A government-commissioned review of the National Classification Scheme looks unlikely to satisfy critics of the regime. 
7 Feb 2013 - 4:19 PM  UPDATED 7 Feb 2013 - 4:19 PM

Twenty years since the MA15+ classification was introduced, only rarely is there a public debate about a film being banned and there are a handful of appeals to the Classification Review Board each year.

It’s as if the posters and DVD slicks were cigarette packs in need of
heavy deterrent and like being treated as if we were the purveyors of
hardcore pornography.

That suggests the public might be quite relaxed about the way films and other content are classified in cinemas, on DVD and on free-to-air and pay-TV–but sections of the industry are far from happy.

An SBS Film investigation has revealed disquiet, particularly among some independent film distributors and exhibitors, over the costs of having films classified, the hefty tab for launching an appeal – $10,000 or more – and even the consumer advice that accompanies ratings.

The Australian Law Reform Commission carried out a review of the National Classification Scheme and delivered its report to Parliament in March 2012. Among the most far-reaching recommendations:

- Abolish the legally binding age restriction on MA15+ rating so it becomes an advisory guidance.

- Apply uniform classification categories to content aired across all platforms, including online and mobile.

- Rename the RC (refused classification) category as Prohibited and scrap the MAV15+ and AV tags used by some broadcasters.

- Retain the Classification Board for films and computer games but create a single agency to regulate the classification of media content, handle complaints and educate the public about the scheme.

- Empower the Classification Board to review appeals, replacing the independent Classification Review Board.

- Harmonise classification laws across Australia.

However, industry groups that might be hoping for some or all of these measures to be adopted by the federal government should not hold their collective breaths. The state and federal Attorneys-General considered the ALRC report last October. At their next meeting in April, the Ministers will consider “areas for short-term reforms,” a spokeswoman for Federal Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told SBS.

She would not elaborate but industry sources say only a few measures are likely to be endorsed by the Ministers. The most significant is the proposal to abolish the Censorship Board. The Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia supports that change but contends, sensibly enough, that the majority of assessors on the review committee should not be involved in the classification decision being appealed.

The other minor reform, which distributors say is long overdue, would mean films that are released in 2D and 3D versions won't have to be classified twice.

So most of the concerns about the current classification regime are unlikely to be resolved or even addressed until sometime after the Federal elections.

That prospect would dismay those who are critical of aspects of the system, such as Palace Cinemas CEO Benjamin Zeccola. “My issue with censorship in Australia is the discriminatory way that exhibition and retail are treated in the face of the online reality,” he says. “Also the didactic way in which we are forced to ram [consumer advice] down consumers' throats: note the large size, bright colours and excessive detail of the ratings and consumer advice. All that is damaging to the artistic value of the posters, the artwork and the film itself. It's as if the posters and DVD slicks were cigarette packs in need of heavy deterrent and like being treated as if we were the purveyors of hardcore pornography.

“The Australian regime leads to DVD collectors preferring to source their DVDs from Amazon [US] or elsewhere overseas in order to have pristine packages unadorned by the distracting and ridiculously over-emphasised Australian classification labels, which is harming local distributors and retailers. Australian classification requirements are far more intrusive than those of the UK and even the prudish US. Australian citizens don't deserve to be treated with such condescension.

“Arthouse films [and their distributors and exhibitors] also struggle with the exorbitant cost of classification versus their capacity to pay. It is also not worth the cost of appeal as the results are likely to be unsuccessful yet the prohibitive fee is still levied.”

That's a sticking point for veteran distributor/exhibitor Natalie Miller of Sharmill Films. “I think it is far too expensive to get a film classified,” she says. “And it is ridiculous to charge for [classifying] shorts and make it not affordable, which therefore reduces the opportunity for shorts to be shown in cinemas.

“I think descriptions used with the [rating] are often misleading and unfair. The distributor has no comeback. The rating system is okay but often inconsistent. It's interesting that any age group can watch anything on TV or DVD but cannot in cinemas. I know a babysitter who let a five-year-old watch The Hangover II.

The ALRC backtracked on proposals in its earlier discussion paper to introduce a new set of classifications including a C (for children) category and replacing M with T13 after the Classification Board said these would be confusing.

Indeed the thrust of submissions by bodies representing commercial broadcasters, pay-TV channels and home entertainment distributors was that the current classifications are well understood and accepted, and there was no case for wholesale changes.

The ALRC appears to recognise that scrapping the legally-enforceable MA15+ classification would be opposed by Ministers, especially those from States ruled by conservatives. The Classification Board poured cold water on that idea in its submission, suggesting that “removing the access restrictions on MA15+ may cause community concerns – this assessment could be tested by community research."

Independent Cinemas Association of Australia president Kieren Dell says that legally enforcing that restriction can cause problems with customers. He cited a recent case at his Port Macquarie cinema where parents complained that their 14-year-old daughter was refused admission to This is 40 because she was not accompanied by a parent or guardian, but by other adults.

MPDAA chairman Marc Wooldridge says his members are comfortable that all the issues that were put forward to the ALRC were addressed with the appropriate level of attention, with one exception: A review of the current legislation relating to classifying trailers. The MPDAA wants trailers to be classified based on the content of each trailer, instead of, as has long been the case, the expected rating of the feature it is promoting. That change would bring Australia into line with many other markets, including the US, UK and New Zealand.

The MPDAA supported dropping the mandatory age restriction for MA15+ and called for a lowering of the fee to lodge an appeal but did not nominate a figure. “The classifications are there for people who require guidance to make informed decisions about what to watch,” Wooldridge says. “The current classification codes are okay and are working pretty well.”

The MPDAA also backed the proposed role of a regulator to approve and monitor industry classification codes of practice and the adoption of uniform and consistent classification categories across all media platforms.

In 2011-2012, only eight of the Classification Board's decisions were the subject of a review by the Classification Review Board: seven for films, the other for a computer game.
The Review Board overturned all, banning The Human Centipede II and A Serbian Film (both had been classified R 18+), downgrading Happy Feet Two 2D and 3D to G from PG, and amending two MA15+ titles to M: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and Prometheus.

The broadcasters lobby group Free TV Australia argued the current TV self-classification system is working well, with a high level of consumer awareness and an overall low level of complaints. It supported the ALRC's proposed co-regulatory structure, with continued industry autonomy. But while Free TV favours consistent classification of content across media platforms, it claimed it would be an unfair regulatory burden to require broadcasters to classify online content. And it said classification time zones, which apply only to free-to-air television, are no longer a meaningful way of regulating content and should be abolished.

The Australian Home Entertainment Distributors Association declared it would not support any changes to a system that is on the whole “well understood and supported”. Similarly, the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association argued that any additional or merged categories would cause confusion, and said: “There would need to be compelling evidence that the current categories are ineffective or inappropriate, and that a reconfiguration of categories would be more effective, before any substantial changes are contemplated.”

World Movies (which is owned and operated by SBS) is one of the few pay-TV broadcasters that are permitted to screen R-rated material because it is classed as a narrow-cast channel that's not available to the general public, despite the channel being widely accessible as part of Foxtel's movies package.

Relishing the freedom to air films that push boundaries, World Movies has just concluded
a highly successful season of films billed as Summer of Sin. Perhaps surprisingly given it was a dud in cinemas, Julie Leigh's Sleeping Beauty (pictured) garnered the highest ratings of all time on the channel as well as ranking as the top film of the night on Foxtel's movies platform. Among other popular titles during the season were Secret Things, A L'aventure, Diary of a Nymphomaniac, Ah! The Libido, In the Realm of the Senses, Q and Guilty of Romance.

That might tell us something about the potential appeal of R-rated fare if it were available on other channels. Slim chance, I suspect, in the current conservative political climate.
It's also clear the wheels of government are notoriously slow to turn when it comes to reforms in this area. It took the federal Parliament 10 years to get around to introducing an R18+ category for computer games, effective January 1, in line with the categories used to classify films.