.

7.41 Films screened in cinemas generally account for the most classification reviews annually and the largest proportion of complaints relative to the number of classification decisions for this type of content.[28] In 2009–10, five of the eight applications for review were for cinema release films and there were 194 complaints for 422 cinema release films classified: these films represent 6% of Board classification decisions but they account for 18% of complaints received.[29] While the complaints relate to a small number of titles, they spanned the range of classifications including content classified G and PG and the complaint ratio is markedly different to the 91 complaints received about films and television series sold on DVD compared with 4,361 titles classified.[30]

7.42 A consistent feature of classification systems in other jurisdictions, even where classification is voluntary and may be industry led, is the classification of films for cinema release by an entity that is ‘independent’ of industry. Organisations such as the Classification and Rating Administration in the US, established by the Motion Picture Association of America and responsible for the classification of theatrical product, emphasises that its classifiers are parents who have no other connections to the film industry.[31]

7.43 A number of industry stakeholders, including the National Association of Cinema Operators, expressed the view that the current policy for cinema release films should not change and that these films should continue to be classified by the Classification Board.[32]

Computer games likely to be MA 15+ or higher

7.44 In Chapter 6, the ALRC proposes that only computer games likely to be classified MA 15+ or higher must be classified. As a popular form of media content that is produced for both children and adults, computer games should also be included in the range of content for which the Board provides a decision-making benchmark.

7.45 The ALRC also observes that computer games with strong or high level content have been the subject of extensive public debate and controversy.[33] Although some of this controversy is likely to abate in light of the decision by the July 2011 Standing Committee of Attorneys-General to introduce an R 18+ classification for computer games, the newness of this classification, as well as continued community concern about computer games, may generate ongoing expectations for closer scrutiny of this content. This is another justification for the classification of these categories of computer games by the Board.

Content that may be RC

7.46 Classification of potentially RC content is complex for several reasons. The nature of the content that lies at the boundaries of R 18+/RC and X 18+/RC classifications is such that it is often controversial, morally contentious and highly emotive. The RC classification is also the only classification that is associated with laws that result in outright bans on the sale, hire or distribution of media content. The Board, as a body independent from government and industry, is the appropriate body to classify this content on the basis that it is often very complex and the risk of harm that may arise from a wrong decision is arguably greater than with other types of content.

7.47 The Board, as opposed to industry, also has the experience and expertise necessary to classify content that may be RC, which spans a wide range of content, including extreme content such as child sexual abuse material. The same expertise is important in relation to media content that is required to be classified in order to enforce classification laws or which the Australian Government Minister responsible for censorship, the Regulator or another government agency submits for classification—including that submitted by law enforcement authorities such as Customs or state and territory police.

Proposal 7–1 The Classification of Media Content Act should provide that the following content must be classified by the Classification Board:

  1. feature-length films produced on a commercial basis and for cinema release;
  2. computer games produced on a commercial basis and likely to be classified MA 15+ or higher;
  3. content that may be RC;
  4. content that needs to be classified for the purpose of enforcing classification laws; and
  5. content submitted for classification by the Minister, the Regulator or another government agency.

[27] Only media content, that is modified to the extent that the modified content is likely to have a different classification to the original content, must be classified anew. For example, this means that the 2D version of a 3D film for cinema release does not need to be classified if the 2D version is likely to have the same classification as the 3D version already classified by the Classification Board. Under such a scenario, both versions of the film would carry the original Classification Board classification.

[28] See Classification Board’s Annual Reports from 2005–06 to 2009–10.

[29] Classification Board, Annual Report 2009–10, 45.

[30] Ibid, 46.

[31] Some classification schemes also use ‘independent’ bodies for the classification of other content such as DVDs or computer games, however, this is not always the case. For example, in Canada, each of the provinces is responsible for classification of films for theatrical release using various classification mechanisms while DVDs are ‘classified’ by averaging the decisions of all the provinces in relation to the theatrical release.

[32] National Association of Cinema Operators - Australasia, Submission CI 1155, 15 July 2011.

[33] Some sections of the community continue to express strong concerns about computer games. Censorship Ministers, at the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General meeting in December 2010, echoed these concerns by requesting separate classification guidelines for computer games that have regard to the concerns raised by Ministers generally and the interactive nature of computer games in particular.