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Netflix Beefs Up Its Content and Ratings Warnings

It's meant to help parents, but suddenly Netflix looks a little more like old-fashioned TV.

Big Mouth Season 1 Hormone Monster

“Big Mouth”

courtesy of Netflix

There’s been a recent addition to the Netflix — but viewers may have noticed only if they happened to pay attention to the top left corner of the screen. There, you’ll find a pop-up graphic denoting the show or film’s content rating, bringing the streaming service into line with what broadcast television and cable networks have done for two decades.

Per a blog post written by Mike Hastings, director of enhanced content at Netflix, this is a new initiative meant to improve “some long-standing Netflix features that provide members with the information and tools they need to make wise decisions about what’s right for themselves and for their families”:

In addition, we will also begin displaying more prominently the maturity level rating for a series or film once a member hits play on a title. While these maturity ratings are available in other parts of the experience, we want to ensure members are fully aware of the maturity level as they begin watching. We are also continuing to explore ways to make this information more descriptive and easier for our members to understand with just a quick glance.

Netflix content rating


When we called Netflix for comment, reps referred us to the blog post.

This should quiet critics who believed Netflix had an unfair advantage by not adhering to the same voluntary ratings system as broadcast and cable outlets. Although Netflix rated its programs, it didn’t stamp those ratings on the screen; viewers had to dig around if they wanted content information. Even now, Netflix’s on-screen content ratings are much more subtle, and smaller, than the bugs seen on linear TV.

Among the streaming services, Hulu (owned by traditional media outlets including Disney, 21st Century Fox, and NBC Universal) features content ratings on screen much as broadcast and cable networks do — with large type, in a white or black box, on the upper-left screen.

In recent years, as linear networks (particularly cable) become bolder in running boundary-pushing language and other content, they have even taken the step of running a parental advisory disclaimer before the episode and the actual content rating. (Hulu also does this, but it doesn’t appear that Netflix does anything similar.)

Also, while most networks — and Hulu — long ago adopted additional disclaimers (such as “V” for “violence,” “S” for “sex” and “D” for “suggestive dialogue”), Netflix hasn’t followed suit.

Hulu content ratings


Netflix’s decision to be more transparent with its content ratings comes as Netflix makes a play to target more family audiences who co-view scripted series like the new “Lost In Space” and unscripted entry “Nailed It.” Some shows, like the comedy “Big Mouth,” are much more mature than they look. Meanwhile, the rise of teen-and-younger shows continues on Netflix; upcoming launches include the Danish post-apocalyptic drama “The Rain” and second seasons of “13 Reasons Why” and “3%”.

It’s worth bringing up those last two shows because while they both star young protagonists, Netflix rates them as TV-MA, which per official US TV parental guidelines means that they are “specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17.”

Also, while all series programming on the streaming service use the TV parental guidelines, ratings for films on Netflix vary. Feature films that had theatrical distribution, like “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (pictured below) use a traditional MPAA rating, even using the full official description: “Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of adventure violence, including frightening images.”

Pirates of the Carribean rating

Unfortunately, there is nothing in the MPAA ratings system to warn viewers for “Johnny Depp being especially extra.”

Screenshot via Netflix

But for nearly all of Netflix’s original films, the service uses TV parental guidelines. For example, the Will Smith-starring “Bright” is rated TV-MA, instead of the likely R rating it would have received from the MPAA. This also extends to films that received a token theatrical release, like Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” (TV-MA). (“Beasts of No Nation” did get a limited theatrical release in 2015, but was not rated by the MPAA and is listed as “NR” on the service.)

One of the few exceptions to this is Netflix’s “Mudbound,” which was rated R for “some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity.” “Mudbound,” of course, is notably the only Netflix original to receive significant theatrical distribution.

“Superior Donuts” content rating


TV’s parental guidance ratings system was introduced in 1997, after under heavy pressure from government and special-interest groups. The ratings were considered “voluntary,” but came after the 1996 Telecommunications Act required all TV sets to include a “V-Chip” device that could block out programming unsuitable for children. The TV system was loosely based on the much older movie rating system, as late MPAA head Jack Valenti oversaw the birth of both systems. Film ratings continue to stir controversy and charges of censorship, but TV ratings are self-regulated by the industry.

Meanwhile, according to Hastings, other changes at Netflix include a PIN parental control for specific movies and TV shows, which gives “parents and guardians more specific control over what children can watch on the service.” For example, this would mean a parent could make sure their 17-year-old didn’t watch potentially controversial programming like, say, “13 Reasons Why” without their knowledge. It makes Netflix a bit of a narc, but everyone’s gotta grow up sometime.

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