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Standards not so straight for Web pix

News Analysis

Indie director Greg Joyce wanted to dip a toe into Internet distribution earlier this year. So he uploaded to Google Video “Working Stiff,” his feature-length comedy about the adult film industry, planning to charge a few dollars per download — and got rejected almost as quickly as the Silicon Valley Web giant responds to a user’s search query.

“One newspaper reviewer guessed that my movie would fall somewhere between PG-13 and R,” said Joyce of his unrated pic, made for about $150,000. “But you can see more skin in 10 seconds on MTV than you can in my movie.”

Google’s team of video screeners weren’t swayed. They refused to allow Joyce to sell his film on their site, quoting a policy against “videos that include nudity, pornography or obscenity, or direct users to such content.”

If the Motion Picture Assn. of America can sometimes be hazy about its reasons for doling out an NC-17 instead of an R, and the line between TV-PG and TV-14 can be difficult to discern on network television, in the world of Web video, content ratings don’t yet exist — which means each site adheres to its own “I’ll know it when I see it” policy about what is acceptable.

As they seek seeking to appeal to advertisers, mainstream content suppliers, prospective investors and even would-be acquirers, the standards of mainstream sites such as Google Video, YouTube, Revver and the recently launched Microsoft Soapbox can be surprisingly conservative.

“Sites that allow more racy content are going to have a much more difficult time selling advertising around that content,” explained Jonathan Shambroom, vice president of products and marketing at Grouper, a video-sharing site acquired by Sony Pictures in August.

Revver, a Los Angeles-based video site, employs about a dozen people who review every uploaded video before it is made public. “We have a team of people who are very sensitive to copyright infringement, hate speech and pornography,” Revver CEO Steven Starr said.

But most sites that receive a high volume of video content from users (YouTube claims to get more than 65,000 videos per day) don’t screen content in advance, instead responding after the fact to complaints.

That approach, though, can lead to “knee-jerk reactions when whistleblowers complain about a piece of content,” said Todd Dagres, a venture capitalist who is on the board of Veoh, a video site headquartered in San Diego. “If you put up some user-generated content that approximated a movie like ‘American Pie,’ and someone complained, it’d be yanked off,” he said.

When it launched last year, Veoh welcomed videos of all kinds, including hard-core pornography. But that wide-open policy changed in June, two months after ex-Disney CEO Michael Eisner joined Veoh’s board and made an investment. Now, uploaded video cannot contain “nudity or sexually explicit content, excessive violence or any illegal or otherwise inappropriate footage,” according to the site’s terms of service.

“We wanted a place where parents could have their kids go, and where premium-content owners felt their content would be in a high-quality environment,” Dagres said.

Content ratings may eventually come to Web video — a notion that has supporters and detractors. “Every major form of media, from movies to videogames, has gone the way of ratings,” Shambroom said. “I think it’s inevitable.”

Microsoft exec Rob Bennett, who runs Soapbox, the company’s response to YouTube, suggested ratings could be doled out by the community of Internet viewers, and might differ from one country to the next. “It’s hard to get one rating system that spans all markets,” Bennett said. “Something that is R for nudity here in the U.S. might be the equivalent of PG-13 in Europe.”

Revver already plasters its own ratings on videos, using the familiar MPAA system, and the site permits nothing beyond a PG-13. (According to MPAA rules, companies like Revver are prohibited from borrowing the MPAA’s rating system.) But Starr said he’s opposed to the idea of a centralized rating body for Web video. “I’d much rather have control over our rating system than to have someone tell me how to rate content,” he said.

Dagres said it would be hard for individual sites or a central rating body to employ enough people to evaluate the tidal wave of Web videos being created. But he added that technology isn’t yet reliable enough to be able to discern flesh or profanity automatically in order to flag the offending video. “This is very new territory,” he said.

‘Working Stiff” director Joyce eventually found a different home for his movie: He’s offering it in 10-minute segments on Brightcove, a site that didn’t object to the subject matter.

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