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Originally published Monday, April 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden

"Bleep" an unsanitized look at censoring

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this Hollywood filth from our land? Scrub-a-dub-dub: Guess who's getting in the tub. Last week, the National...

Seattle Times TV critic

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this Hollywood filth from our land? Scrub-a-dub-dub: Guess who's getting in the tub.

Last week, the National Association of Broadcasters announced at its annual member confab that the industry would develop self-imposed guidelines addressing indecency, obscenity and profanity on over-the-air television. The NAB is trying to fend off growing government support for a crackdown. Meanwhile, bills addressing the content of TV, movies, music and video games are flooding Congress this spring.

Among them is the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, approved last Tuesday and included in an excellent one-hour special called "Bleep: Censoring Hollywood?" that will air on cable channel AMC at 10 p.m. tomorrow.

Produced by ABC News, "Bleep" tackles the lucrative and growing business of sanitizing DVDs — i.e., scrubbing out content — to make them more family-friendly.

New companies with names like CleanFlicks, CleanFilms and Family Flix have grown from mom-and-pop operations to significant size by taking big hits like "Troy" and "Mean Girls" and producing edited versions for sale or rental at video chains across the country.

ClearPlay represents another approach to sanitizing. It makes DVD player software that lets consumers rent a regular video and then skip and mute objectionable content.

All these practices have outraged the film industry and its constituent members, notably the Directors Guild of America. The DGA has taken a legal lead in arguing that any third-party tampering with movies and television programs is a violation of copyright law.

"You've got a movie that has been altered by a third party without the consent of either the copyright holder or the creator of the work," says Steven Soderbergh, one of several high-profile directors interviewed tomorrow evening.

But the DGA has just lost a round in the fight. Though this recent development wasn't included in my screener of "Bleep," the program virtually anticipates it.

While last week's passage of the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act was welcomed by Hollywood because it harshly penalizes bootlegging, the bill also contains a smaller provision that essentially OKs ClearPlay's editing software.

The provision is based on the idea that at-home scrubbing of bad language or a nude scene is no different from a TiVo customer skipping commercials. Neither permanently alters the show's original format, so they're not breaking copyright laws.

The bill leaves directors and anyone else who doesn't like what people at home do to their work arguing that artistic vision has been violated — a position that tends to lose topspin when the vision is, say, "Kangaroo Jack" or "The Bachelor."

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Nevertheless, the visionaries have a point.

Among the examples of sanitizing used in "Bleep" is "Saving Private Ryan." We see how the film's famously graphic 20-minute opening scene is altered: For example, a soldier riddled with bullets and his guts spilling out is eliminated.

It's precisely this sort of editing that enrages directors. The Hollywood side also notes that "Saving Private Ryan," along with R- and X-rated films, never was intended to be viewing for the whole family. They say parents should use the ratings system to guide their choices, not rent an R technologically massaged into a PG.

But — and one of the best recommendations for "Bleep" is that there are many "buts" — how reliable is the ratings system?

A recent Harvard study and anecdotal man-in-the-street interviews seem to confirm that over the past 15 years, what used to be considered suitable only for R has gravitated downward to PG-13 levels.

The changing threshold certainly is true for television. Formerly banned language and lascivious imagery now grace many prime-time shows. The tolerance for such content goes up as the TV remote travels from network to basic cable to premium channels.

That's why some anti-indecency legislators are targeting cable, a move the NAB supports. If our broadcasters have to toe the line, the NAB says, so should our competition. (Yes, but cable does not use public airwaves and is subscriber-based.)

Despite the current enthusiasm for raising fines and for supporting family-friendly fare, congressional backers of an indecency crackdown face several dilemmas.

For instance, many are pro-business Republicans that hold copyright laws sacred. Deciding between a scrubbed version of "Titanic" and property rights won't be easy; furthermore, copyright experts in "Bleep" generally think Hollywood is on strong ground when it comes to wanting bowdlerized versions outlawed.

Even more maddening is trying to figure out what voters really want. A March 17-25 poll by the Pew Research Center for The People and The Press highlighted our conflicts.

Although six in 10 respondents are "very concerned" about what children are exposed to in entertainment today, a majority are wary about the government getting overly involved in what's allowed on TV. (See the complete report at people-press.org/).

Maybe lawmakers won't have to decide. Just as the NAB said it will produce self-imposed guidelines, so are filmmakers now suggesting they can offer their own wholesome versions of movies, as is currently done for in-flight airline travel.

And TV already showed it would sanitize for profit when HBO's "Sex and the City" went to TBS. In Hollywood, the business buck may yet prove mightier than the political shove.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

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