Leo Ebbert is the kind of guy who's quick to adopt emerging technologies and embrace digital trends.
For example, Ebbert — a 33-year-old entrepreneur in Knoxville, Tenn. — recently cancelled his cable television, opting instead to wirelessly stream the Hulu Plus and Amazon Video services onto his television through an Xbox. It's a tech-savvy move made with one eye on his bottom line: by leveraging existing infrastructure like a WiFi connection and gaming console, Ebbert now watches his preferred programming for a fraction of the cost of cable.
But for all his media know-how Ebbert still stumbles when it comes to deciding which movies are age-appropriate for Summar, his 9-year-old daughter and the oldest of his five children.
"I'll let her watch whatever G-rated movie she wants to, but I just can't trust the PG rating," he said. "There's a lot of suggestive content in some of those PG movies — jokes meant to make adults laugh that are usually sexual in nature. And I don't appreciate that."
Ebbert ruefully recalls the time he watched "Hop" with his family. Rated PG, the 2011 film's protagonist is an animated rabbit that comes to real-life Hollywood. And along the way, the cute cartoon bunny makes his way to the Playboy Mansion.
"(The rabbit) goes to the Playboy Mansion and he's talking to Hugh Hefner via a telecom outside the gate," Ebbert said. "And they're saying all these sexually suggestive things. It’s meant to be very funny and very cute for adults, and the kids are supposed to just be ignorant and wonder what that means. But it’s very inappropriate."
Families like Ebbert's can struggle to find the information they need to make good decisions about what movies to watch. Ebbert wants to be pointed to the best movies that are safe for Summar to watch. Several websites are trying to fill that void, such as Common Sense Media, Parents Television Council and OK.com — a new tool that uses technology to generate customized recommendations for any moviegoer's tastes.
Sentinels standing guard
Market forces contribute to conscientious parents like Ebbert seeking help for making age-appropriate movie choices because, in contemporary culture, family-friendly movies are more the exception than the rule. From 1995 to 2011, for example, Hollywood unleashed more than 3,400 R-rated films — compared to a relatively paltry 1,170 movies that netted a rating of either G or PG. (This curious disparity blossomed in spite of the fact that, on average, a film rated G or PG grosses roughly 275 percent of the money that the average R-rated movie earns.)
A cadre of non-profit advocacy groups aims to arm families with the necessary data for making informed choices about movies and other media. San Francisco-based Common Sense Media's mission statement affirms the organization "is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology." Similarly, the primary mission of the Parents Television Council — which is headquartered in Los Angeles — "is to promote and restore responsibility and decency to the entertainment industry in answer to America's demand for positive, family-oriented television programming."
In Salt Lake City, Deseret Digital Media product director Rob Johnson and developer Ken Ahlstrom helmed development of the new website OK.com. (The Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media share the same parent company, Deseret Management Corporation.) After thoroughly surveying the media landscape, Johnson chose to position OK.com as a family-friendly tool focused on in-home movie consumption.
“For a long time theaters have been the main focus of movie reviews and ratings,” Johnson said. “But what we’ve found is that there are many movies that are family-oriented that aren’t necessarily big in theaters, but are huge on DVD and streaming — like ‘The Pirates! Band of Misfits’ movie.
“We think the media landscape is shifting as we speak. We’re really focusing on home entertainment because we believe that in a family that’s where the most media is consumed, and with the increase in home entertainment there’s a major opportunity to be a unique resource. If we can (capture) that market now, and focus on the family, we’re putting ourselves in a really good position moving forward.”
At its core, OK.com provides differentiated value to users by not only helping them select which movies they want to watch, but also how they’ll consume those movies. Via virtual tie-ins with content providers, OK.com can instantly generate real-time data for a movie such as which Redbox locations have the DVD in stock and whether that film can be streamed through Netflix. (And while it no longer qualifies as groundbreaking innovation, OK.com also provides show times and ticket prices for movies that are still playing in theaters.)
“As we’ve been going around the country telling people about OK.com, they really light up when we talk about all the different platforms we’re tied into,” Johnson said. “Right now it’s just Redbox, Netflix Instant and Netflix DVD, and then what’s in theaters. Soon we hope to have Amazon and iTunes added to it as well.”
Additionally, OK.com offers an alternative to the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system. User-generated recommendations combine to yield an age recommendation for every movie — recommendations which can be much more instructive than the MPAA’s generalized ratings.
For example, consider the cases of “Forever Strong,” the 2009 film about a high school rugby team, and the new Tom Cruise vehicle “Rock of Ages.” Both films garnered a PG-13 rating from the MPAA, yet OK.com users believe “Forever Strong” is safe for a 10-year-old while “Rock of Ages” should be limited to ages 17 and above.
‘A unique experience’
While OK.com employs computer algorithms to predict which movies users will like, there’s a major difference between the new website and the formulaic recommendations of, say, Netflix: OK.com places a premium on what movies your friends like.
“If you connect with Facebook (to OK.com), you can invite friends and build a network in which you share recommendations with each other,” Johnson explained. “And we then take all that data and tailor recommendations based on ratings, reviews, release times, recency of the movie and how many theaters that movie has played in. That means everyone can have a unique experience on OK.com. ...
“In many ways our algorithm is nowhere near as complex as Netflix, and we’re not going to be as accurate (as Netflix) if we relied on an algorithm alone. But with the friend component, we hope to be incredibly accurate.”
J.G. Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company