Netflix to set its own age ratings for film and television programmes

Netflix has been given the power to set its own official age ratings for its films and television programmes, in a move that could spell the end for the traditional role of the British film censor.

Under a first-of-its-kind deal announced on Thursday, the British Board of Film Classification will allow the US streaming giant to rate its own material and then use the official British age rating symbols on all of its content.

“Because of the sheer amount of material that’s out there it’s not logistically viable for the BBFC to view everything in the traditional way,” said Craig Lapper, the BBFC’s head of compliance. “We’re going to permit them to produce BBFC ratings by applying our guidelines and standards to their content.”

At the moment only films or DVDs which have been watched and assessed by an in-house BBFC employee can carry the recognisable U, PG, 12, 15 or 18 logos.

Under the new system Netflix will essentially be allowed to mark its own homework. The BBFC will carry out a monthly audit on a selection of programmes to make sure the streaming service is meeting its side of the bargain. During the year-long pilot Netflix will use an algorithm to rank its own content in line with BBFC guidelines, based on its existing human-created database of programme content.

The BBFC has a legal duty to classify almost all video content before it is shown in cinemas or released on physical media such as DVDs or Blu-Ray, with just 15 compliance officers employed to watch all the material.

However, current legislation does not cover online video, meaning the many series released by the likes of Netflix and Amazon – not to mention the millions of hours of material on services such as YouTube – currently only receive age ratings on an ad-hoc basis.

Lapper said the enormous amount of online content meant that “applying old-style regulations and old styles of regulatory models” was increasingly difficult and this approach could be the model for future regulation of video. It could also allow his organisation to redeploy staff elsewhere, for instance to work on the organisation’s new role implementing age verification for pornography sites.

“This is the first time we’ve agreed to let the companies label the content themselves. We’re auditing what they’re doing to ensure it’s reaching the necessary standards.”

Netflix will be required to hit the BBFC’s standards 95% of the time to keep its ability to use the ratings. The roll-out is due to be completed by the summer. The site will also be required to complete a BBFC-style info box listing, among other things, the level of distressing images or sexual images in each show.

The streaming service already carries age ratings on its programmes, which it claims are often already tougher than the BBFC rankings. However, it believes the ability to use recognisable logos which British consumers understand and carry the BBFC mark of approval will boost its credibility and reputation for child safety, at a time when other technology giants are facing the threat of regulation for failing to protect young people online. Earlier this year Netflix reached a similar agreement with the Australian film classification body, following a lengthy trial.

The move has already pleased the government. The digital minister, Margot James, praised Netflix’s decision to take “voluntary action” and urged other streaming services to follow suit, as part of the government’s pledged aim to ensure the same standards are applied to online and offline media. She said: “Our ambition is for the UK to be the safest place to be online, which means having age ratings parents know and trust applied to all online films and video games.”

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