Making Sense Of The iTunes Content Advisory System -None, Clean, Or Explicit

itunes-logoI, along with my colleague Darren Morton, produce one of the coolest Music Education Podcast shows available on iTunes.   One of the things that confused me for the longest time was whether or not we should use the “CLEAN” tag for the contents of the Podcast show.  

The show certainly is “CLEAN” from any EXPLICIT or potentially offensive content so why shouldn’t we mark it “CLEAN”?  Well, we did for a long time; then, we took it off! (Cue organ suspense music here)  I did this after I finally grasped the concept of the Apple’s less than perfect rating system.  Regardless of one’s understanding of this sytem,  iTunes requires podcasters to mark the contents of their audio materials (through RSS submission) either as EXPLICIT, CLEAN, or not.

The real issue at play is this:  Many people think that they have to mark everything as CLEAN regardless of whether or not it originally contained EXPLICIT materials.   This simple misunderstanding actually sets the stage for mass misinformation to take place.  For example, if our harmless podcast is not marked CLEAN then many people and online audio services will then assume that it is chalk full of nasty and age inappropriate adult content.  This is exactly the opposite of how this system was intended to work.   After reading the many and various support forums that have people who have asked this question, I can verify that this confusion does indeed exist, is rampant, and exactly the way that I have stated it here.

Before I go into the detail of how I arrived at such an understanding (and some of you will no doubt, at this point, think that it is a bold mis-understanding)  let me tell you how I believe that the iTunes content advisory system was/is intended to work after looking for the answers form various online sources…   If a podcast (or audio file) contains EXPLICIT content then it is indeed to be marked and tagged as EXPLICIT.   If an EXPLICIT podcast (or audio file) was then edited to “CLEAN it up”, then it is to be marked CLEAN.   That being said, typically the offensive words contained in the song were either removed, bleeped over, or edited to something else.  The podcast many times will still convey the general idea and intent of using the EXPLICIT words in the first place, thus it is marked CLEAN.   This might be somewhat analogous to a “R” movie that was CLEANED for public or local broadcast and “edited for content” -bringing it down to the PG level.  If a song is not EXPLICIT in the first place then it is simply NOT to be marked either CLEAN or EXPLICIT.

After much searching for the “true” answer to these questions, I found that there really is not any one authoritative place online that directly provides the answer; so,  I will put forth how I came to my conclusion:

First, if you search Apple’s site long enough you will find this link which leads to the online PDF/HTML section of the iTunes U Administrator Guide -Page 30).  Under the heading “Adding Content Using the UPload and Manage Files Webpage”, under item 7, bullet point 6, it clearly lists the intent of the “Advisory Label for Files”.  Here there are four options available to the iTunes U users:

“Unset– Indicates that the file’s explicitness is unknown. iTunes U does not apply an advisory settings to the file.”  Thus, not placing a graphic (another point of confusion)

“Do Not Mark-Indicates that the file’s content is not explicit. iTunes U applies the setting, but does not display an advisory graphic for the file. Apple recommends that you choose Do Not Mark when a file is not explicit but should not have the Clean icon advisory graphic because the file does not contain an alternate version of content from an explicit file (Mark Explicit). Choose Do Not Mark to implicitly indicate a file is clean.”

“Mark Explicit- Indicates that the file is known to contain explicit content and you want iTunes U to apply an “explicit” setting to the file. iTunes U applies the setting and displays the Explicit icon advisory graphic for the file.”

“Mark Clean-  Indicates that the file is known to be free of explicit content and you want iTunes U to apply a “clean” setting to the file. iTunes U applies the setting and displays the Clean icon advisory graphic for the file. Apple recommends that you choose Mark Clean only if the file contains an alternate version of content from an explicit file (Mark Explicit).”

The last line of the MARK CLEAN section makes it pretty clear that you should only mark a podcast (or Audio File) CLEAN if it is an alternative version of an EXPLICIT file.

Second, if look at the RSS FEED TAG options of an iTunes show and examine the <itunes:explicit> tag you will find only three usable values: YES, NO, and CLEAN.   This basically leaves you two categories of podcasts (or audio files): EXPLICIT and NON-EXPLICIT.  The EXPLICIT category has two designators in essence: ORIGINAL INTACT and CLEANED UP -the other category is non-EXPLICIT.

Third, if you search through the mass listings of podcasts available from the iTunes store you will see hundreds of never-EXPLICIT shows marked CLEAN and many more CLEAN shows simply not marked (and assumed to be clean).   The truth is that the only thing you can really be sure of (with all of this confusion) is that the shows marked EXPLICIT are indeed, EXPLICIT.

To illustrate some of this confusion…I recently stopped marking the MusTech.Net podcast as CLEAN and now when I choose to only view “CLEAN” podcasts at my show doesn’t show up (or any of the other CLEAN shows not marked as “CLEAN”).   My discourse with one of the folks at Podomatic was the catalyst for me to start research on this subject.  In the end, they seem to be confused as the rest of us.

One of the the crazy dilemmas to come of this confusion is that by mis-marking a non-EXPLICIT show as CLEAN -this may cause many people who understand, what I believe to be the true intent of the iTunes advisory system is, to think that the show contained EXPLICIT materials originally.  Likewise, by NOT mis-marking a show CLEAN (leaving it non-marked), all those that believe that all NON-EXPLICIT shows are marked CLEAN will assume the show is not CLEAN…  

In my final analysis, I think it safe to assume that the vast majority of shows not showing any type of advisory label (of any kind) on them are actually void of any offensive materials.  If the were not free of such materials they would have been “flagged” if they’ve been listened to by enough people.

Have you experienced this confusion? I welcome your thoughts and experiences or any other informed opinions about this topic in the comment section below (How about somebody from Apple!).


Joseph M. Pisano, Ph.D. is the creator of many education websites, a lecturer, clinician, trumpeter, and conductor. He is currently the Associate Chair of Music and Director of Bands in the Calderwood School of Arts at Grove City College in PA. He been named a TI:ME Teacher of the Year, received the JEN Jazz Educator Award and the PA Citation of Excellence. He is a past Vice President of the Technology Institute for Music Educators and the current Vice-President of the PA Intercollegiate Bandmasters Association. He also writes for DCI Magazine, Teaching Music Magazine, and is the Educational Editor for In-Tune Monthly Magazine; he has contributed hundreds of articles to various publications. Find out more at his website
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