Movie censorship software: When parents can’t say no

Sunday, February 24, 2002

My parents didn’t spend much time monitoring the media.

It wasn’t that they didn’t care what their son watched, read or heard. It just wasn’t a major concern.

For those of us who grew up as part of the “Leave it to Beaver” or even “The Brady Bunch” generations, entertainment options were modest compared to today’s multimedia universe. And so were our parents’ worries.

Many of us grew up with three or four channels on a television, which was typically placed prominently in the living room where everyone could watch. Films were available only in movie theaters, where usually vigilant ticket-takers kept kids out of adult-oriented movies.

Records came in three speeds until the development of audiocassettes and eight-track tapes. The closest thing we had to the Internet was … actually, we had nothing even vaguely like the Internet.

Today’s dramatically different media environment poses special challenges for parents. Couple an unprecedented stream of entertainment and information coming into our homes with a nagging sense that depictions of sex and violence may harm our kids, and you have parents scrambling for safeguards in a way that their parents never did.

And when there’s a demand for control over content, someone will find a way to fill it — at a profit. Entrepreneurs are now introducing software that allows you to bring home an R-rated DVD and turn it into a G-rated movie.

Three years ago, a number of small video stores began to offer similar services to their customers. If you purchased a copy of “Titanic,” the video store would snip out potentially offensive scenes. This practice brought legal threats from Paramount Pictures, the film’s distributor. Paramount contended that editing the film — even after purchase — amounted to the unauthorized alteration of its movie and a violation of copyright law.

The Movie Mask Player and ClearPlay, two software rivals, now offer you the chance to censor a film without physically altering a DVD. The software does all the editing.

Here’s how ClearPlay markets its service: “Want to watch a ‘family-friendly’ presentation of the latest Hollywood movie? It’s really quite simple. Using DVDs that you already rent or purchase from your local stores, ClearPlay lets you enjoy great movies — without needing to worry about the occasional R-rated scene or language.”

In effect, ClearPlay provides a software overlay so that when you show the movie on your home computer, scenes that contributed to a movie’s PG-13- or R-rating are either deleted or modified. In theory, the edited version would now qualify for a G- or PG-rating. Subscribers pay $9.95 a month for the service.

The rival Movie Mask Player costs $50. A more expensive version of the software lets users customize filters for their favorite movies, which they are then free to distribute to others.

Some have expressed concern that this new software will undercut artistry. “We’re talking about works of art that were created for a specific purpose and go about that in a specific way,” Jeanine Basinger, head of the film studies program at Wesleyan University, told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re not talking Silly Putty. We’re talking about icons that represent some of the best our civilization has to offer. I think this sets an extremely dangerous precedent.”

Frankly, I don’t see this as an unprecedented threat to artistic integrity. All of us have suffered through movies that have been chopped up for television or airline use, practices from which the studios derive considerable revenue. And how different is editing an objectionable element from simply walking out of the room when a gory scene comes on the screen?

My guess is that this technology will catch on in a big way. It has the added advantage of not involving the government, setting it apart from the ill-fated V-chip and mandatory Internet filtering. DVD filters would be purchased by parents and not mandated by politicians.

Still, there’s something a little disquieting about turning parental guidance over to a software manufacturer.

At the top of ClearPlay’s Web site is this sales pitch: “Being a very cool responsible parent just got a whole lot easier.”

“Very cool” apparently means not having to tell your child that a popular film is simply inappropriate for him. By using ClearPlay, you compromise. Your child can see the hot new movie, and you won’t feel guilty about it.

Unfortunately, that approach also deprives parents of the chance to reflect upon what their children should and shouldn’t see. Do we want to shield them from all unpleasant or provocative ideas and images? Most children will do quite nicely without seeing Kate Winslet undraped or Arnold Schwarzenegger gunning people down, but what about the nudity in “Schindler’s List” or the deaths in “Saving Private Ryan”?

On the other hand, some popular movies are no less mindless with the most offensive scenes deleted. Sometimes parents have to say “no” even if it means they’re no longer “very cool.”

Making the hard decisions about what our children see and hear has to be the job of parents. Software is no substitute.

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