Chief censor labels warning on Lightbox drama Flesh and Bone 'inadequate'

Chief censor Andrew Jack has accused Spark subsidiary Lightbox of failing to warn viewers of the contents of ...

Chief censor Andrew Jack has accused Spark subsidiary Lightbox of failing to warn viewers of the contents of ballet-themed drama series Flesh and Bone (above) as a wider row erupts over content labelling.

A row has erupted between chief censor Andrew Jack and Spark television subsidiary Lightbox over warning labels on programmes. 

Jack accused Lightbox of failing to properly warn its viewers of the "stronger content" in one of its imported US drama, Flesh and Bone.

He also released correspondence showing Lightbox had already decided to "suspend" submitting programmes to the Film and Video Labelling Body (FVLB) for classification. 

Lightbox chief executive Kym Niblock said on Thursday morning that Spark might stop submitting Lightbox programmes to the FVLB, amid confusion over the legal obligations faced by internet television providers.

READ MORE: Sunday TV ad-ban could be removed amid media review

She stressed the Spark online television subsidiary would continue to label programmes itself so viewers had an idea as to whether they were appropriate for them to watch.

Jack released a letter Niblock sent to him on December 9 in which she said Lightbox had "suspended" sending programmes to the FVLB. 

Lightbox had not adequately labelled Flesh and Bone, Jack said.

Lightbox gave the ballet-themed drama series a "provisional R16 warning" on its website, adding "Official NZ rating to be confirmed".

Deputy chief censor Jared Mullen said Lightbox' label was inadequate because it didn't contain any more specific warning as to the programme's content.

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The label was misleading because it "looked like an official label" when it was not, and implied the programme was pending official classification when it wasn't, he said.

Jack said he was concerned that survivors of sexual abuse – and teenagers with an interest in ballet – "may view this content with a misleading label and no warning as to the potentially harmful content". 

Niblock said Jack had not previously raised any concerns about the series or its label with her.

She said it was "interesting" Jack had chosen to "release private correspondence" between them.

Regarding her earlier implication that no final decision had been made on submitting programmes to the FVLB, Niblock said "we continue to review our position on an ongoing basis". 

A review of content regulation ordered by Broadcasting Minister Amy Adams last year showed regulators and television companies had starkly different opinions on the best way to protect viewers from content they might find harmful.

They differ over the degree to which classification should be self-regulated, whether there should be a single classification regime for free-to-air television, pay-TV and internet television, and the overall significance of content labels.

A discussion paper released by the Culture and Heritage Ministry also exposed an apparent difference of opinion on the current legal situation between the ministry and censors.  

The ministry said that on-demand television services – such as Lightbox, Neon and Netflix – were not covered by either the Broadcasting Act or the labelling provisions of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act.

But the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) appeared to take a different view in a submission to the ministry, saying it believed on-demand films were covered by the Classification Act. 

Spark said it had received conflicting information from experts, before originally deciding to submit Lightbox programmes that were new to New Zealand to the FVLB for classification.

Those programmes included the likes of Outlander and Black Sails, some episodes of which were classified as R16.

But Niblock said those official ratings cost Lightbox "a great deal of money". 

"If we can get the same outcome in a different way, then clearly we are going to want to not spend that cash," she said. 

The OFLC said United States company Netflix had submitted its catalogue of programmes to the FVLB for classification when it launched in New Zealand in February last year. Netflix spokesman Jai Dattani would not comment on its future intentions.

Niblock questioned "how on earth" Netflix had been able to get all the content for its New Zealand service classified for a cost that the OFLC said was less than $150,000.  

"Lightbox has spent much, much more than that," she said.

Sky Television spokeswoman Kirsty Way said it had instead self-classified shows on Neon using the alternative regime provided for by the Broadcasting Act.

That Act is supervised by the Broadcasting Standards Authority, rather than the OFLC.

Sky planned to continue with that approach until the Government decided on any new regime, Way said.

Other issues being canvassed under the review include whether television broadcasters should be allowed to show adverts on Sunday mornings, Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Anzac Day morning.

Television New Zealand argued in favour, saying those days included busy shopping days.

"The special status given to Sunday mornings and Easter in particular does not reflect the increasingly secular society in which we live," it said.

Others such as the Catholic Bishops Conference were opposed. 

SELF-REGULATION AN ABDICATION?

Television companies are talking up the benefits of self-regulation. "We get very few complaints about the classifications across our broadcast content which suggests that our customers are generally comfortable with the information we provide and the protections we put in place," Way said.

But chief censor Andrew Jack argued that relying on self-regulation would "allow commercial incentives to drive increased availability of harmful – even objectionable content".

The OFLC said films were being made available for "mass consumption" overseas, which despite being widely available in countries such as Australia, were "undoubtedly objectionable under current New Zealand law".

HOW MANY REGIMES?

The OFLC argued in favour of subject programming to the same rules, regardless of the platform it appeared on. That could mean expanding its mandate in both the areas of broadcast television and internet television.

But Sky and Spark said a single set of rules was not necessarily the right way to go, as consumers had different expectations of free-to-air, paid and online television.

Sky said that if a single classification regime were to apply, it was only fair it should also extend to news websites – as they now carried "a reasonable amount of original entertainment content" – and to foreign content providers such as YouTube.

CLASSIFICATION OR CROWD-SOURCING?

The OFLC said New Zealand had "unique attitudes and values" that needed to be reflected in the labelling of content. For example, compared with Australia, New Zealand has a higher tolerance for sexual expression and a far lower tolerance for violence, sexual violence, horror and cruelty, it said.

But Lightbox said that while content ratings were still important, they were "no longer the primary factor used to educate end-users about the content of a programme".

"Customers of online content services can access a wealth of information from other internet tools to research the content of a programme," it said.

It gave the example of website IMDB which, as well as providing general reviews of programmes, also crowd-sources information for parents on possibly offensive content such as sex and nudity, violence, swearing, and drug use.

WHAT ROLE THE DOLLAR?

Spark said the Classification Act regime was "costly and cumbersome", complaining also that the FVLB made a "large operating surplus" in its last financial year.

Sky said reforms were needed to reduce "the costs, delays and red tape associated with getting content online".

But the OFLC balked at the picture it said been painted by the Culture of Heritage Ministry's discussion paper of a cumbersome, slow and unresponsive labelling and classification system, saying that was "totally inaccurate".

Episodes of on-demand series such as Vikings, Outlander, Black Sails and Better Call Saul had all been classified under urgency, sometimes in a matter of hours, it said.

When Netflix launched its New Zealand service, it was able to get all its shows classified for "less than $150,000", it said.

 - Stuff

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