With the multiplying number of streaming services available, parents today often struggle to navigate these options to find uplifting, cost-effective entertainment that kids love. Last week, a new report from Parents Television and Media Council (PTC) offers help, ranking the top services according to monthly cost, viewing options for families, and parental controls.
In 2020, streaming services accounted for 68 percent of all in-home viewing, according to a January survey. As streaming has ramped up, values clashes between these entertainment giants and their subscribers have created flashpoints, from Netflix (read: controversy around French film “Cuties”) to even Disney Plus with its not-so-quiet dismissal of “The Mandalorian” co-star Gina Carano.
Heading up the only media watchdog group based in Hollywood, PTC president Tim Winter regularly speaks with streaming execs who seek to better reach families. “These companies will say one thing publicly, yet do something quite differently behind-the-scenes,” he told me in a phone interview. “They will publicly say how important parental controls are, but my private conversations with them suggest they see these tools for parents as a necessary evil.”
According to their report, some streamers forego any common-sense safety features for their youngest users — notably Hulu, which is majority-owned by Disney. “Of the top eight platforms, Hulu has the most lax parental controls,” said PTC program director Melissa Henson in a phone interview. She served as primary author of their “Dollars and Sense” report.
Her analysis found that setting up a Hulu kids’ profile still allowed a child to access PG-13 and TV-14 rated content. “Even worse, the child can easily switch out of their kids’ profile and watch things like ‘A Teacher,’ which is about an adult relationship with a minor,” she said. “A lot of work needs to be done for that platform to be suitable for families.” A representative for Hulu did not reply to a request for comment on the study.
While PTC calls out media conglomerates for their failures, they also emphasize parents as the best failsafe. Yet with portable devices making media ubiquitous in many children’s lives, it becomes especially difficult for parents to monitor their media consumption.
“Every parent thinks about their child’s diet when they go to the grocery store,” said Winter. “More kids would be saved from negative outcomes if parents understood how media impacts child development. Greater vigilance would have a huge positive impact on our society.”
Parental Controls Can Work — with Accurate Ratings
The report highlights how Netflix has the most extensive parental controls of any streamer, while Disney Plus ranks second on their list with its wide-ranging and mostly family-friendly catalog. Henson explains why Netflix topped the list. “Let’s say you’re generally okay with PG-13 programs. But there’s this one show you heard about that you absolutely don’t want your child watching. With Netflix, parents have the control to block specific titles.”
This feature was among several best practices that PTC urged streamers to add in a 2017 report. “We see that these companies will add controls to make sure as many people as possible will subscribe to their platform,” said Winter. “Even if they’re reluctant to implement such tools, they see it as a way to protect their revenue streams.”
It could give parents a means to tune out even produced-for-children shows that they see as in conflict with their values, such as “The Baby-Sitters Club” on Netflix or Disney’s recent “High School Musical” reboot series that features romantic same-sex relationships among children. Currently, only Netflix provides this granular level of control to remove visibility of specific titles.
However, parents’ advocates are under no illusion that technology alone solves complex problems. For years, PTC has noted a conflict of interest in how networks and streamers rate their own shows. How titles are categorized matters just as much, with Netflix continuing to stock its Teen category with TV-MA titles.
“We see a high degree of self-interest in the way content ratings are applied,” said Henson. “Their goal seems to be helping these shows reach a desired demographic or audience. It’s not necessarily reflecting the age appropriateness of that content all that accurately.”
Like Streaming, Cable Once Promised Choices
Formerly an executive at NBC and MGM, Winter likens the rise of streaming to the heady days in the late 1980s, when cable TV began to reach critical mass.
“Every time there’s a new platform for the public to consume media, it starts out with tremendous promise,” he said. “Cable TV promised we could have all these different options. Then, just as it is now, certain forces here in Hollywood ultimately hold the reins.”
Currently about a dozen major streaming services are competing for subscribers. The new report notes how emerging players HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, and Peacock all provide adequate parental controls and some worthwhile family titles. HBO Max in particular has had a big year, with many buzzing about “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Space Jam: A New Legacy” out in July, with simultaneous releases in theaters.
Many predict today’s smaller services will be acquired by larger streamers, consolidating the market. If tools for parents are not prioritized, Winter sees it going the same route as cable did with “à la carte” options promised but never delivered.
“Once media conglomerates got their grip around the cable model, the consumer lost control,” he said. “We couldn’t control our family’s cable bundle, which channels we did or didn’t subscribe to. Sure, we had an awful lot of stuff to watch, but we were forced to pay for it all — or nothing.”
His team points to one streamer as an example. When CBS All Access relaunched two months ago as Paramount Plus, it downgraded to what PTC calls “less robust” parental controls. That platform, with its edgy and foul-mouthed “Twilight Zone” reboot among other series, reflects what has often happened when TV networks used to prime-time programming move shows to streaming. “They no longer have content restrictions that they once had,” noted Henson.
Originally on ABC prior to Netflix, Kiefer Sutherland’s hit political thriller series “Designated Survivor” illustrates this trend. “When it was on broadcast television, it was a pretty clean PG show. Once it moved over exclusively to streaming, it became a TV-MA rated show.
“Without the restrictions of FCC standards and advertisers, for example, I think we’re going to see content getting much coarser overall.”
Parents, Politicians, and Gatekeepers All Have a Role
Is there a silver lining? For now, yes.
“Families can realize some cost savings, switching from cable to streaming,” said Henson. But count on price hikes, a regular occurrence for Netflix, while Disney Plus had its first in March. And they’re wary of pricey bundles that subsidize content many families may not want.
Even if monthly subscriptions remain low, their analysis stresses how much mature content has become easily accessible to children through streaming. Winter cites a study from Annenberg Public Policy Center that shows violence on television has become more prevalent in recent decades and actually more common in PG-13 than R-rated films.
He expresses concern about the targeting of minors. “The volume and degree of sexual content, violence, profanity, and sexually-oriented dialogue has increased. When explicit content is rated as appropriate for children—and it’s often more profitable for them to do so—we have empirical data to show that can be harmful to children.”
PTC has called for policymakers to revisit the Child Safe Viewing Act. The law instructed the FCC to recommend parental controls for on-demand video services. Instead, the FCC simply invited public comment, then reported those responses. “It’s frustrating that they did nothing,” he said.
For now, the media watchdog group has a three-pronged approach to cultivating a safe and sound entertainment media environment for families. First, PTC works to ensure ratings are accurate. They also applaud robust parental control technology solutions that work.
Significantly, Winter says they encourage parents to know the tools and set boundaries in their own homes. “You can have an accurate rating system. You can have technically sound parental controls. But if parents don’t use it, then it’s of no value.”
Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy for several media outlets including The Stream. His articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion & Politics, Faithfully Magazine, Religion News Service, and Providence Magazine. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.