CAPITAL CURRENTS: Foul language filters and the Family Movie Act

Sat, 06/30/2007 - 8:05pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

TV Guardian is more like a precise scalpel

Jeffrey KraussOne of the products I saw at the 2007 Cable Show was TV Guardian, which filters out bad language from movies. It allows parents to program their DVD player or set-top box to mute foul language. It filters the sound (and the closed captions) to eliminate words that appear on a predefined list. A great idea, but not likely to be a cable operator service offering.

Seems like a good tool to provide to parents, right? The TV ratings system, implemented in the V-chip technology in TVs, is a blunt force option – either block an entire program, or not. TV Guardian is more like a precise scalpel.

You can buy a DVD player with TV Guardian technology built in, or a stand-alone TV Guardian box – but not, so far as I know, a cable box or a satellite box or an IPTV box. Considering the current political situation in Washington, with FCC Chairman Martin beating on the cable industry because it refuses to censor its programming, you’d think that at least some cable operators would have embraced this technology.

But it’s not so simple. Maybe we better take a closer look. Does it really work? And, is it legal?

The way this product works is pretty straightforward. It reads the words in the closed captioning. When it finds a word on its list, it mutes the sound and substitutes a different word in the captioning. The company claims 98 percent accuracy. I presume that is achieved with movies, where the captions are accurately synchronized with the sound track. I doubt it is achieved with live programming. And anyway, it does not work with “roll up” captions used by some live programming.

Does it work with HDTV? TV Guardian’s Web site is a little ambiguous here. The company says it does not work over an HDMI interface. It does not work with DVD players that put out a progressive scan picture. With a DVD player sending video over an analog component interface to an HDTV display, the Web site shows the audio wires and the green wire (the luminance signal) connecting through the TV Guardian box, and the red and blue component wires bypassing the box and connecting directly to the display. But wait. That isn’t an HD signal – it’s a standard definition signal being displayed on an HDTV. Can TV Guardian pull the digital closed captions out of a digital video stream? After looking at their patent, I don’t think so. Does it detect and decode CEA-708 digital captions, or just CEA-608 analog captions? Just 608 captions, I think.

What about legal issues? Does changing a movie or TV program violate the copyright laws? That seems to be covered by the Family Movie Act of 2005. It provides that making limited portions of motion picture content imperceptible to the viewer for private home viewing is not an infringement of copyright. A company called ClearPlay played a leading role in getting this law passed.

ClearPlay developed a different filtering technology, and was sued in September 2002 by eight Hollywood movie studios, 16 prominent directors and the Directors Guild of America over copyright infringement issues. The ClearPlay technology is quite different. Its staff has viewed and analyzed several thousand movies. For each movie, they marked the portions to be deleted in a data file (their “filter library”) that is downloaded by the home viewer. The file is loaded into a ClearPlay-enabled DVD player, which synchronizes it with the movie and deletes or modifies the marked portions as the movie is played back.

The law protects home viewers who want to filter DVD movies that they own and watch in their own home. Does it protect home viewers that apply the technology to live sports or news programs, or soap operas or sitcoms? It doesn’t seem to. Does it protect cable operators or other video program distributors? No, it clearly does not.

So the law, which was very narrowly aimed, may have done harm as well as good. By specifically limiting the protection to home users and movies that they own, for use only in their own households, the law seems to suggest that all other uses of filtering technology, such as cable operators making the technology available in set-top boxes to use with any program, would be violating the copyright laws.

It isn’t certain that a cable operator would be violating copyright laws by offering such a service. But I can understand that an operator would not take the risk.

Technically, TV Guardian was a great idea a few years ago, in an analog world. Maybe it still works with the analog NTSC outputs of digital set-top boxes, if they reconstruct an analog captioning stream in the vertical blanking interval. But that isn’t guaranteed. And maybe a fully digital version is feasible, one that can decode digital closed captions within digital video streams.

But for now, I doubt you will see language filtering as a cable operator service offering. And, according to my wife, that’s too bad, because colorful language rarely adds value.

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