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Wireless firms plan content ratings

The wireless industry has begun defining a standardized content rating and filtering system that eventually will be applied to all content offered on their networks.
/ Source: Billboard

The wireless industry, through its trade group, Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn. (CTIA), has begun defining a standardized content rating and filtering system that eventually will be applied to all content offered on their networks, including music.

Driving this effort is the recent explosion of interest the adult entertainment industry has shown in providing cellular content. Playboy, Hustler, Wicked Wireless, Brickhouse Mobile and adult film stars Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy, among many others, all have unveiled plans to launch wireless content services in the U.S. market at a time when the regulatory landscape is increasingly focused on cleaning up broadcast airwaves.

The Federal Communications Commission oversees the distribution of wireless spectrum to U.S. operators, and wireless carriers do not want the indecency campaign against radio, TV and cable broadcasters to come their way.

"The adult side of things has really kick-started it," says Mark Desautels, CTIA VP of wireless Internet development. "As indecency becomes an increasing point of interest on the part of policymakers, we really need to be proactive about it."

CTIA has reached out to individual labels and the Recording Industry Assn. of America to help develop this system, along with the rating bodies of other industries, such as the Entertainment Software Ratings Board for games and the Motion Picture Assn. of America for movies.

Wireless carriers and record companies view a rating and filtering system as an opportunity to offer a greater spectrum of content, including master ringtones or voicetones with explicit lyrics. Currently, wireless carriers offer only the most non-offensive content possible because they do not have a mechanism for limiting edgier content to adults. Unlike Internet service providers, which have little concern regarding how their networks are used, wireless carriers place themselves at the center of the customer relationship and therefore will be held directly responsible for any offensive content their branded stores offer.

"It's as much about freeing up content that adult customers want to enjoy as it is about restricting children from accessing it," says Jim Ryan, VP of data product management for Cingular Wireless. "Until we can provide filtering and control for parents, we will offer only the broadcast version of content. When we can provide an 18-plus category, we'll look at the ability to offer other things. Our job is not to restrict or to regulate access to content. Our job is to provide choice and provide control."

When mobile music applications were limited to polyphonic ringtones without lyrics, the issue was of little importance beyond editing the titles of certain hip-hop songs. But now that master ringtone recordings featuring actual song clips have emerged, the problem has become more prevalent. In their content agreements, carriers require record companies to provide only "clean" titles, which limits the sales pool.

"We would prefer there was a method to make more content available, and if this framework allows us to do that, then we would be happy to work within it," Universal Music Mobile VP/general manager Rio Caraeff says. "Until then, we'll have to come up with some alternative distribution strategies for that content."

This includes providing explicit content to third-party aggregators or selling ringtones and voicetones directly to the consumer at artists' Web sites. In the future, music labels would like to see more direct-to-consumer distribution opportunities like this.

According to CTIA's Desautels, the first stage of this content and filtering system will be ready by midyear. This initial implementation identifies content not appropriate for those under 18 and lumps it all into a "restricted" category. The goal is to rate content by category, applying mobile versions of existing rating systems. He expects that to be completed within 12 months.

"We want to develop more sophisticated filtering tools so that the ability to filter or to block certain types of content will be another part of the suite of services that carriers seek to provide," Desautels says.