Firestorm over Netflix
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 9, 2020 - 12:00am

The past six months under quarantine turned millions of people in this country into binge-watchers. And by far the most popular feeder of the demand is subscription streaming service Netflix.

You can sit in front of the TV set the entire day and you won’t finish even a mini-series on Netflix. The made-for-TV movies and telenovelas seem to just go on and on and on.

Cooped up at home, the on-demand streaming platform takes your mind away from the unnatural new normal that COVID-19 has imposed on all of us.

Because of the nature of my work, I have been spared from the worst of COVID cabin fever. And yet I have been unable to resist binge-watching. I can’t believe I finished all 64 episodes of the Colombian telenovela on that country’s most notorious drug kingpin, “Pablo Escobar (El Patron del Mal)” in just over a week.

Binge-watching during the pandemic turned the actors in South Korean monster hit series “Crash Landing On You” or CLOY into household names in the Philippines, with some fans even watching the entire series twice. Another South Korean export, “It’s Okay to Not be Okay,” is once again among the top 10 in Netflix Philippines.

CLOY and other South Korean romantic dramas are pretty benign for viewers. But there are other materials on Netflix, such as “Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom,” with racy sex scenes and lots of blood and gore, which parents would generally deem inappropriate for their young children. There’s an abundance of sex and violence in the series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” And what about the gory zombie horror movies, including South Korean hit “Train to Busan”?

Now the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board wants to step in, ostensibly to protect the public by providing age-appropriate guidance on materials available on Netflix and other subscription streaming and video-on-demand (VOD) services.

The firestorm that greeted the planned “regulation” of Netflix, et al., must have flabbergasted the MTRCB.

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Last week, as the MTRCB’s plan was described by various officials as “idiot regulation,” “mind-boggling” and “ridiculous,” board chair Rachel Arenas clarified that there was no intent to censor content on Netflix and similar services.

Instead, Arenas said the board has talked with representatives of Netflix Philippines so the streaming service can classify its films and TV materials, based on standards set by the MTRCB.

Netflix has been receptive to the proposal, Arenas told “The Chiefs” on OneNews / TV 5.

I’m not sure though what classification system will be implemented. Netflix materials already carry viewer age recommendations and warnings on sexual or violent content. In case you haven’t noticed, they are on the upper left hand side of the screen, and displayed at the start of a film or series.

According to industry trackers, Netflix currently has an inventory of about 5,600 movies, TV serials and documentaries. Arenas told us that the subscription streaming and VOD services will be monitored for proper classification based on MTRCB guidelines.

Does the board have the resources and personnel for this? The monitoring will likely be random, and heavily dependent on MTRCB-deputized volunteers.

But even if the classification and monitoring are properly implemented, how useful is regulation?

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Realistically, parents these days can only go so far in controlling the information available to their kids. Parents can limit TV viewing time, access to computers and cell phones, just to encourage kids to engage in other activities.

Children can be encouraged to spend more time outdoors for physical activities and Vitamin D from the morning sun (good against COVID). Their eyes need a rest and their hearing could be prematurely and permanently impaired by prolonged use of earphones.

As for goals such as values formation, however, I know someone who banned TV viewing and computer access for his kids up to a certain age. When the son became an adult, he married into a nudist family in another country.

Children can’t be cut off completely from gadgets. And once they have access to the TV and smartphone, parents can’t hover constantly over the kids, screening the stuff being watched.

Now Filipino children have even more access to cyberspace, with the pandemic-inspired shift to distance learning. The kids are in fact under pressure to become tech-savvy at a tender age.

Are people even aware that all shows in Philippine television carry MTRCB-approved classifications? And if they are aware, do they care?

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In the Information Age, there is a raging debate on the exercise of censorship especially in cyberspace. Freedom of expression, including artistic freedom, is not absolute; every right carries with it responsibilities.

There aren’t  a lot of parents who want their children to watch hardcore porn or snuff films. Governments also ban materials that encourage terrorism or hate crimes. If such productions find their way to HBO, people will holler bloody murder and ask what the MTRCB is doing.

So there is still a need to monitor content that is available to the mainstream viewing public. Even subscription and on-demand streaming services such as Netflix, whose products are for personal or household consumption, generally self-regulate and keep out certain materials, such as those that foment extremist violence, hate crimes and abuse of children.

Rachel Arenas stresses that self-regulation, following Philippine standards, is all that the MTRCB wants from Netflix and the other services.

Considering the technology and services available in this age, however, the question ultimately asked around the world is, can you really stop anyone from watching what they want?

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ERRATUM: In my previous column, I erroneously referred to Undersecretary Benny Antiporda of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as Benny Abante. My apologies to readers, and especially to both Undersecretary Antiporda and Manila Congressman Benny Abante, who is the House minority leader.

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