Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have been around for a while now, but in the past couple of years, the streaming market has become saturated, with seemingly every major media outlet producing its own streaming service. From Disney+ to Paramount+ to Peacock to Apple TV, the options for families to choose from are abundant.
But which streaming service is best for your family, and equally as important, which ones should parents avoid? To answer these questions, we welcome Melissa Henson to this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast. Henson is Program Director of the Parents Television and Media Council, and she is the author of a recent report entitled “Dollars and Sense: A Parent’s Guide to Streaming Media.”
In Henson’s report, she and her team looked at the most popular streaming services by subscriber count. Those were: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV, HBO Max, Disney+, Paramount+, and Peacock. Out of these, choosing the right streaming service for your family depends on family preference and the age of any children in the family, according to Henson.
“First of all, I think what parents need to know is that unlike broadcast television, broadcast decency laws do not apply to streaming services,” says Henson. “Right now with streaming services, it’s kind of like to Old Wild West; there’s no sheriff in town. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of governance over the streaming industry.”
Because streaming services are effectively self-monitoring entities, Henson advocates for the ones that have strong parental controls built in. “If you have a family with young children, Disney+ might be the best option because they have pretty strong parental controls. But they also don’t have an awful lot of inappropriate content to begin with. It’s designed as a streaming service for families.”
Netflix, on the other hand, while filled with highly mature content that is inappropriate for children of any age, has fairly good parental controls in that parents can not only institute an age restriction, but also are able to block individual titles. The content options for children on Netflix, however, taper off after elementary school and there is little content for adolescent children.
Hulu is the largest offender, continues Henson. It has content that is highly inappropriate, yet is marketed to children and rated by Hulu as appropriate for children. Hulu’s “kids’ profile” option includes content that would be considered G-rated all the way up to PG-13, making content meant for 16-year-olds available to preschoolers. Furthermore, while parents can create a “kids’ profile” separate from their own adult profile, there is nothing to stop the kids from switching over to the adult profile once their parents leave the room.
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Melissa Henson dive more into the world of streaming services, and provide advice for how parents can navigate this new and complicated media landscape. There are several ways you can listen, or read the transcript!
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Many families are making the decision to “cut the cord” and move their TV entertainment to streaming services alone. Some are doing this in an effort to gain more parental control at what they hope will be a lower cost. However, there are so many choices of channels to stream. Which to choose?
Here to offer some perspective and advice for how to evaluate and compare all these options is Melissa Henson, Program Director of the Parents Television and Media Council, a non-partisan organization that advocates for responsible entertainment. Melissa is the author of a recent report, entitled “Dollars and Sense: A Parent’s Guide to Streaming Media.”
Melissa Henson, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
MELISSA HENSON: Thank you so much for having me.
TRACI GRIGGS: Start off by explaining why you decided to exclusively evaluate streaming platforms, and which ones did you decide to include?
MELISSA HENSON: I think streaming platforms are still a relatively new phenomenon. Cable television, and certainly broadcast television have been around long enough, and I think for most viewers at home, they know what to expect. They know what the rules are, the boundaries within which they operate, but the streaming services are an entirely new ballgame and that’s why we chose to focus on them. That, combined with the fact that we saw in the past year just a huge spike in the number of streaming households in America. And that was accelerated, I think, by COVID, but things were trending in that direction anyhow. So, what we did was we decided to look at some of the most popular streaming services out there by subscriber count. And so that would be Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, HBO Max, Disney+, Paramount+—which used to be CBS’ AllAccess—Peacock—which is NBC’s contribution to the streaming world.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay. So did you find some economic or non-economic impacts in your report?
MELISSA HENSON: Absolutely. In general, what we are seeing is that many families can realize sometimes significant cost savings by switching to streaming services. Although for most households right now, they’re still getting their Internet bundled with cable and television. So these streaming services are going to represent an added cost on top of what they’re already paying for Internet access with their cable bundle. Five years ago, you could get Netflix or maybe Netflix and Hulu or Netflix and Amazon Prime, and be able to access 90 to 99 percent of the content that you wanted because they were the only streaming services that were really active at that time.
But as more companies are entering the marketplace, they’re taking back their licensed content that they were making available through Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu, in order to stream that content on their own proprietary streaming services. So, whereas I say, five years ago, you could watch Friends on Netflix; now if you want to stream Friends, you have to get HBO Max. Five years ago, if you went into stream Frazier you could do that on Netflix; now you have to get Paramount+. If you wanted to watch a Pixar movie, you could do that on Netflix; now you have to get Disney+. So as more and more companies are entering the marketplace, it’s going to necessitate buying more and more streaming services in order to get access to all the content that you want. And so the costs are going to escalate pretty quickly.
TRACI GRIGGS: What has your research discovered regarding the trade-offs between the quantity and degree of explicit content, versus the parental controls available on these platforms?
MELISSA HENSON: I think what parents need to know is that unlike broadcast television, broadcast decency laws do not apply to streaming services and they’re not even really constrained for the most part by advertisers, for a couple of reasons. One being that many of these streaming services are not even advertiser-supported in the first place. And second of all, the way advertisements work in the streaming environment is entirely different from the way advertising works on broadcast or cable television. For example, they may give you a choice of ads that you watch. They may be tying your name or your data, your personal data, to your personal consumption habits in order to deliver targeted ads to you. And so your ad viewing experience may be entirely different from my ad viewing experience. So, it’s much harder to put pressure on advertisers with respect to content. What we’re seeing is that there’s significantly more mature content on these streaming services. Adult content on Netflix or Amazon Prime is comparable to content that you used to only be able to see on like HBO or Cinemax or Showtime.
TRACI GRIGGS: It’s important to note too, that some of these shows that seem pretty innocent at first can, suddenly, devolve.
MELISSA HENSON: That’s right. On the flip side of that, they’re not at all bashful about using that TV-MA rating. Sometimes on broadcast and cable television, they are reluctant to use that MA rating, even when the content warrants it, because they’re worried about scaring off advertisers. That doesn’t seem to be the case on streaming services. But what that does mean is if you see that TV-MA rating, take it seriously because the mature content can be very, very mature.
TRACI GRIGGS: Are there industry standards then for what constitutes, I know you just mentioned that they don’t apply necessarily to streaming like they did to broadcast, but are there some standards that we should expect?
MELISSA HENSON: Right now with streaming services, it’s kinda like the old west, you know, there’s no sheriff in town. There is no streaming industry equivalent of the MPAA. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of governance over the streaming industry. And so these streaming services are sort of making up their own minds or deciding for themselves what they’re going to do with respect to parental controls. When we first looked at streaming services, oh, about five years ago, they were all over the map. They do seem to be trending in a similar direction, which is that most of them seem to be using some combination of MPAA ratings and TV-OMB ratings. So MPAA would be things like PG, PG 13 and R. TV-OMB ratings would be PG, TV-14 or TV-MA. So they’re using a combination of these different rating systems and allowing parents to select sort of their maximum threshold before you have to enter a pin in order to access that restricted content. So if you have young children in the house, you can set it to PG-13, so that anything rated PG-13 and above, you have to enter a pin code in order to be able to watch. That seems to be the general pattern, but it’s not universal; there are still some major problems in how these systems are applied.
For example, on Hulu, you don’t have that level of granularity. You can create a kid’s profile or you have an adult profile, but within the kid’s profile, they’re lumping everything together. So the stuff that’s intended for very young children, like preschool aged, is lumped in with stuff that’s really meant for teen audiences. So, TV-14 or PG-13 stuff is right there with the stuff that’s for preschoolers. And so that gives very young children access to sometimes very mature content that’s really intended for older teens. So that’s a problem. And there’s also on Hulu no barriers to stop a child from switching over to an adult profile, and that’s a significant problem. On the plus side, what we have seen is on Netflix, you do have a slightly greater degree of control in that you’re able to block individual titles. You can add an age restriction, but beyond that you can also say, but I definitely don’t want my child to be able to stream 13 Reasons Why, or Cuties, or specific titles.
TRACI GRIGGS: Are there any clear winners do you think? Do you have any recommendations on one streaming service over another?
MELISSA HENSON: It really is going to come down to family preferences. If you have a family with young children, Disney+ might be the best option for you because they have pretty strong parental controls. But they also don’t have an awful lot of inappropriate content to begin with. I mean, it sort of is designed as a streaming service for families. So it’s probably the best bargain out there. As Netflix loses more and more content back to the original content creators, as those creators start to enter the marketplace, Netflix is going to come to rely more and more heavily on their own original content. And I think you’re going to find there’s less and less of interest to families. They have a pretty large inventory of programming for school-aged children, but once you’re out of that first thru sixth grade age range, there’s not an awful lot on there that’s really suitable for younger teens, older teens, you know, kids between the ages of say 10 and 16; there’s not an awful lot on Netflix.
TRACI GRIGGS: Is it reasonable, do you think, to expect our broadcasters to be more responsible in the kind of content they provide, and how they guard children?
MELISSA HENSON: It’s absolutely reasonable. I mean, these streaming services really depend on families for their survival. We know from doing “habits” surveys that, young adults/professionals that are independent, not yet married, not yet with children, what they tend to do is subscribe to a streaming service for a short time, binge watch their favorite episodes or their favorite shows for a time, and then drop that streaming service. And then maybe the next month they try out a different streaming service. They’re sort of hopping around, and there’s no significant entry or exit fees associated with these streaming services; there’s no contract, no cancellation charges, anything like that. It’s very easy for young adults do this, and this is what they tend to do. These streaming services are really depending on family subscribers. I think it’s absolutely incumbent on them to make sure that they’re serving those families well.
TRACI GRIGGS: Do you have some recommendations, then, to the streaming industry and to content creators for ways that they can continue to reach these stable users, these families?
MELISSA HENSON: So what we are calling for, what we are urging is an industry symposium, and we are offering to host one ourselves and be a virtual symposium; it doesn’t have to be in-person. But some way of getting all these different players to sit down at a table and agree to best practices, industry-wide standards that they would agree to adhere to. Involve the scientific community; involved the academics and researchers that know how this media impacts kids. Get all the major players involved and get them to agree to a standard which would be applied across streaming platforms throughout the industry. And that’s what we’re really hoping will happen. Failing that, I think it’s going to be important for, you know, an update of the Family Movie Act, for example. That would allow parents better control when it comes to applying filters and blocking technology as an added layer of protection above and beyond the parental controls that are already available. I think it would be important for the FCC to look at how the ratings are applied on the streaming services, make sure that there’s a high degree of continuity and consistency in the application of the ratings, so that parents can make good and well-informed decisions when it comes to what they watch.
TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned 13 Reasons Why, and I think that’s a really good example of a series that had a lot of evidence that it was causing some harm to teens. Are there any other examples that you can think of that really illustrate the need for this kind of coming together to talk about standards?
MELISSA HENSON: Well, I mentioned Hulu, which is by far the worst player when it comes to the parental controls. Hulu’s is also owned by Disney, and so Disney is sort of the Jekyll and Hyde in this story. On the one hand, they’ve got Disney+, which is generally a pretty family-friendly environment, but then they also have Hulu, and on Hulu they have a show that’s targeted to teens called PEN15. Sounds innocuous enough when I say it out loud, but if you write it down on a piece of paper, you can see the double entendre that’s there with the title. It is teen-targeted; it’s very adult in content. It has some really grossly inappropriate scenes. It’s accessible because of the weak parental controls that are available. If you set up a kid’s profile and you leave your 12 or 13-year-old in the room to watch on the kid’s profile, they can switch over to the adult profile and access this program without any trouble whatsoever.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Melissa Henson, where can our listeners go to find a copy of your report, “Dollars and Sense: A Parent’s Guide to Streaming Media,” and also to follow your work?
MELISSA HENSON: You can find the report at parentstv.org. Follow us on our social media pages, just look for the Parents Television and Media Council’s official page on Facebook and Twitter.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay. Melissa Henson with the Parents Television and Media Council, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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