Worldwide Content Classification – What Happens When You Get It Wrong

In our previous blog post, “Worldwide Content Classification – How Hard Can It Be?” we examined how the exponential growth of the OTT and VOD markets, along with the annual release of hundreds of thousands of new titles, places pressure on content regulators and platforms to obtain in-country age-ratings before release. In this post, we’ll explore what happens when content providers attempt to short-cut the process.

Content producers use strategies to navigate the ratings process. We’ve discussed avoiding them altogether, but another common approach is mapped ratings. Mapping a rating involves looking at the MPAA rating and guessing the equivalency age rating in another country. This is usually done without a clear understanding of the criteria used by regulatory agencies and results in real risk if done so.

• If the rating is too low, then the content provider can find itself in legal jeopardy.
• If the rating is too high, then the audience is artificially constrained.
• If the rating is Unrated/Not Rated, then the content is not discoverable on most platforms.

The MPAA PG-13 rated film “Hunger Games” is a good example of how this issue can manifest.

The table below demonstrates the broad difference in age ratings across several countries and indicates what ratings could result if content providers were to ignore cultural sensitivities and simply guess an age rating based upon the MPAA’s PG-13. The ratings in red indicate conceivable ratings based on an unfamiliarity of country ratings criteria or cultural sensitivities. These higher ratings would result in a smaller audience, and therefore, lower box office. Too low a rating, as in the case of rating the film a “12” in Brazil, could put the content provider in legal jeopardy for exposing young children to unacceptable content such as violence. The cells with black borders and in green are the actual country ratings for the film as assigned by the regulatory bodies.

To understand the market impact of getting it wrong, in Germany, for example, the difference in audience between an age “12” and an age “16” rating is 2.6 million potential viewers. Therefore, guessing a “16” rating for “Hunger Games” in Germany (where the average theater ticket price is $10) would have a $26M impact on box office sales in one country.

In some countries content providers can release content as Unrated or Not Rated. This is problematic because most platform algorithms exclude unrated content, which means those films will not be discoverable or appear on a platform’s list of recommendations. Unless a subscriber knows the title of the film or show, they will not be able to find it. If they cannot find it, they will not watch it.

Episodic television is more challenging because scripts change from episode to episode, and the rating may be higher or lower as a result. This risk is most often seen in dramas that include violence, sexual references, cultural, religious and/or moral content. The television series’ “Mizrapur”and “Tandav” are clear examples of this phenomenon.

Both shows have episodes that are acceptable under India’s standards. However, in one episode of “Tandav” members of the public complained the content “hurt religious sentiments.” “Tandav” is the subject of legal action following a complaint filed by member of India’s Parliament. As the following quote shows, review of that one episode was enough to foment a complaint to the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting.

“After watching the series, it was found that in the 17th minute of the first episode, characters playing Hindu gods and goddesses have been shown in an uncharitable way and using objectionable language, which can incite religious tension. Similarly, in the 22nd minute of the same episode, efforts have been made to ignite caste clashes with casteist remarks. The person holding a dignified post like that of Prime Minister has been shown in a very derogatory manner in the web series.” – Senior Sub-inspector Amar Nath Yadav

“Mizrapur” is now before India’s Supreme Court, following complaints that episodes depict the area’s residents as a “goon(s), vagabond(s) and adulterer(s) in front of the country,” and has “completely tarnished the historical and cultural image of the city/district.” One must question how an OTT platform can be expected to know the seriousness of these types of concerns when the in-country producer is not aware of them? “Mizrapur’s” producers have publicly said that any misrepresentation was unintentional, but that has not stopped legal action against the series.

Cultural sensitivity is another factor that can seriously impact content. Issues like drug addiction, rape, child abuse, and suicide are seen differently in many cultures and must be taken into consideration. Suicide, for example, is treated differently in film in the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Sweden, and Japan. How it is portrayed matters. Is it a primary component of the story? Is it depicted in the film, e.g., seriously or callously? Is it violent or not? Without a full understanding of these cultural factors, content providers can make mistakes in age-ratings and consumer advisories that directly impact markets and revenue.

Besides adverse impact to revenue, penalties for violating local laws and cultural norms can include take-down notices, monetary sanctions, legal sanctions, negative brand and business impact, and possibly imprisonment. Risk can be mitigated when content creators use the Spherex platform to culture fit their content for local audiences worldwide.

 

1 Tandav controversy: Here’s everything you should know, The Indian Express, Jan. 27, 2021

2 Supreme Court issues notice to Centre, Amazon Prime Video for ‘Mirzapur,’ Mint, Jan. 21, 2021

3 Ibid.

 

 

 

Worldwide Content Classification – How Hard Can It Be?

The explosion of direct streaming and OTT services worldwide on a wide range of platforms e.g., online, mobile, and Connected TV (CTV)means content creator’s products have global potential. That means films, TV shows, documentaries, and live events can reach new markets and generate additional revenue for everyone in the production chain. The only challenge is it isn’t a simple process. The good news is Spherex offers a solution to assist creators in reaching those markets quickly, properly, and cost-effectively.

The phrase, “how hard can it be?” is a common first thought, but when considering things like different cultures, languages, religious sensibilities, and intolerance to violence and sexuality, getting content released in a timely manner can get slowed to a crawl or stopped altogether simply due to a lack of cultural awareness and competence.

This begs the question of who in the content creation chain needs age ratings services and when do they need it? Because assigning appropriate age ratings occur post-production, it would be premature to discuss ratings with writers, directors, or producers at the creation phase of content. Their focus is on developing and telling the story. That leaves obtaining age ratings to those whose responsibility is deciding where films will be released, e.g., producers, post-production houses, and distributors.

The map identifies countries where age ratings are required for any content to be exhibited or streamed. Countries shown in dark blue are in the top 20 markets measured by total box office receipts for 2019. Those in light blue simply indicate smaller market countries, but still requiring age ratings. Countries in gray have no formal film maturity rating requirement.

By our count, 56 countries worldwide have some form of maturity ratings requirement. The vast majority of those (45) have a government-managed entity or office (often a sub-agency to a ministry, or separate cultural agency) to oversee their rating system. The rest are operated or managed by the film industry or a private service. In the United States, for example, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) established and manages an industry-based rating system that has been used not only in the U.S. but worldwide since 1968. It is administered by the Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA), an independent division of the MPA. Films released in the U.S. must obtain an MPAA rating to be shown in most theaters. Films can be unrated, but that limits exhibition in most of the country’s theaters and greatly reduces box office potential worldwide. However, those same films can be streamed on any OTT platform.

There is no agreed-upon global standard for rating video content. No country, region nor the Media & Entertainment (M&E) industry has called for one to be developed. There are some countries that regulate film, but not television or streaming content. Hence, there are approximately 53 distinctly different sets of rules content creators and distributors must follow to obtain ratings for their work to be shown in other countries. This is in addition to any language, cultural, or religious sensitivities they must also navigate to obtain distribution approval before they can make money. That doesn’t mean countries can’t agree on how to rate content; there are examples of this happening. In Europe, for example, Germany’s independent Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft (FSK) standard has been adopted by Switzerland, and the Netherland’s “Institute for the Classification of Audiovisual Media” system has been adopted by Belgium and Turkey.

Not everyone gets it right. Mistakes in ratings can lead to public outcry, negative media attention, religious criticism and in some instances, the loss of a job or landing oneself in jail. Major studios have offices located worldwide to deal with ratings and have for decades, so it’s not as challenging for them because their teams live where the content is released and are familiar with any cultural problems that may arise.

It is important to note that some of the world’s largest markets frequently update/change their regulatory requirements. The European Union recently instituted local content requirements. Examples of scenes in a film being approved in one country and not the neighboring country are quite common. What is acceptable in Japan may not be admissible in China. Likewise, some content satisfactory to regulators in one region of India is not allowable in another.

The challenge facing content creators and distributors is their lack of the unique cultural knowledge required to navigate international regulations in their target markets. The sheer volume of catalog and future content (averaging 356,781 new titles each year for the past five years) presents a real dilemma for both regulators and content creators. Creators can’t release the content without a rating, and the regulator can’t assign a rating without a review. It’s the proverbial cat and mouse chase. With over a decade of working directly with the world’s most influential government regulators, Spherex can quickly identify risks and prevent problems from occurring before they happen, thus ensuring your content is released to market without worry or wait.

Controversy around Amazon’s Indian Series ‘Tandav’

The recent release of Amazon Prime Video’s “Tandav” created enormous controversy in India. Many viewers accused the show of offending religious sentiments. “Tandav” is a political drama with several popular Indian actors including Saif Ali Khan who also starred in the contentious “Sacred Games” and Dimple Kapadia who was seen in Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” The actors ran into trouble when, in six different states, multiple police cases were filed (FIRs) against the program’s creators and cast.

The fictional series’ focuses on clashes between a political leader and a student activist. In the two scenes causing the most backlash, one actor portrays the Hindu Lord Shiva using objectionable language; in the other, an actor portrays the Prime Minister insulting a leader of a less privileged class, which is viewed as discriminatory.

The rising number of complaints against the show prompted India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to summon Amazon Prime Video Executives for questioning and an explanation of the controversial content in the series. Director Ali Abbas Zafar released a statement apologizing for any unintentional disrespect caused by the show. Following a second round of talks with the Ministry, Zafar released a statement on Twitter confirming that the disputed scenes will be dropped from the series, effectively resulting in censorship.

Despite the public mea culpas, criticism mounted forcing creators and cast to ask India’s Supreme Court for interim protection from arrest, which the apex court denied. In its ruling, the court emphasized that “freedom of speech is not absolute” and “You cannot play the role of character that hurts the sentiments of a community.” Given the intensity of grievances against “Tandav” and other streaming platform content (“Mirzapur”), the Information and Broadcasting Ministry announced that they would soon provide official guidelines to regulate content available on these services.

There have been numerous attempts of censorship in India; film and/or series content is flagged for containing material deemed objectionable. Netflix faced a boycott when in its series “A Suitable Boy,” one of the episodes depicted a Muslim man kissing a Hindu woman allegedly within the premises of a temple. The scene hurt the sentiments of people of a particular religion and resulted in filing of police cases against the Vice President of Content and Director of Public Policies at Netflix India.

Ultimately, in a country as vast and varied as India, some content is bound to be offensive to certain parts of the population. Self-regulation, as practiced internationally is surely the way forward to protect the freedom of expression guaranteed by the India’s Constitution. Following this path will not only enhance the credibility of the media industry, but also inspire confidence in the responsibility of the content creators while protecting their independence and lessening the pressure on the judiciary.

‘The Lady of Heaven’ Banned in Pakistan, Raises Ire in Other Countries

The world is entering a new era of international collaboration in media and entertainment. How do stakeholders and participants blend and interpret their respective cultures and points of view? What results–a piece of work that celebrates the beliefs and values of local people, or will misunderstanding and controversy flourish? The film, “The Lady of Heaven,” is one such multicultural endeavor. It was produced by the U.K.’s Enlightened Kingdom, directed by Eli King, an Australian born actor of Egyptian descent, and written by Sheikh Yasser Al-Habib, a Kuwaiti Shia Muslim cleric, and the head of the London-based Khoddam Al-Mahdi Organization. After watching the trailer, the film appears to be a vivid, multilayered story with significant religious overtones. “The Lady of Heaven” was due to be released Dec. 30 but has not. While no official reason has been given, dissent about the content’s veracity has already begun.

On Jan. 5, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) banned the film, deeming it “sacrilegious.” It ordered social media platforms to remove trailers and promotional material. In Egypt, concerned citizens, religious leaders, and scholars urged that screenings be halted. They called for fatwas (formal legal interpretation of Islamic law) forbidding the film’s viewing and demanded the U.K. cease worldwide distribution. The Council of Jabal Amel Scholars in Lebanon condemned the production, saying the material encourages hate and discord. A few years ago, while it was still in pre-production, Iran clerics blacklisted the film.

The film’s website synopsis reads, “A heart-wrenching journey of Lady Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Separated by 1400 years, an Iraqi child, in the midst of a war-torn country, learns the importance and power of patience. After losing his mother, the child finds himself in a new home, where a loving grandmother shares with him the historical story of The Lady and how her suffering as the first victim of terrorism spun out of control into the 21st century.” A disclaimer adds: “In accordance with Islamic tradition, during the making of this film no individual represented a Holy Personality. The performances of the Holy Personalities were achieved through a unique synthesis of actors, in-camera effects, lighting and visual effects.”

However, suspicions exist about Al-Habib’s intent with his film. He has been accused of creating conflict among Muslims, particularly the Shia and Sunni. Back in September 2010, he angered Sunni Muslims by calling Aisha “an enemy of God,” after which Kuwait revoked his citizenship.
Al-Habib maintains his message is one of love and peace. He states, “It is a call to a better mindset dealing with challenges. I am very proud of this very high-quality cinematic production, as well as the entire team whose highly skilled backgrounds and ideas have contributed to its making. Indeed, the love for this great lady and the belief in her noble message released them.”

For critics, in addition to the portrayal of Fatima, one of the film’s most problematic issues is that it features The Prophet’s voice as a narrator. In Islam, depictions of Muhammad, outside of accepted oral and written descriptions, are factious. While the Quran does not specifically prohibit images and other representations, some ancillary teachings do. “Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest religious authority, issued a press statement Dec. 27 through its adviser Mohammed Mehanna, confirming the steadfastness of Al-Azhar’s position regarding the prohibition of the embodiment of the Prophet Muhammad, all prophets and the family members of the prophet (wives, daughters and sons). The statement asserted that the release of this film consecrates the continued disrespect by the West and some Shiite extremists for the sanctities and beliefs of others.”

Others suggest that the film is an opportunity to inform people on differences within doctrines. Dr. Hamid Waqar states, “this film can be considered a source of motivation for mainstream Shia scholars and filmmakers. The possibility of making a Hollywood quality movie with religious content. Hence, if we approach this movie in the right way, we can use it to create growth within the community.”

Now the Longest Running Comedy Series: ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’

More hours are being spent on the couch than on the road now with everyone in quarantine and working from home. We have seemingly replaced commuting in cars to bingeing TV. Streaming platforms are taking advantage of this new reality by churning out as much original content as they can. Older, forgotten shows are getting rebooted or renewed for additional episodes exclusively for their respective platforms. The show “Friends” has a reunion special confirmed to be exclusive to HBOMAX in 2021. Similarly, Disney+ already released new original episodes of the once canceled animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” If these networks continue this trend, who will have the longest running series? Currently, the longest running animated television series goes to “The Simpsons” (Fox) with 32 seasons followed by “South Park” (Viacom/HBO) with 23 seasons. On the other hand, “Law and Order: SVU” (NBC) has 22 Seasons making it the longest running scripted drama series. As for scripted comedy the record now belongs to “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” which, according to Brandon T. Harden’s article, just got renewed for four more seasons thus making it the longest running live action scripted comedy series on television with 18 seasons.

The 15th season of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” will premiere on FXX on an unspecified date in 2021 and the following day on FX on Hulu. Interestingly, FXX and Hulu fall under the Fox/Disney umbrella. The show follows a neurotic group of friends who run a bar in South Philadelphia and get into all sorts of greasy shenanigans-funded by the father of two of the characters. Some might complain that 18 seasons of this obnoxious comedy is too many. But you can’t argue with success as evidenced by the thriving careers of the cast. Rob McElhenney now has his own show “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” which is exclusive to AppleTV. Charlie Day has had major screen roles and did voice acting work with Disney/Pixar. Kaitlin Olson has also had success with Disney and Pixar in her role as Destiny in “Finding Dory.” Glenn Howerton starred in his own show “A.P. Bio” which premiered in September on NBC’s Peacock streaming platform. And finally, the legendary Danny Devito’s career continues to flourish at 76.

According to Harden, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” previously held the longest running series record with 14 seasons (1952 through 1966). It’s ironic that The Mouse Empire now owns “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (thanks to its recent Fox acquisition) and that it is has lasted this long on television. Pop on any episode and it’s very likely you will see scenes of drunken debauchery like a fully nude and sweaty Danny Devito hastily emerging from a leather couch during a holiday work party. Or it’s the episode where the gang solves the mystery of who pooped the bed; naturally, it was Danny Devito’s character Frank. The writers and actors have no comedic limits which might explain its rabidly loyal fan base who continually watch reruns and post “Always Sunny” memes on social media.

It would be wise for Disney+ to incorporate the “Always Sunny” gang into its rumored R-Rated section if they want to expand their adult viewership. The cast is clearly getting older, but they still plan on continuing the show for as long as possible. Creator/co-star Rob McElhenney took to Twitter claiming that “Sunny was originally pitched as a 36-season arc. So happy to be halfway done.” Tim Molloy in his article notes that McElhenney didn’t appreciate how characters in other shows “always get better looking in later seasons, as storylines get syrupier and their stars get richer.” For its seventh season, McElhenney decided sudden weight gain or “cultivating mass” would be a “perfect way to mock other sitcoms and capsize the relentless vanity of his character, Mac.” A clever alternative to the current methods implemented in wardrobe and makeup popularized in productions today. Danny Devito’s character Frank summarized this moment of uncertainty best by telling fans “Well, I don’t know how many years on this Earth I got left. I’m gonna get real weird with it.” Apparently, he’s spending it filming more “Always Sunny,” and it has already been really weird. Well done gang.

Australia Bans Hentai

Australia’s Border Force (ABF) has blocked the popular animated form of Japanese pornography, hentai, from entering the country. Besides hentai, other banned items include sex toys, Japanese porn videos, and sexually suggestive figurines—basically, any product marked with a “+18” symbol. This decision followed an increased number of images depicting rape, incest, pedophilia, and sexual abuse.

This is not the first time Australia has expressed concerns with anime and manga: in February 2020, Australian politicians advised its government to analyze classification laws after noticing that Japanese videos and comic books portraying sexual images of children were being sold in the country.

According to The Oxford Dictionary “hentai” is defined as “A subgenre of the Japanese genres of manga and anime, characterized by overtly sexualized characters and sexually explicit images and plots.” In Japanese it means “transformation” or “metamorphosis.” Hentai is available through book (comic) and televised media (anime). Anime is a televised cartoon in the Japanese style, like, “Dragon Ball Z: Dead Zone (1989)” or “Sailor Moon Crystal (2014),” which are considered suitable for both children and adults.

Hentai, on the other hand, is a type of anime that includes provocative material with very explicit images and plots. It is strictly prohibited for children and is aimed at adults only. Compared to western cartoons Japan has developed a distinctive visual, dramatic, and artistic style. The first Japanese cartoons were produced in the early 20th century, but anime became even more popular after World War II.

The popular adult store, J-List, confirmed the ban in an interview with Vice: “DHL Japan called us last week, informing us that Australian customs have started rejecting packages containing any adult product. They then advised us to stop sending adult products to the country. Following that, current Australian orders with adult items in them were returned to us this week.” According to J-List, they have been advised to stop shipments to Australia altogether.

The ABF website also warns travelers from bringing hentai and other types of pornography into the country, including “offensive fetishes, bestiality, child pornography, sexual violence.” Anyone found in violation of this new ban can face a heavy fine, loss of property, or up to 10 years in prison, depending on the strength of the offense.

Australia is not the first country to take a firm stance against pornography; France banned its citizens from accessing popular hentai websites in November 2020.