Pop Culture

New rule on R21 content reflects changing media landscape

Low-key announcement by the Media Development Authority speaks volumes about how content classification must adapt to changing TV viewing habits

Earlier this month, a small but significant media rule came into effect.

The upshot of it is that in Singapore, fans could watch Game Of Thrones in full, instead of a version cut to fit M18 guidelines.

The new rule slipped quietly into the Media Development Authority's (MDA) website with the snooze-inducing headline, "Information Circular in respect of MDA's Required Baseline Safeguards for Over-The-Top Content Services Offering R21 Content".

The Straits Times wrote about it and that was that.

It looks rather innocuous.

In a nutshell, the new regulation says that if you are an online content provider (Netflix, iTunes or Google Play, or any number of players offering K-drama or Bollywood movies), you must provide age-check firewalls for R21 content.

But under the bland language lies major ideas.

First, it's one of the first statements by the regulator that acknowledges that R21 shows are available from online providers. The text also makes clear that MDA doesn't mind, as long as age checks are in place.

It could not have come sooner.

Since Netflix launched here in January this year, it has enjoyed an advantage over rivals: It roared out of the gate with R21-rated shows such as the comedy, Orange Is The New Black (2013-present), and period drama Marco Polo (2014-present) available (with a Pin code).

The MDA rule shows how other players can play catch-up.

What's interesting to me is the low-key approach the MDA has taken in announcing the change.

That is understandable.

Anything to do with censorship generates heated, often acrimonious, discussion, with the MDAfrequently painted as the smothering nanny.

So why the quiet approach to loosening restrictions when it might score brownie points with those who scream bloody murder every time a show is chopped or banned?

One reason-and this is speculation,mind you-is that the MDA does not see this change as a big deal.

After all, video-on-demand services from pay-TV providers Singtel and StarHub have offered R21 content since 2012, behind age-verification firewalls.

But I do see it as more than a mere tweak because it recognises that we are entering a new world.

It harmonises the rules for pay-TV companies (the people who install boxes on your TV) and the online providers (the people who don't).

More than just flattening the playing field, the rule recognises that we live in a media landscape that is rapidly app-ifying. You can watch StarHub content through a box at home or on the move through its app.

Words that used to define distinct categories, such as "cable content provider", "video on demand", "online streaming" or even "streaming" and "download", have seen their meanings erode in a cloud-based world, so it makes sense that content restrictions based on those words should reflect the new reality.

An MDA statement calls the new rule "pragmatic and realistic" and that it has had to "balance regulatory requirements with the consumers' and industry's interests".

I read this as saying that categories are blurring and that content classification must adapt.

The new rules will be welcomed by the industry, which wants to sell more shows to more people and craves greater leeway and legal clarity.

But appearances matter and the MDA cannot be seen to bend to the mor to intellectual elites crying out for freedom of expression- another reason for the low-key announcement, I believe.

It's why the MDA takes care to say that the change was made with input from the focus groups and advisory committees.

I've said that decision-making by opinion poll is a bad way to go- look at what happened with the Brexit referendum.

But whether we like it or not, the MDA's hands are tied to committees, focus groups and surveys because of its motto of never pushing an agenda, but following the moral codes of citizens.

But for those who want more mature content, things are looking up.

The rule paves the way for HBO to roll out its HBO Go app in Singapore, without the hassle of editing its mature content to fit local standards. It means that we might see the unexpurgated Season 7 of Game Of Thrones next year on an app.

For many of us, it's time to ask: "Okay,how do I hook up my tablet to the TV?"

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline New rule on R21 content reflects changing media landscape. Subscribe