Some problems with NZ Children's Television

The Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 (referred to as the Classification Act) is an Act of Parliament to regulate and classify films, videos and publications in a way that balances the need for freedom of expression with the need to protect society from harm.  The Classification Act created the New Zealand Office of Film & Literature Classification and obligated it to consider social research when making classification decisions and placing age restrictions on material.  

Currently people rely on ratings and classifications to advise them of the content of publications and to limit access by those under a specified age to unsuitable material.  The classification system as administered by the Classification Act is used in pre-release intervention.  However, fast developments in technology are blurring the distinctions between services that have traditionally been regulated in several different ways.
The difference between supplying films and broadcasting is becoming less clear, as satellite and cable broadcasters tailor content to individual viewers on demand and the line between supplying film and print publications and broadcasting is becoming blurred because the Internet now has sufficient capacity to carry real-time video, which can be viewed in the same way as television can be.

Currently, 'supply' is largely handled by a pre-release classification system while 'broadcasting' has been handled by a post-broadcast complaints system.  The Department of Internal Affairs investigates and sometimes prosecutes people who deliberately collect objectionable material and find ways to distribute it to other people via the Internet.  All parties that are responsible for the enforcement and compliance of standards for determining if something is objectionable rely on the framework and definitions in the Classification Act

The Classification Act repealed its predecessors, the Indecent Publications Act 1963, the Films Act 1983 and the Video Recordings Act 1987.  It consolidated applicable sections of other Acts[1], and created the Office of Film & Literature Classification (OFLC).  The OFLC is an independent Crown Entity and subject to the accountability requirements set by the Crown Entities Act 2004.  The role of the Chief Censor, currently David Shanks, appointed in July 2017, is prescribed in the Classification Act and the OFLC are accountable directly to the Minister of Justice and are funded by the Government through funding to the Internal Affairs Department, and from fees for commercial publication classifications.

The Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 only does Films, Videos, and Publications.  Broadcasting is regulated by the Broadcasting Standards Authority under a different law, the Broadcasting Act 1989.  Broadcasting has historically been considered a particularly important and unique medium for providing information and entertainment to members of the public.  For example, it has been a very important source of news and political commentary and debate.  Parliament recognised this by maintaining a separate set of standards for broadcast content, based around "standards of good taste and decency", and also accuracy of reporting, and so on.  The differences between broadcasting and other forms of content delivery are increasingly indistinguishable due to online distribution and other technological changes. For example, people are increasingly watching classified TV shows online using sites like Netflix or Lightbox.

Complaints about broadcasts are directed to the broadcaster in the first place, and then to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA).  The way that classifications influence broadcast content are if the Classification Office classifies a movie as Objectionable (banned) then the film is also banned on broadcast television.  If the Classification Office requires excisions (cuts) be made to a film, then the uncut version is banned on broadcast television.  And the Responsibility of broadcasters for programme standards under section 4.

Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards that are consistent with, the observance of good taste and decency; and the maintenance of law and order.  Where, in respect of any film within the meaning of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, there is in force under that Act a decision classifying that film as objectionable; or there is in force under that Act a decision classifying that film as if certain excisions had been made, no broadcaster, shall broadcast that film or any part of that film; except with the consent of the Chief Censor of Film and Literature and subject to any conditions subject to which the Chief Censor has given the consent.

The OFLC states their purpose is “To provide and communicate impartial classification decisions and information services,” and their vision that “New Zealand society is protected from the harm caused by the unrestricted availability of restricted and objectionable publications,” and this is followed by the statement that they “will achieve this by balancing the values inherent in freedom of expression with the need to protect society from injury.”  Section 88 of The Films Video and Publications Classification Act 1993 also require the OFLC to conduct necessary research to perform its functions and the Chief Censor’s personal statement reads, “I will help to make New Zealanders, especially children safe from the harm caused by the unrestricted availability of restricted and objectionable publications[2].”

The OFLC is part of a wide framework of Censorship Regulation in New Zealand.  The OFLC examines and classifies material as per the Classification Act.  Other bodies impose restrictions:
·         Film and Video Labelling Body Inc issues ratings (unrestricted) to films and videos and submits to the Office of Film and Literature Classification films and videos of a nature that should be restricted.
·         Film and Literature Board of Review is the Statutory Body that reviews the decisions of the Classification Office.
·         Inspectors of Publications employed by the Department of Internal Affairs help to ensure that publications are supplied in accordance with existing classifications, and that supply of objectionable publications is investigated and prosecuted.
·         Every member of the Police is deemed to be an Inspector of Publications.
·         Objectionable publications are prohibited imports and may be seized at the border by the New Zealand Customs Service.

The Classification Act defines its meaning of the word objectionable in section 3 and “for the purposes of the Act, a publication is objectionable if it describes, depicts, expresses, or otherwise deals with matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty, or violence in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good”[3].  In addition, under sub-section 1B (2 and 3) there are certain criteria that always lead to a publication being banned and any publication that is seen to advance, encourage, uphold, or strengthen the sexual exploitation of children, sexual conduct with or by children, exploits children’s nudity, sexual violence or coercion, torture or extreme violence, bestiality, necrophilia, and use of excrement or urine to degrade or in sexual conduct[4].

Publications may be age-restricted for containing highly offensive language likely to cause serious harm[5], if likely to be injurious to the public good for specific reasons[6] and in section 4d consideration is given to the persons, classes of persons or age groups of the persons to whom the publication is intended or is likely to be made available to[7].  A reason given for age restrictions are that the general level of emotional and intellectual development of a person under the specified age means they are more likely to be disturbed by the publication and that it may increases the risk of them killing or causing serious harm to themselves or others[8].

The Classification Act is under almost constant consideration to remain relevant in an ever-changing society with rapid digital technological advances and almost instant internet transmission of data.  The first amendment to the Principal Act was the Films, Videos, and Publications Classifications Amendment Act 2005 which expanded definitions around digital devices, updated the language, classifications, and penalties.  This was followed by the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Amendment Act 2012 as part of the Regulatory Reform Bill to change wording to save the film industry money by streamlining the classification process[9].  There is a current Bill in its third reading in the House of Representatives and this Bill is to amend the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 to provide the High Court and the Film and Literature Board of Review with flexibility in making interim restriction orders.

In addition to these legislative changes are a multitude of reviews and influences.  Such as, the House of Representatives Inquiry into the Operation of the Films, Videos, and Publications Act 1993 and related issues, the OFLC research and reports such as the Attitudes towards Classification Labels 2015 and lobby groups also research, report and submit on their areas of interest.  A significant influence on the passing of the Classification Act was a ruling in the Wellington Court of Appeal in 1986 known as Collector of Customs v Lawrence Publishing Co Ltd, which found that censorship regulators should base their decisions on social science and medical research.

The lobby group Family First’s website states that they “participate in social analysis and debate surrounding issues relating to and affecting the family being promoted by academics, policy makers, social service organisations and media.”  They also fund research and reports that uphold their Judeo-Christian traditional heterosexual family values and lobby prolifically against sexual content in film, television and literature and violent video games for teenagers and adults.  In 2015, they published a report into screen time for children in which comparable overseas country’s guidelines for young children’s viewing were disseminated, they also lament the dearth of information specific to New Zealand children’s viewing habits.  Family First surmise that there is little reason to assume New Zealand will be impervious to global trends, and that there are no New Zealand guidelines for children under five years old.  Family First go on to compare that in contrast to this, France bans all television channels from screening any programs aimed at children under three years old.

Children less than seven years old have a difficult time understanding the difference between fantasy and reality.  Christakis et al (2007) describe that at around seven to eight years old children reach a turning point they call the “age of reason” when children understand that slapstick and fantasy violence is funny because it is completely unrealistic.  Pre-school children are more likely to imitate aggression and violence they see on screen, found Christakis et al (2013), especially if there is no realistic consequence for the violence they are watching and that there really is no such thing as safe violence for young children. 

Researchers Robertson et al (2012) used data from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study (the Dunedin Study), a longitudinal study of health and behaviour in a New Zealand population-based birth cohort, to test concerns that exposure to television violence leads to anti-social behaviour.  They discuss that despite fifty years of research into this topic the issue is still controversial because the research has been of short-term observations of children after they have watched violent programming and the studies have been unable to show if children develop behavioural problems because they watch poor behaviour on television or if children with antisocial behaviour prefer to watch violent programs.  The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study followed 1037 children born between April 1972 and March 1973, across the range of New Zealand’s socioeconomic groups, mostly of Pākehā ethnicity with 7.4% identifying themselves as Māori and 1.5% as Pacifica[10].  A notable strength of the Dunedin Study is that 90% of the cohort could be assessed at almost every follow up, giving the ability to measure covariates and control for confounding factors.

Robertson et al (2012) note that observational research cannot prove that television viewing causes antisocial behaviour but they can make causal inferences and the findings are consistent with most studies of a similar nature.  They found it notable that television viewing remained a significant predictor of having a criminal conviction and that television viewing in childhood is associated with increased antisocial behaviour.

The effects of violent television on children’s behaviour are the subject of a blog post in 2016 on the OFLC website by the Deputy Chief Censor Jared Mullen, “It's only entertainment - what's the harm?”[11]  The discussion begins with how parents use their parental intuition instinctively to shield their young children from harm and then explains that in their own recent survey 92% of New Zealanders thought the classification guidelines were important and 60% of respondents thought children less than 16 years old shouldn’t be watching movies rated for those 16 years old and over.  The blog goes on to cite research that shows that watching violence leads to a reduction in the willingness to help others (Bushman and Anderson 2009), that the long-term effects are stronger in young people than adults (Bushman and Huesmann 2006) and that the impact of watching violence on children displaying aggressive behaviour is nearly as strong as the link between smoking and lung cancer (Strasburger et al 2010). 

The research tells us there is a problem with the regular or excessive viewing of violence, but the OFLC believes that 92% of parents, from their survey, are on the right track by following the guidelines, without questioning if the guidelines are wrong.  There is no question that violence in programs for adults is damaging for children and few parents would allow their children to watch violent adult programs, but many children’s programs are very violent and are rated as ‘General’ (G) being suitable for children by the OFLC, despite the known effects, and many children’s programs have higher incidents of violent acts than adult’s programs.

An analysis of violent acts on New Zealand’s three television channels was carried out in 1991 by Massey University on behalf of the Broadcasting Standards Authority, over a full week, Monday to Sunday, using a modified definition of violence developed by Cumberbatch (1988):

…any violent image or action of physical force or threat thereof, with or without a weapon, against oneself or another person, animal or inanimate object, whether carried through or merely attempted, and whether the action caused injury or not.

During the 336 hours of programming there were 3012 acts or images of violence and they found the times television violence did not match the guidelines occurred in times rated as General and was primarily due to violence in cartoons.  This was classed as unrealistic fantasy violence and the study suggests the need to treat television violence according to the genre in which it occurs therefore they minimised the fantasy violence as not comparable with real violence.

Violence is more likely to occur in children’s cartoon programming and Gunter and Harrison (1998) found that violent acts and violent sequences were most likely to occur in general children’s programming.  The incidents of violence occurring in children’s programs are increasing.  The 1975 cartoon movie “Bugs Bunny: Superstar[12] is one and a half hours long and has 55 violent acts.  A single twenty-minute episode of the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers[13] , a live action programme in 1993 has 49 violent acts and this program and is marketed to children from 5 to 7 years old.  The League of Super Evil[14] animated series, has a New Zealand rating of G, is currently playing on free to air television[15] and has 21 acts of violence or threats of violence in a single 22-minute episode[16].

Children’s programs often feature higher rates of violence than programs for adults (Strasburger et al 1990) and Wilson (2002) found children’s programming featured 6.5 incidents of violence per hour compared with 2.7 in adult’s programs and the violence was more likely to be lethal.  The basis of storytelling is conflict between a protagonist and an opponent.  The OLFC should consider what purpose entertainment has for young children, what the social outcomes are of young children watching characters using violence to solve problems, rather than a triumph of intelligence, and why adults are writing violent stories for young children rather than protecting them from watching damaging violence.

The growing tolerance of violence in television viewing was demonstrated in the qualitative research conducted by Bassett and Shuker (1994) where participants watched and were asked to rate an example of on screen violence.  People aged over forty rated the incident as more serious and did not believe that violence was good entertainment while 62% of the younger group thought violence was good entertainment and rated the example of screen violence as less serious.  This study also found there were no clear socioeconomic differences however Gaziano (2017) says that children at risk for violent behaviour and aggression often face multiple-risk factors and this is antecedent in social stratification and because media content filters through the family and those with lower socioeconomic status have fewer options to buffer children from harmful media content.  Lull (1980 cited in Gaziano 2017), found that poorer families watch more television and often have it on in the background for companionship and Gaziano (2017) concludes that children’s influence from media content is conditioned by family childrearing patterns.  While screen violence is only one element in a complex social environment and we cannot protect children from all harm and negative influence, parents should have better information available as to the content of children’s television viewing.  The consensus view arising from the collective body of research is that violence on television and film does contribute to aggressive and violent behaviour in individuals and, in particular, young children.

The OLFC is tasked with protecting young children from the harm caused by watching violent programming on television and in film and they do this with their classification system which rates children’s programs and cartoons a ‘G’ for general audiences.  The New Zealand Law Commission, in its review of new media, states that children should be protected as far as possible from access to unsuitable content and there should be adequate protections against the dissemination of objectionable content from which children should be protected.  As demonstrated by the OLFC’s own survey 92% of parents and caregivers use the classification system to choose what their children watch.  The OLFC is failing to protect young children from violent programming on television and in films because it there is no differentiation in the G rating between children’s programs that contain violence and children’s programs that don’t.  There is enough social research available to show that children’s television violence has a detrimental effect on young children’s behaviour for the OLFC to be taking the influences more seriously in the way they restrict children’s television and film violence.

Decades of social research show that children under seven years old are adversely affected by violence in television and films.  The Classification Act made it mandatory for the OLFC to consider social research when making classification decisions to regulate and classify films, videos and publications in a way that balances the need for freedom of expression with the need to protect society from harm.  The OLFC is not considering social research when it is classifying children’s violent television programs and films and therefore failing in its obligation to protect children from the harm of violent programming.

[1] The full list of applicable Enactments repealed is available in The Films, Videos, and Publications Act 1993.
[2] Jack, A. (2014) Statement of intent.  Office of Film and Literature Classification.  P4.
[3] Films, Videos, and Publications Act, No. 94.  (1993).  S3.  P.13.
[4] Films, Videos, and Publications Act, No. 94.  (1993).  S4D. P. 14.
[5] Films, Videos, and Publications Act, No. 94.  (1993).  S3A. P.15.
[6] Films, Videos, and Publications Act, No. 94.  (1993).  S3B. P.16.
[7] Films, Videos, and Publications Act, No. 94.  (1993).  S4D. P. 15.
[8] Films, Videos, and Publications Act, No. 94.  (1993).  S3.  P.16.
[9] Adren, J. (2012).  Hansard for 23 August.  Videos, and Publications Classification Amendment Act.  New Zealand Parliament.
[15] Prime Television.  6.30 am as part of children’s early morning viewing also featuring “Kung Fu Panda”, “The Legend Of Korra”, “Max Steel” and “Hank Zipzer” all G rated children’s programs with high levels of violence.
[16] Writers own research using Cumberbatch’s (2008) definition of violence on television quoted above.

Susan Nicholson


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