Subscription streaming services such as Netflix and Lightbox are expected to show classifications from next year.
The Government has approved a plan from Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin to enforce self-classification of content from these providers to bring them into line with classification of movies and DVDs in New Zealand.
“What I’m hoping is that New Zealanders can have confidence that no matter what on-demand channel they are getting their entertainment from that they can trust and quite clearly see the classification… before they start the watching,” Ms Martin said.
A bill to amend the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act is set to be introduced by the end of November, with the law change expected by the middle of next year.
Provider classifications will be reviewed by the Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Ms Martin said she’s pleased the proposed amendment has got the support of other ministers with the urgent need for change demonstrated by Netflix programme 13 Reasons Why.
“The speed with which the industry has shifted into a shock and awe space. This is a small piece we can do now that will provide a level of protection for New Zealand families and New Zealand children," she said.
“I also hope that we will be able to see parents better informed and if they’re watching content, they’ll see that classification at the start and think maybe I’ll wait till the kids are in bed before I watch that particular series.”
Earlier this year, research published in The Journal of the American Medical Association reported an immediate increase in suicides was recorded in the age group of 10 to 19-year-olds in the three months after the release of 13 Reasons Why.
"Potentially greater proportional increases in suicides among females were noted," the research stated.
When the programme launched, there were no sexual violence or suicide content warnings.
Other examples of irregularity in the classification of subscription services include the series Slasher and American Gods which were classified R18 by the Office of Film and Literature Classification with warnings, but have no content warnings on Netflix and Prime Video.
Suicide Squad was classified R13 in New Zealand with warnings, but is rated M, for mature audiences, with no content warnings on Google Play.
Deputy Chief Censor Jared Mullen said providers can choose to submit programmes for classification by the office, have their own classification system approved by the office or use a digital tool that’s being created by the office to set appropriate classifications for New Zealand audiences.
“We see it as an opportunity to work with them to make sure their computer-based systems can consider New Zealand rating criteria and produce a sensible result for Kiwis,” Mr Mullen said.
He said warnings for sexual violence, self-harm and suicide content are important but often overlooked by US classifications.
“Younger audiences want to know if there’s self-harm content before they watch it.”
Lisa Cox, the mother of two girls aged 15 and 20, said the move was good for parents but won’t make much difference for kids accessing potentially-harmful content.
“It’s more likely to attract their attention. They’re all interested in what their older brother or sister is doing. It’s like a button saying ‘Don’t push that', she said about classifying streaming services.
She said with kids being exposed to all sorts of content online, parental judgement and open conversation was the best approach to curbing kids from viewing disturbing footage.
Deputy Chief Censor Jared Mullen said parents need to be aware of restricted access controls provided on streaming services and classification will answer a “fundamental right” for consumers to be informed about products and services.
“The reality is for older children, they’re accessing content anyway but they still want to know what they’re watching and be warned of key things.”
Ms Martin said the amendment is the “best we can do”, giving people the information to know what they’re watching before they view it and if they don’t want to see what they’ve viewed again, they can make informed decisions on programmes with the same classification in the future.
Any service that requires payment from customers will be subject to the law change.
In a statement this afternoon, a spokesperson for Spark, which owns streaming service Lightbox, said the company supports the change.
"As a business, we strive to provide appropriate guidance and protection to our customers, especially families and young people," the company said.
"However, we’re also mindful that customers want access to the latest shows and entertainment content without significant delay and are pleased that the changes to the Classification Act take this into consideration."
Netflix has also welcomed the Government's move.
"Classification, and the ability to self classify, is important. We welcome this change and look forward to working with the Government to implement it," a spokesperson said in a statement.