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Why classification works the way it does

This page looks at the history and purpose of New Zealand's classification system - why does our unique system work the way it does?:

Cover of the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993

History of the Classification Act

New Zealand's unique classification system was created by the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act, 1993.

The Classification Act was the result of years of work by people with an interest in censorship law. Many people were dissatisfied with how New Zealand's system at the time was broken up into different parts – there were separate laws and organisations responsible for classifying cinema films, films on video, and printed material like books or magazines. There wasn't a classification system for video games either, and these were becoming increasingly controversial in the early '90s.

People were also dissatisfied with the different criteria used for films, videos and publications, and a lot of thought went into what should be included in the new criteria. A major public concern was the relatively recent proliferation of pornography on home video, and there was heated debate about what people should and shouldn't be allowed to view – what should be the accepted limits of freedom of speech?

The Minister of Justice appointed a Committee of Inquiry into Pornography in 1987. The Committee's job was to come up with recommendations for a new and comprehensive classification system.

Summary of the Report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Pornography (PDF, 100KB)

Following the publication of the Report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Pornography, Parliament passed the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act which provides the legal framework for New Zealand's classification system. The purpose of the classification system is to prevent harm to the New Zealand public by restricting the availability of publications containing potentially harmful material.

The Committee concludes that there is enough evidence to suggest that pornography may have harmful effects on male attitudes and behaviour. And it is clear that pornography harms women directly, but presenting them in a stereotypical and demeaning way. The evidence justifies at least the current level of legal intervention by means of classification laws, as well as more public education and information about the media.

Summary of the Report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Pornography, 1989

Why our system is based on law

Why New Zealand has a classification system based on legislation.

By the time the current Classification Act was passed the country had already had a government-administered film classification system for 77 years and a government tribunal for classifying books, comics and other publications for 30 years. It made sense for these systems to be replaced by new legislation and for a government agency to be responsible for classification. A legal system also allows for Penalties to be imposed for breaking the law.

New Zealand's current classification system operates according to official legislation and regulations, however it is not entirely operated by government agencies. In order to efficiently deal with the large number of films and videos coming into the country each year Parliament decided that unrestricted level content should be rated by an organisation representing the film and video industry, leaving restricted level content to be classified by a government agency. A similar system was already working well for home video ratings, and so Parliament extended this to include cinematic films as well.

Under the Classification Act, the Office of Film and Literature Classification has overall authority to classify films, videos and other publications, however most unrestricted films are assigned ratings by the Film and Video Labelling Body, which is run by the Motion Picture Distributors Association of New Zealand.

How films and other publications are classified

A judge's gavel on top of a law book

Why we classify a range of things

The Classification Office can classify a broad range of things.

The Act allows the Classification Office to restrict or ban any 'publication'. The definition of a publication includes:

  • Films, video cassettes, DVDs or games
  • Computer files, or something which stores electronic data such as a CD, DVD, Blu-ray or hard drive
  • Books, newspapers, magazines, or any other print or writing
  • Sound recordings
  • Pictures, photographs, or anything with words, images, or symbols printed on it — such as a billboard, artwork or item of clothing

Parliament recognised that some material could be potentially harmful to the public regardless of whether it was a film, video, book, or a variety of other things (in 2005 Parliament clarified that computer files were also publications). It made sense that, if material was going to be legally restricted or banned, there should be a single set of criteria (see below) used by a single classification agency. This has a number of benefits, including:

  • Films, videos and other publications are classified in a consistent way leading to greater fairness and consistency
  • Experience, knowledge and resources for classification is concentrated in one dedicated agency rather than being dispersed in separate agencies
  • A single agency overseeing the classification system makes it easier for the public to engage with the system and express their concerns
  • A single agency is better equipped to promote public understanding of a complex system

This is why Parliament merged the Indecent Publications Tribunal, the Chief Censor of Films and the Video Recordings Authority* into a single agency with authority to restrict or ban a wide range of things using the same criteria.

* The Video Recordings Authority (VRA) was established by the Video Recordings Act 1987 to classify films on home video formats like VHS. This led to confusion and inconsistencies as some cinema films received different classifications when released on video.

Why we don't do TV and radio

Why broadcasting on television or radio is not included in the classification system.

Broadcasting has historically been considered a particularly important and unique medium for providing information and entertainment to members of the public. For example, it has been a very important source of news and political commentary and debate. Parliament recognised this by maintaining a separate set of standards for broadcast content, based around "standards of good taste and decency", and also accuracy of reporting, and so on. Nowadays, the differences between broadcasting and other forms of content delivery are increasingly indistinguishable due to online distribution and other technological changes. For example, people are increasingly watching classified TV shows online using sites like Netflix or Lightbox.

Broadcasting is regulated by the Broadcasting Standards Authority under a different law, the Broadcasting Act 1989. Complaints about broadcasts should be directed to the broadcaster in the first place, and then to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA). There is one way that classifications influence broadcast content: if the Classification Office classifies a movie as Objectionable (banned) then the film is also banned on broadcast television. If the Classification Office requires excisions (cuts) be made to a film, then the uncut version is banned on broadcast television.

Definition of broadcast in the Broadcasting Act 1989

Broadcasting means any transmission of programmes, whether or not encrypted, by radio waves or other means of telecommunication for reception by the public by means of broadcasting receiving apparatus but does not include any such transmission of programmes

  1. made on the demand of a particular person for reception only by that person; or
  2. made solely for performance or display in a public place.
Broadcasting Act 1989, Section 2

Some other things we can't classify

As you can see, we have the ability to classify lots of different things, here are a few things we sometimes get asked about that we can't classify:

  • Live performances like theatre productions or circuses
  • Statues or sculptures (unless they have print or writing on them)
  • tattoos (people don't come under the definition of a publication)

Classification criteria

Why the classification system can restrict or ban 'sex, horror, crime, cruelty and violence'.

Before being included in the current Classification Act, these five criteria were already used by the Chief Censor of Films, the Indecent Publications Tribunal and the Video Recordings Authority. These criteria cover a broad spectrum of material which – depending on how it is presented – is considered by many people to be potentially harmful (particularly to children and young people).

New criteria

Why Parliament added new criteria in 2005.

The Living Word court decision in the early 2000s limited the scope of the classification criteria and cast doubt on the ability of the Classification Office to classify some types of material that could be harmful to the public good. This uncertainty about what could be classified led to the law being changed in 2005. These changes allowed a publication to be age-restricted for highly offensive language, dangerous imitable conduct, self-harm or suicide, and degrading, demeaning or dehumanising conduct.

The Committee of Inquiry into Pornography recommended that a single set of classification criteria should be used for films, videos and other publications:

While we endorse the commonly held view that a printed work may well have a different impact upon its reader or viewer than a film or videotape, and while we endorse the obvious point that viewing age restrictions can be far more readily enforced in a public situation than in private, we feel that these matters can be adequately dealt with in a common list of factors.

Report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Pornography, p87

Why we use classification labels

Why films and restricted games are required to carry classification labels.

Under the Classification Act, a publication must carry a classification label if it comes under the definition of a 'film' — such as a film print, DVD, Blu-ray or online movie or TV show. However, there are exemptions to this requirement for some types of films so long as they don't contain restricted content (including video games).

Exemptions from labelling requirements

Films and restricted games need to display classifications because people tend to think that content like sex and violence in audio-visual entertainment is likely to have a uniquely high impact, in comparison to books for example. By the time our current Classification Act was passed, generations of New Zealanders had come to rely on film classifications to help them make informed choices for them and their families, and to help ensure that young people especially were protected from harmful content, and so the current Classification Act retained a film labelling system with graded classifications.

Since 2005, if a book or magazine has been classified as age-restricted then it must display an official label just like the ones used for films and games. Even if classification labels are not required, it is still against the law to supply any type of 'publication' to a child or young person if the publication is likely to be age-restricted, and non-film publications can and do get submitted for classification by members of the public, industry, and officials.

Unrestricted video games

Why unrestricted video games do not need to be labelled

When the Classification Act was passed in 1993, video games were still very basic — they had simple storylines and unrealistic graphics. This is why Parliament excluded video games (a type of 'film') from labelling requirements. As games became more complex, adult-oriented and 'film-like' over the years it became necessary for the Classification Office to classify an increasing number of them.

Why there are penalties for breaking the law

Why there are penalties for giving restricted material to underage people.

A restricted classification is not a recommendation of suitability for people of different ages — it is a legal restriction acknowledging that the availability of certain material to young people is likely to be harmful to the public in general. A restriction is intended to protect the public, and this is why fines and imprisonment can be imposed for giving underage people access to restricted content.

Objectionable material

Why there are heavy penalties for possessing, making or distributing Objectionable (banned) material.

The penalty for knowingly possessing an Objectionable publication is a maximum of 10 years imprisonment, and the penalty for knowingly making or distributing an Objectionable publication is a maximum of 14 years imprisonment.

Content which is classified as Objectionable is considered likely to be harmful to the public good if it is made available to anyone of any age. Publications are often classified as Objectionable because they tend to promote or support seriously harmful activity, such as the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people.


A legal statement about who can have access to a publication. A classification can make a publication unrestricted (G, PG, M), restricted (RP or R), or objectionable (banned).
A publication is anything that can be reproduced or shown that is made up of images, representations, signs, statements or words, or a combination of any of these things. Therefore, the definition of publication is very wide. It includes things such as films, books, video games, sound recordings and computer files. It also includes texts, T-shirts and artworks.