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March 3, 2020

End Hollywood’s War on Content Filtering

An estimated 24 million Americans watched ABC’s annual telecast of the Academy Awards, sharing Hollywood’s celebration of outstanding achievement in motion-picture entertainment. Not only is it Hollywood’s greatest night of the year, it could likely be the second-most-watched program on television this year, following the broadcast of Super Bowl LIV.

Editor’s note: This piece is coauthored by Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council.

An estimated 24 million Americans watched ABC’s annual telecast of the Academy Awards, sharing Hollywood’s celebration of outstanding achievement in motion-picture entertainment. Not only is it Hollywood’s greatest night of the year, it could likely be the second-most-watched program on television this year, following the broadcast of Super Bowl LIV.

For most of Hollywood’s glorious history, Oscar-nominated films were accessible to Americans of all ages. But these days, that is becoming more of a rarity. Dark, disquieting storylines with increasing levels of violence, profanity, and sexually explicit content have become the norm.

This leaves parents with a Hobson’s choice: Either they can allow their children to watch those films despite their objections to potentially harmful and age-inappropriate content, or they can opt out of watching them altogether.

A review conducted by the filtering service VidAngel found that three of the titles nominated for Best Picture — "The Irishman,“ "Marriage Story," and "Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” — together included nearly 600 instances of profanity, 30 instances of sex or nudity, and almost 50 instances of graphic or gory violence. Add in the films nominated for their outstanding acting and other production elements and those totals spike even higher.

The Motion Picture Academy has never used “family friendliness” as a qualification for its award nominations, nor should it. But American families also have the right to enjoy these movies as cultural touch points. That’s why, for two decades, a number of innovative companies have crafted content filtering technologies, allowing viewers to enjoy Hollywood’s iconic filmmaking free from the explicit material that many parents feel is harmful to their children.

You’d think that Hollywood would promote a product that secures their artistic freedom while simultaneously delivering greater choice for consumers. You’d think that Hollywood would herald a remedy that immediately expands the potential marketplace for their product. You’d think that Hollywood would celebrate a technology that helps their films make even more money.

But if you thought those things, you’d be wrong.

In response to content-filtering innovation, forces in Hollywood have systematically worked to put each and every filtering company out of business.

Recognizing this ongoing challenge for parents, and simultaneously honoring the free-speech rights of the creative community, Congress passed the bipartisan Family Movie Act of 2005. This legislative remedy protected the filtering services from copyright infringement lawsuits being waged by Hollywood.

This meant that Oscar-winning productions and other mainstream movies could reach viewers who would not otherwise purchase those films; families were able to enjoy them within the comfort of their homes, free of explicit content that they chose to skip.

That was 15 years ago, when DVDs were the popular platform for home entertainment. Today, families increasingly receive their video entertainment through digital streaming platforms. In their determination to wrest control from parents, the Walt Disney Company and a handful of other studios have waged a merciless legal battle against content-filtering streaming service providers.

This is nonsensical. Each viewer has the right to fast-forward and skip any part he or she wants from a movie or show. It should not matter if viewers choose to pay someone to do it for them automatically.

Sadly, and we believe wrongly, courts in California have sided with Hollywood, ruling that the Family Movie Act doesn’t apply to video streaming. Last summer, a U.S. District Court in Los Angeles found VidAngel guilty of copyright infringement and ordered it to pay Disney $62.4 million in damages. Such a punitive judgment will undoubtedly strike fear into any entrepreneurial efforts to craft new and improved filtering technologies.

The demand for content filtering is huge: A 2017 national poll found that 40% of Americans and nearly 60% of parents, including both conservatives and liberals, said they would filter their streaming video if given the opportunity to do so. And of those who used VidAngel’s filtering technology, over 65% said they would not have rented a movie had it not been for the filtering technology.

This is not a religious issue. This is not a red-and-blue or a conservative-and-liberal issue. Fundamentally, it’s about protecting children while protecting the creative community’s right to produce whatever it wants.

When parents lawfully purchase a video stream of a popular film or television program, they should be allowed to watch it using the very best content filters that the technology marketplace makes available to them.

That was the exact promise that Congress made to families when it passed the Family Movie Act in 2005. If the courts don’t think Congress intended content filtering to extend beyond DVDs, then Congress needs to act again to clarify that intention.

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