The other evening, my wife and I concluded our holiday binge of the Harry Potter franchise on Vudu when I noticed something that up to that point hadn’t really caught my eye—the presence of an option labeled “Common Sense Media.” Upon closer inspection, the presence of Common Sense Media revealed a deeper—dare I say darker—revelation: The presence of the service Clearplay.
Clearplay (aka Vidangel) is aimed at “wholesome families” whereby for a fee you—a presumably God-fearing parent—can enjoy content of seemingly any ilk distilled down so as not to offend your delicate sensibilities. In the case of Harry Potter, that means you can watch the film or films without any “snogging” or “longing looks” (I’m not joking), as well as the usual “dark and intense” moments.
A side note: One of the items Common Sense Media and Clearplay look out for and rate is whether a film has any implicit consumerism within it. I point this out because, at least on Vudu, this rating falls just below where Vudu, a subsidiary of WalMart, attempts to sell you Harry Potter toys via a special box labeled “Related Products.”
But I digress.
By enabling Clearplay (or what Vudu calls “Family Play”), the film you’ve chosen—in this instance, Harry freakin’ Potter—is shown edited to remove any and all instances of what Common Sense Media and Clearplay have deemed inappropriate. While some form of editing for content has been with us since the dawn of television, these edits have largely been relegated to gruesome violence, gratuitous sex, and profanity—all of which are common knowledge and even in some cases
democratically voted on by representatives. That is to say, we know what words are not allowed to be said on TV, and we know what type of sex or violence doesn’t fly in primetime. While I could go off on even these acts of censorship, they’re known quantities and something we all sort of just accept.
But who decides on the edits put forth by Clearplay?
This is where it gets really murky, for both Clearplay/ Vidangel and Common Sense Media give little in the way of transparency. They’re like the Borg, really, in that they appear to be a collective of
values-conscious parents just trying to “save” children from the horrors of violence, sex, and commercialism. What the services do divulge—proudly—are the names of the organizations that donate a lot of money to them, such as Amazon, WalMart, and The Gates Foundation. They also share their goals or mission bullet points, among which you will find gems along the lines of supporting and electing like-minded officials in government who align with their views and values. What. The. F**k.
Both companies claim to be anti-censorship, that they’re but providing a service to help parents shield their childrens’ eyes from the horrors of Hollywood, but c’mon. The messaging on their respective websites is very clear: It’s a big, bad world out there, parents are simply out-matched, and they need Common Sense Media and Clearplay to step in and help be their savior to keep their kids’ eyes and hearts pure . . for the Lord.
The fact that so many companies—media companies at that—have signed off on this arbitrary form of subscription-based censorship is worrying. Moreover, it would appear filmmakers such as writers and directors have seemingly no say over whether their content can be altered by these services, since the content is typically owned by the studios or corporations and not the filmmakers themselves.
I’m confident there are supporters who will say that viewers, even parents themselves, have a choice whether or not to enable these filters, and that it’s all about choice—to which I say, screw that. Films are art; they are acts of expression and communication put forth by an individual or small group of individuals. Even box-office juggernauts like Harry Potter are art, despite their commercial appeal and ancillary merchandising reach. And when you censor art, for whatever reason, you’re venturing into very, very murky waters, waters we’ve attempted to traverse throughout history only to discover the destination we arrive at was never where we thought we would end up.
Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.