Commentary

Streaming Media Giants Unconcerned About Shouldering Social Responsibility for Content

Jeffrey M. McCall
By Jeffrey M. McCall | August 17, 2017 | 1:15 PM EDT

(Flickr Photo/Labeled for Reuse)

Responsible parents are rightfully concerned about the media content absorbed by their children.  It’s a tough job to monitor the many programs and devices through which inappropriate content can get into the eyes and heads of kids.  Sadly, parents get little help from the media giants that provide video content through the highly popular streaming and over-the-top video services.

A recently released and significant study by the Parents Television Council (PTC) documents the negligence of media content providers.  The research provides yet another aggravating indication that the corporations making astronomical profits selling video content are unconcerned about shouldering social responsibility for keeping mature content away from kids.

The PTC studied the growing Streaming Video on Demand (SVOD) and Over-the-Top (OTT) marketplace.  Americans are swarming to these emerging technologies as alternatives to traditional broadcast and cable services.  Almost half of American broadband customers have at least one OTT service. Netflix has now passed cable for total number of subscribers.  SVOD services studied were Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.  PTC also studied the most popular OTT streaming devices: Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, and Roku.

PTC findings show the emerging technologies landscape is littered with challenges for keeping children safe from edgy material.  Content ratings for SVOD programming are used inconsistently and rarely provide proper warnings or descriptors of harmful content.  The flimsy ratings efforts on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are done by entire series instead of by individual episode. 

Parents get insufficient technical help in blocking mature content from their kids.  Hulu and Netflix do provide separate user profiles that could limit kid access, but there is nothing to keep tech-savvy kids, which they all are, from simply changing to an adult profile.  Menu screens on SVOD services often feature adult or pornographic titles and cover art next to children’s content.  Thus, a child browsing the on-screen menu for a favorite show will stumble into unsuitable titles and visuals.

The streaming services don’t offer family plans, so subscribers must subsidize the production of explicit shows they won’t watch just to get the shows they do want.  And although the services do have some family-friendly programming, most original content is edgy in terms of sex and/or violence.  For example, 65 percent of all Netflix original programming is rated TV-MA, or unsuitable for viewers under the age of 17.  Only nine percent of Netflix original content is rated G or PG.

The PTC offers simple recommendations to address the problems identified in the study.  First, the PTC asks streaming video providers to adopt a consistent and clear ratings system that fairly identifies content that could be harmful to children.  Next, “family friendly” purchase packages should be available for families who don’t want to support edgy content with their eyeballs or their dollars.  The PTC also urges providers to tighten up the blocking technology to ensure parents the opportunity to keep kids from accessing mature content.  Finally, the PTC wants more family suitable content in these systems.

All of these recommendations are easy fixes for streaming services.  The corporations that provide these program services, however, will have to demonstrate some societal responsibility, something they have yet to fully demonstrate.  Clearly, it is the responsibility of parents to guard their own kids from harmful media content, but it would benefit all kids to have these corporate bigshots show some accountability.  It would be a small gesture in exchange for the huge revenues they rake in. 

Unfortunately, there is little sign these SVOD and OTT providers are interested in helping the greater good.  In advance of releasing the study publically, the PTC provided its results and recommendations to all of the entities mentioned in the report.  Only two, Roku and Google Chromecast, even bothered to respond.

Interestingly, in spite of the importance of the study’s findings, the mainstream media provided virtually no news coverage, proving once again that the media bond together to shield each other as sacred cows.

PTC President Tim Winter said in a conference call releasing the study’s findings that “what kids ingest in media content affects their health, cognitive development, behavior and character.”  He hopes the PTC’s study can help empower parents. And parents surely need the assist. Winter pointed out how unaware parents were last spring when Netflix released “13 Reasons Why,” a drama about teen suicide. Teens flocked to the series well before parents could position themselves to mediate the content. Indeed, parents need help in navigating a chaotic media landscape.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University.

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