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Your Mother Should Know:
DVD's Parental Controls Conundrum

Peter Schworm

July 2000 | The information age has given rise to breathtaking scientific advances. In the fields of medicine, genetics, space exploration, communication, and entertainment, the digital revolution has fundamentally altered our sense of possibility.

As both cause and consequence of an increasingly knowledge-based era, a new notion of personal identity and freedom has emerged, one less tethered to established structures of authority. While it is impossible to predict what a world woven together by the Web, email, and CNN will look like in years to come, it's safe to expect that the vast mobilization of information will continue to expand individual autonomy.

But critics warn that these heightened personal freedoms carry a cost. As traditional boundaries erode, so do long-held collective cultural standards. A coarser, more corrupt brand of entertainment, exemplified by the brand of scatological humor practiced by the elementary school students of South Park, is precisely what defenders of traditional values find such a regrettable consequence.

But if technology has helped create a culture far less squeamish about expletives and explosions in its entertainment, it also provides the tools to shield the more easily shocked from material they find objectionable. Parental control filtering or blocking devices have become television and Internet staples, and, in theory, DVD's branching technology should lend itself to more sophisticated and universal mechanisms.

For example, players equipped with parental control implementation can be set to a specific movie rating level (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17), locking out discs with a rating above that level. More subtly, DVDs encoded with variably rated versions of a given title set can automatically skip over or replace certain material depending on the parental level chosen.

Recognizing the likely consumer appeal of having these options, the framers of the original specification for DVD-Video long ago incorporated parental control capability in their guidelines for the design and manufacturing of DVD players, including support for both lockout and multiple-ratings features in all machines.

Yet this mandate, particularly with regard to the latter option, has gone largely unheeded among DVD manufacturers. For a host of logistical and financial reasons, the parental control and multi-rating features set forth in the DVD spec have been met with staunch resistance, or simply ignored. Furthermore, because few studios have taken advantage of DVD technology to produce multi-rating discs--insisting consumer demand does not justify the extra work involved--manufacturers aren't in a hurry to modify their players, leaving content-cautious consumers in the lurch.

AUTHORING OBSTACLES

For a host of logistical and financial reasons, the parental controls and multi-rating features set forth in the DVD spec have been met with staunch resistance, or simply ignored.
Even ardent advocates of multi-rating discs concede that producing such titles may be more costly and time-consuming than existing demand justifies. Studios must shoot extra footage, record additional audio, edit new sequences, create branch points, and synchronize the soundtrack for the alternate sequences. With longer films, the added material leaves insufficient room for both the wide and standard-screen versions without lowering the film quality through greater compression.

To date, those in the industry say consumers haven't demonstrated enough interest to warrant the significant expense of creating multi-rated DVDs, citing the commercial flop of the "V" chip as a case in point. While several multi-rated titles do exist, such as Kalifornia, Crash, Damage, Embrace of the Vampire, Poison Ivy, and Species II, according to DVD Demystified author Jim Taylor's invaluable DVD FAQ (http://www.dvddemystfied.com/dvdfaq.html.), the feature is hardly widely implemented at this point.

"From an authoring standpoint, you are adding about a 25% increase in effort," says Chris Armbrust of Marin Digital. "From a post-production point of view, you may be adding 50%. Adding versions via parental control is like putting two separate stories on one disc with a lot of common material. In some respects, it might be easier to put two separate movies on the disc."

"It isn't easy," agrees Joseph Woodbury, president of Cine-Bit Productions, which produces a downloadable, software-based DVD player that runs on Windows 98/2K and uses DVDScript to allow viewers to skip or mute certain segments. "Creating a true multi-rated DVD (as opposed to having one rating on one side and another on the other) requires that every objectionable edit be identified and the DVD encoded to either skip that sequence or show an alternate sequence."

There is also little consensus in the DVD industry on how to determine post-edited ratings, or how to develop a compatible system for multi-rating discs and players.

But Michelle Serra, a developer of educational titles in DVD and other media who is working on a documentary called DVD: A Disc of All Trades, says demand for the parental control option in DVD has been drastically underestimated.

"There is a demand outside of home-use for parents who don't want their kids to watch sensitive content," Serra says. "The schools, libraries, and prisons all want to be able to choose movie versions that are suitable for or are wanted by the audience. There is an entire institutional market that craves either pre-filtered content or wants to filter its own movies."

Among these filtering solutions is TVGuardian, the brainchild of Rick Bray of Arkansas-based Principle Solutions. A three-by-five-inch black box that filters profanity out of DVDs and TV programs, the device scans the closed-caption signal for any offensive words and substitutes a suitable replacement. But most DVD experts say TVGuardian is only a rudimentary tool that doesn't address the whole problem, and that multiple versions of movies give the consumer a broader range of content choices.

To combat cost and legal obstacles studios must face in offering multiple versions of movies, Serra suggests including both the PG and R versions of a movie on the same disc. Many in the industry say filmmakers exaggerate how much work producing multiple versions entails, since movies are already altered for TV and airline audiences, and that digital re-dubbing or cropping during post-production are relatively simple matters.

"It does not require a huge investment," maintains John Sage of DEERS Corp., which has patented a digital encoding method to allow viewers to adjust a DVD movie's levels of violence, profanity, and sexual content, regardless of release rating. "A lot of it is being done anyway, and you don't have to alter much to change the rating."

In the face of such studio opposition, companies like DEERS, or Digitally Enhanced Entertainment Rating System, and Cine-Bit Productions are patenting devices that do more than censor. By allowing users to calibrate precisely how much contentious content they want in a movie, systems allowing for multiple versions of a film on a single disc serve to expand the range of consumer choice and personal freedom.

Yet the DVD industry is sharply divided on whether multi-rating features will ultimately thrive or even survive. Studio representatives recoil at the added cost and regard multiple versions of films as artistic dilution. Eliminating sensitive content, even in moderation, they say, inevitably diminishes the final product.

MODEST PROPOSALS

The DVD industry is sharply divided on whether multi-rating features will ultimately thrive or even survive.
Woodbury says his company's Cine-Bit DVD software, which skips scenes or mutes audio based on rating levels encoded and stored on the DVD, strikes a reasonable compromise. The system requires two separate scripts, but creating a new script, Woodbury says, is faster and less expensive than producing a multi-rated DVD, and also allows for customized ratings.

For example, a viewer could set sexual content at a low level while preserving the original dose of language and violence. While the editing process leaves some audio and video glitches, Woodbury says viewers who are determined to avoid material they find objectionable are less likely to mind the technical imperfections. "Our only question is whether we can justify the cost," Woodbury says. "It takes at least four times the running length of a movie to write and verify a script."

Cast in the same mold as the Cine-Bit model, DEERS also requires alternative movie content to avoid objectionable scenes. The DEERS player, which has been patented but is not yet on the market, allows the viewer to adjust the three elements of a movie rating--sexual content, language, and violence--to personal preference. Therefore, a nude scene must either be digitally cropped or re-shot using clothing or different angles. The scene is then re-encoded with material that satisfies the desired rating and replaces the R-rated scene.

Sage says a large percentage of sensitive scenes do not have to be filmed anew, but can be edited and re-dubbed during post-production. While content providers decry the additional cost, Sage says a more accessible product would dramatically expand a film's market, particularly in foreign countries with differing sensibilities. "It broadens the base of potential sales immeasurably," Sage says.

On the other end of the sensitive content spectrum, a movie for a "mature audience" like Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut--which already saw theatrical release in multiple versions, with electronically imposed forms shielding North American audiences from particularly graphic elements of its infamous "orgy" sequence seen in the European release--represents an interesting variant on the theme, since the DVD version released in North America actually includes the material deemed unacceptable by Stateside censors. With parental control capabilities activated, however, the disc could be released with original footage while still allowing users to choose which version they want to watch.

"The consumer has unparalleled choice determined by individual preference," Sage says. "We see the system as a means by which everyone wins."

WILL CONTROLLING INTERESTS PREVAIL?

While producers of DVD players remain skeptical of parental control devices, Sage cites a recent leveling-off in player sales as evidence that wider acceptance of parental controls could be pushed as a means of reversing the trend. And once rudimentary control systems that "cut out rather than enhance" footage fall by the wayside, he says, studios will recognize the benefits of a market expanded by multiple-version DVDs.

"They'll fall in line, depending on what happens with content providers," Sage says. "It offers opportunity to both ends of the spectrum."

The relative newness of DVD technology means it could be years before its capabilities are fully explored, experts say. The current crop of players lack many features besides parental controls set out in the original DVD specifications. But as consumers become aware of the availability of certain parental controls, some DVD experts agree the demand will spike. "There's no doubt in my mind that once consumers understand what's out there, they'll demand it," Sage adds. "This type of thing is going to happen."

Others say the shift will involve the industry as much as the consumer. While movie studios have too frequently proven inattentive to the creative potential of DVD--spending more money on theater posters than on authoring--Hollywood may ultimately realize the inherent possibilities of the medium. "I think the real problem with parental controls isn't the technology or the tools," Marin Digital's Armbrust says. "The problem is how the medium is perceived by the industry."


Companies Mentioned in This Article

Cine-Bit Productions
P.O. Box 293, Pleasant Grove, UT 84062; sales@cinebit.com; http://www.cinebit.com

DEERS Corporation
16311 Vasquez Way, Santa Clarita, CA 91351; 800/444-2749, 661/298-0849; Fax 661/298-0809; jsage@prodigr.net

Marin Digital
4340 Redwood Highway, Suite F224, San Rafael, CA 94903; 800/881-7982; Fax 415/507-9968; info@marin-digital.com; http://www.marin-digital.com

Michelle Serra
Video Information Source/Library DVD Source Inc. 3395 South Jones Blvd., #21, Las Vegas, NV 89146; 702/655-5800; Fax 702/ 396-4032; videoinfo@worldnet.att.net; http://www.librarydvd.com

Principle Solutions, Inc.
P.O. Box 670, Rogers, AR 72757; 888/799-4884; Fax 501/986-0033; sales@tvguardian.com; http://www.tvguardian.com


Peter Schworm is a freelance writer based in Brighton, Massachusetts.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.


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