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Who’s Censoring the Movies You Watch on Planes, on TV and in Hotels, and Why

For almost as long as there have been movies, different groups of people have worked hard to try to keep you from watching them in their original form. Starting in the 1910s, local censorship boards popped up to legislate the content of films, fearful that ordinary Americans would be corrupted by sinful images. Ever since, Hollywood has had to combat complaints from moral watchdogs, establishing the Production Code in 1930 and later implementing a ratings system that catalogued movies’ quantities of smut, violence and other heinous acts that would most certainly send you right to hell.

Even today, studios try to stay ahead of the curve, offering to police their product so others don’t have to. Last year, for instance, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings admitted that the streaming service might one day provide “clean” versions of their programs. “We’ll see and we’ll have to learn,” he said, later adding, “Entertainment companies have to make compromises over time.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by Sony earlier this summer when the company floated the idea of selling so-called “Clean Version” editions of films like Easy A, Grown Ups 2 and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The response from Hollywood was vitriolic: Seth Rogen put Sony on blast, while the Directors Guild of America chastised the studio for this “unauthorized alteration of films.”

Sony eventually dropped the whole notion, but the truth is, some consumers actually want cleaned-up versions of movies. A 2005 ABC poll found that “39 percent [of Americans surveyed] say that, given the choice, they’d be likely to rent movies edited for sexual and violent content. Twenty percent — representing more than 40 million individuals — say they’d be very likely to do so.”

Already in our daily lives, though, we’re surrounded by edited versions of movies — even if we don’t always realize it. And, yes, that even applies to porn. Recently, I took a look at the most common offenders…

On Television

When I was a kid, I first saw the disaster-movie parody Airplane! on TV. In fact, I watched it so many times that I basically had most of it memorized. So, imagine my shock when I went to college and saw the movie in a theater for the first time — and stumbled upon a quick shot of a bare-chested woman running in front of the camera during one of the panic-stricken moments on the plane. Wait a second: I’d never seen that before. What gives?

Mostly, the FCC. Unless it’s HBO, Showtime, IFC or a handful of other channels, a movie that airs on TV always starts with that disclaimer that it “has been modified from its original version,” which includes editing it for content.

Typically, directors supervise the censored version of their movies when they come to television. But the form of censorship isn’t consistent. Depending on the channel, swear words are dubbed, muted or bleeped. As for nudity, sometimes, like with the R-rated opening montage from Wedding Crashers, the sequence is re-edited so that bare breasts aren’t seen. (In the case of Airplane!, the TV version cuts away before we see the topless woman.) But with The Wolf of Wall Street, naked women still appear on screen — it’s just that crucial body parts are concealed by a black box.

Movies are censored so that networks and basic-cable channels won’t raise the ire of the FCC, which presides over them and can levy fees for the airing of inappropriate material. But even here, the rules aren’t uniform. In the early 2000s, Steven Spielberg’s graphic war film Saving Private Ryan aired on ABC unedited. The reason? The channel had an agreement with the film’s distributor, Dreamworks, that it wouldn’t touch the movie’s content. The FCC didn’t fine ABC, electing to make a rare exception for the Oscar-winning film. Although acknowledging that Saving Private Ryan contained “numerous expletives and other potentially offensive language generally as part of the soldiers’ dialogue,” the FCC explained, “In light of the overall context in which this material is presented, the commission determined it was not indecent or profane.”

On Airplanes

Censorship is different while flying the friendly skies. A clean version of an in-flight film can’t just worry about sexual content — sometimes, the subject matter might hit a little too close to home for passengers. For instance, almost 30 years after it first premiered, the Oscar-winning Rain Man still doesn’t contain one of its most famous scenes — the one where Dustin Hoffman refuses to get on a plane, anxiously telling Tom Cruise, “Flying’s very dangerous” — in the shared-screen, in-flight version, simply because it might freak out people on board.

In 2004, The New York Times attended an industry panel about airplane censorship, where Debbie Chariton, who oversaw a few of the studios’ in-flight editing, explained her process: “What gets edited? Profanity. Sex and nudity, excessive violence, religious, racial, cultural slurs.” As an example, she pointed to a scene in Anchorman in which Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy character is propositioning Christina Applegate while sporting a boner. In the airplane version, the image is cropped so you can’t see his wood.

Now that most flights have individual seatback screens, which allow each flyer to select what he wants to watch, the industry has relaxed some of its editing rules. But if you fly internationally, movies may appear in radically different versions depending on your destination. In 2014, Jovita Toh, the CEO of Encore Inflight Limited, told CNN, “Europeans are okay with some nudity but cannot tolerate gore and too much violence. The Middle East is strictly against any form of sexual language or bare skin but highly tolerant of violent scenes. Muslim airlines also request all mentions of pig or pork be removed even from the subtitles. Singapore is very sensitive to scenes or movies with homosexual content.”

In the interview, Toh mentions that her company makes the edits themselves. This is important to keep in mind: Domestic airlines don’t edit movies but, rather, select from specific versions made available by the distributor. This point was highlighted last year when some Delta passengers complained that they had to watch an edited version of the Oscar-nominated lesbian drama Carol that cut out Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s kiss. (American Airlines and United showed an unedited version on their domestic flights.)

But a Delta spokesperson pointed out that it wasn’t the lesbian kissing that the company objected to: The airline didn’t want to include the movie’s steamy sex scene, which meant Delta had to go with the available edited version, which also excised the kissing scenes. And in case you’re wondering who put together the two versions for airlines, it wasn’t Carol’s U.S. distributor, the Weinstein Company. Hanway Films and Cinesky Pictures, who apparently controlled Carol’s in-flight distribution rights, made that decision.

In other words: It can be complicated who decides what you do and don’t see in an edited movie.

On Home Video

Once upon a time, the biggest worry when buying a VHS copy of your favorite film was the possibility that you accidentally picked up a full-screen version that stretched the image and made everything look ugly. But then came Sunrise Family Video, an American Fork, Utah, video store that, in 1998, offered consumers an odd service: Send us your copy of Titanic (and five bucks) and we’ll get rid of the scenes where Kate Winslet poses topless for Leonardo DiCaprio and where the two have sex. (For an additional $3, the store would edit out any other scenes from the movie.)

Not surprisingly, Hollywood threw a fit, accusing the store, which started removing scenes of sex and violence from its movies in 1996, of violating copyright. But soon, other Utah-based companies got in on the act. Perhaps the most famous was CleanFlicks, a chain of stores that rented everything from The Godfather to The Matrix in a censored format. The subject of a 2009 documentary, CleanFlicks went to court, facing off with the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. In 2006, however, Hollywood won: U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch ruled against CleanFlicks, writing, “[Hollywood’s] objective … is to stop the infringement because of its irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies. There is a public interest in providing such protection. [CleanFlicks’] business is illegitimate.”

But even though companies aren’t allowed to re-edit studio movies, that doesn’t keep parents from being able to manipulate Hollywood films in the DVD era to make them more family-friendly. ClearPlay gives parents the power to select certain filters in order to screen out content they don’t want their kids to see. (And they’re customizable: You can decide what kinds of language are objectionable — say, certain vulgarities or even a “vain reference to deity” for religious homes.)

Consumers can buy Blu-ray or DVD players that have ClearPlay technology included, too, or they can integrate the service with their Amazon streaming purchases. As its site explains, it’s all perfectly legal: “ClearPlay only releases filtering products that are compliant with copyright law. Keeping our products legal is one of the reasons we have stayed in business these many years.”

In Hotels

In 2012, Hotels.com surveyed U.K. hotel guests, asking them what’s the first thing they do when they get into the room. Nineteen percent of men responded that they search for porn on the television. For guys of a certain age, the allure of hotel-room porn has a warm, nostalgic glow — all those naughty channels with their lusty titles available at the touch of a button (and a $9.95 fee). But the reality is much different: When you pay for porn in your hotel, you’re not getting the complete film. And, nowadays, there’s less chance you’ll have access to porn at all.

Hotels use companies such as LodgeNet to provide their rooms with entertainment options, including video games, movies and porn. And those services censor the adult films. The reasons aren’t exactly clear. This 2001 Los Angeles Times article comes closest to an explanation, noting that one such provider, On Command, “[would edit] the porn films down to 60 minutes, in part because almost all of the films are too risqué for the hotel trade.”

As a result, the savvy porn consumer has decided to put down the remote and pick up his laptop. As Quentin Boyer, a spokesman for the porn portal Pink Visual, put it, “[I]n many hotels the adult fare is highly edited and censored, while online content generally — well — isn’t.” This evolution has been a win-win for the adult entertainment industry: Viewers can see uncensored porn on their computers, and if they’re willing to pay for it, the studios get to keep all the money rather than splitting it with the hotel.

As such, hotel porn is becoming an antiquated notion. Data reported in January suggests, according to Variety, that “only one percent of occupied hotel rooms order paid VOD on any given day,” whereas “[in] hotels that replace VOD with Netflix, 40 percent of rooms stream something from the service on average.” Hotels like Hilton have removed porn entirely from its rooms’ entertainment options.

These hotels can say they’re doing it for moral reasons, but the reality is that consumer interest in on-demand services has plummeted as in-room Wi-Fi has increased. “I don’t think any hotels got rid of in-room porn because they had a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment and felt, ‘Oh, this is terrible, we can’t support this anymore,’” Jason Clampet, one of the founders of Skift, told The Atlantic last year. “I think it was all that they just weren’t making a lot of money from it.”