In new research, nonprofit grassroots advocacy group Parents Television Council (PTC) revealed that top streaming service Netflix has for years been marketing explicit content to minors.
Titled “Teen-Targeted Broadcast TV Can Be Vulgar… But Stranger Things Are Happening On Netflix,” the PTC report analyzed 255 Netflix titles categorized by the streamer as appropriate for teens. Half of those titles were rated either TV-MA or R, and even those rated TV-14 contained harsh profanities among other content concerns.
“This is deeply troubling news for families, given that Netflix use has surged with the coronavirus lockdown,” said Tim Winter, president of Parents Television Council, in a phone interview. “Explicit profanity like the ‘f-word’ is nearly ubiquitous on Netflix’s teen programming, revealing an apparent disconnect between what Netflix deems appropriate for teen viewers and what the average parent might consider appropriate.”
In a recent national survey on the most popular streaming platforms since social distancing measures began, 35 percent of Americans indicated Netflix as their top choice—a wide margin above competitors. Their latest earnings report released on April 21 stated Netflix has just shy of 70 million U.S. subscribers.
“Moms and dads assume a TV-14 Netflix show is the same as a TV-14 program on broadcast television. But they’re not,” said Michael Foust, an entertainment writer and father of four children. A spokesperson for Netflix did not respond to request for comment on the report.
Can Parental Controls Deal With Ratings Creep?
“Netflix and its rating system fall far short of what we need,” said Foust. “I’ve watched multiple TV-14 programs on Netflix with un-bleeped f-bombs—something that wouldn’t happen on a broadcast TV show similarly rated.”
Parental guidelines for TV content were established through the Telecommunications Act of 1996, under the authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which sets policies for public use of broadcast airwaves.
Last year, the FCC issued a status report on whether the TV ratings system is serving its purpose. “One underlying cause of ratings inaccuracy and inconsistency is that creators of content are responsible for rating their own programs,” stated the report issued last May. “Networks have an incentive to apply a more lenient rating to programs than they may warrant, in order to increase the advertising revenue.”
PTC has tracked flaws in the rating system for decades. “It’s the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse,” said Winter. Yet the FCC has no regulatory authority over Netflix and its streaming rivals—only the voluntary TV rating system all platforms use.
In response to bad press for “13 Reasons Why,” and perhaps to avoid future regulation, earlier this month Netflix introduced extensive new parental controls. Parents can now “delete” individual films and series from a child’s Netflix profile, and a four-digit lock code can keep kids out of parents’ profiles.
Foust considers these features the most useful of any streaming platform. “There are a few Netflix shows rated TV-PG that we have blocked from our kids’ profiles,” he said. “Even though Disney Plus is light years ahead of Netflix in being family-friendly, I hope Disney adds this feature allowing parents to block certain titles.”
However, PTC contends parental controls are of little use if content ratings are inconsistent. On Netflix, superhero films with comic violence are rated the same and listed right alongside such TV-14 titles as “Stranger Things” and “Atypical” with sexual content and harsh profanities.
Balancing Free Speech And Protecting Children
For decades, premium cable channels such as HBO have pushed boundaries in producing and airing entertainment with increasingly graphic violence, harsh profanity, and explicit sex scenes. Netflix has sought to maximize its subscriber base by leaning in to mature content.
Winter asserts that PTC has a robust view of the First Amendment, as courts have upheld explicit or indecent content as protected speech.
“Mature audiences have many options, and anything that is not legally defined as ‘obscene’ can be distributed. But the entertainment industry should not be overtly targeting children with explicit content,” he said.
As an example, the group points to Netflix teen drama “13 Reasons Why,” which centered on a teen girl’s suicide in season one. Lead character Hannah Baker took her life in a gory final scene. It became the most-searched series in 2017, and several studies including from the National Institutes of Health correlated spikes in teen suicides with the show’s release.
Following a years-long campaign from such diverse groups as the National Association of School Psychologists and American Family Association, and two months after PTC sent letters of protest, Netflix edited the gory season one finale of “13 Reasons Why” prior to the release of season three.
Family advocates have kept the top streaming service under scrutiny, especially this spring with the rise in binge-watching. “It is nearly impossible for parents to sit 24/7 with their kids when they’re consuming media,” said Winter. “Even if you are making sure your child is watching something in teen categories, you’re not aware of how much profanity is being thrown around.
“If the ratings on Netflix were correct, you wouldn’t have to sit there with them to know that.”
Multiplying Options for Families
In recent years, several family-centered streaming competitors such as VidAngel and Minno have entered the market, along with Disney Plus. Those that offer enough high-quality programming may lure some families away from market leader Netflix.
The Fousts regularly enjoy on-screen stories with their kids. When a program has “no redeeming value,” they make it a habit to turn it off and move on. “Even with Disney Plus, my wife and I don’t feel comfortable just letting our kids pick a random show and go wild,” said Foust. “Parents still must be discerning in what they let their kids watch.”
The most prominent media watchdog group serving families, PTC sees the current coronavirus crisis as both a challenge and opportunity. “My fear is that parents are overwhelmed, and they too are becoming desensitized,” said Winter. “Yet there are many ways things may become better, as streaming media platforms compete to provide more robust remedies for parents.”