Bleep Off: The Fight to Save Family-Friendly Movie Filtering
Image: VidAngel

“So much of television is really not fit for children, or Christians, or the elderly,” declared Kenneth the NBC page, a character on the sitcom 30 Rock who pitched executives the idea of a black bar to block objectionable content.

Kenneth’s suggestion—a hit with the wholesome new network president in a 2011 episode—seems like an especially blunt caricature of faith-based filters compared to the real-life options available today.

But one of the most prominent services, VidAngel, had to suspend its streaming offerings last month as it faces a lawsuit from Disney and three other major studios. Yesterday, an appeals court rejected its request to keep streaming cleaned-up content while the suit unfolds.

VidAngel lets viewers watch “however the bleep” they want, with hundreds of customizable filters to skip everything from sexual gestures and fight scenes to four-letter words and lighter offenses like butt. (The censor settings aren’t all “bosoms, blood, and bad words”; the company also lets you cut Jar Jar Binks scenes out of Star Wars.)

Its 100,000 customers are now back to watching movies the typical way: all or nothing. Last month, a preliminary injunction forced VidAngel to take down its 3,000-plus videos—everything from Game of Thrones to Minions—while fighting allegations from Disney, LucasFilm, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Brothers that the service violates copyright and encryption regulations.

VidAngel, founded by Mormon entrepreneur Neal Harmon and endorsed by leaders from evangelical groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, follows a legacy of faith-based movie censorship that goes back as far as American cinema itself, according to film historian Michael Cornick.

Religious concerns over content prompted censorship boards and influenced the industry’s current rating system. Most of the dozen filtering services that came before VidAngel—such as CleanFlicks and MovieMask—had Christian or Mormon ties. And now, the results of VidAngel’s legal battle are expected to indicate the future of filtering in the digital age.

“The technology has changed so fast that the law has struggled to keep up,” said Cornick, a professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho. “The VidAngel lawsuit will likely determine how streaming will be affected with regard to filtering services in the long run.”

While several of its predecessors in the filtering business settled when faced with Hollywood lawsuits, VidAngel is ready to fight. The startup is surprisingly equipped for the case, with a former Oscars attorney as its legal counsel and $10 million in backer support.

VidAngel set crowdfunding records by raising half that amount in about a day, with more than 40,000 people overall contributing to their campaign to #SaveFiltering.

Harmon Brothers, the marketing firm run by Harmon and his three brothers and VidAngel cofounders, is a master at creating clever viral videos to promote VidAngel as they did for products such as Poo-Pourri and Squatty Potty.

Since the service was suspended after Christmas, even more customers have donated their account credits to the cause, said Harmon. Christians and Mormons come to VidAngel’s defense in comment sections to news stories covering the suit.

How It All Works

The structure of VidAngel is a little convoluted—as are the legal requirements around video filtering and streaming. Two major laws are at play: the Family Movie Act (FMA) of 2005 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) of 1998.

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Bleep Off: The Fight to Save Family-Friendly Movie Filtering