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Families Can Filter HBO and Netflix—for Now

VidAngel is back. But the jury is still out on its legality.
Families Can Filter HBO and Netflix—for Now
Image: VidAngel

What’s Game of Thrones like without the nudity? House of Cards without the cursing? Subscribers to a new app are about to find out.

VidAngel, the Mormon-founded movie filtering company, announced plans this month to launch a service allowing families to watch customized versions of HBO, Netflix, and Amazon shows and movies for $7.99 a month.

More than 200,000 fans watched the live video where CEO Neal Harmon declared “VidAngel is back!” and debuted the app. It’s currently available on iOS and Android, and slated to be coming soon to other streaming devices.

The new project comes as VidAngel continues to fight in court for people of faith to have the right to stream movies “however the bleep” they want, and as competitors continue to clamor for the family-friendly Christian audience.

The Utah-based company, with 100,000-plus subscribers and the backing of evangelical groups like Focus on the Family, was forced to take down its streaming offerings in January, after studios levied lawsuits based on US copyright and encryption regulations.

Its old platform relied on a pay-per-rental, Redbox-style setup. The new service, which includes more than 1,600 titles, resembles an unlimited subscription model. Both formats let viewers customize which content they would like removed or bleep, down to the word.

“Rewatching #StrangerThings via @VidAngel with the boys. They are loving it & it’s great we can edit out the profanity & sexual references,” a dad in Texas tweeted last week.

The faith-based audience is huge, as evidenced by the success of recent Christian movies like War Room, and eager for more to watch. A 2013 LifeWay Research survey found that evangelicals and born-again Christians were four times more likely than the average American to “strongly agree” that they wish there more movies that reflected Christian values.

Even as supporters celebrate—their $10 million in funding helped VidAngel develop the new app—it may not be in the clear yet.

The company said the new model avoids some of the legal complications of “space shifting” (in this case, streaming a video purchased on DVD) since all their offerings are already available to watch on sites like Amazon and Netflix.

Yet, VidAngel has not secured their official blessing, and if they oppose the filtering gateway, those companies could technically block VidAngel’s setup. The June 13 launch was shaky after a glitch prevented subscribers from connecting to Amazon content. Netflix came out with a statement that the company has “not endorsed or approved the VidAngel technology.”

The three studios already battling VidAngel—Warner Brothers, Disney, and 20th Century Fox—are not happy about the company’s comeback. The Hollywood Reporter quoted recent court filings:

VidAngel has sprung the motion on plaintiffs and the court in a manner that short-circuits any ability of plaintiffs to investigate—or the court to assess — whether VidAngel’s ‘new’ service complies with the preliminary injunction. Plaintiffs know some facts about VidAngel’s service, and those facts raise significant questions.

Company leaders defend their offerings as an extension of customers’ rights to choose how they watch movies, comparing it to an automated version of fast-forwarding (which is actually how some earlier Christian movie filters worked). Several Utah congressmen have taken VidAngel’s side.

With VidAngel’s flagship venture off the market, there’s a growing demand for family-friendly options in digital formats. “People have been without filtering services for months, and we’re launching this service because our customers are asking for it,” Harmon toldVariety.

A week before VidAngel shared the news about its TV filtering, Sony announced plans to release edited versions of popular movies as a part of the “extras” available when purchased online. The “Clean Version” initiative would allow families to watch the TV or airline edits of two dozen movies, including Big Daddy, Talladega Nights, and the Spider-Man franchise.

Sony can edit and distribute its own content however it would like, skipping the legal hurdles that third-party distributors must work around to get sanitized versions. Still, the network, facing backlash from filmmakers, said it will not release the edited versions without director approval.

Within days, ClearPlay—a competing movie filterer—also launched an Amazon rental service through Google Chrome. Like VidAngel, it also lacks an agreement with the streaming service.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

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