The Washington Times recently reported that “A media watchdog group is criticizing Delta Air Lines for making the graphic HBO series ‘Rome’ and other bawdy shows available for in-flight viewing after a passenger complained that children could see nudity and sex scenes.” Apparently, the offending material was shown on overhead movie screens during a May 6 flight from Atlanta to Duesseldorf, Germany. According to the Times article:
Delta officials say the programs were intended as an option for viewing on private screens in the back of the airplane’s seat and were shown on the public overhead screens by mistake. “As soon as our flight attendants became aware it was being shown, it was cut off and we made an immediate apology to passengers,” said Betsy Talton, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Delta.
But a passenger who lodged a complaint with the captain during the flight and got the flight attendants to cut off the program, also notified the media activist group Morality in Media, which fired off a news release about the incident to the press last week.
I found this incident interesting because I’m about to release a new book entitled “Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods.” As the title implies, it’s a broad survey of everything on the market today that can help parents deal with potentially objectionable media content, whether it be on broadcast TV, cable, music, cellular phones, video games, the Internet, or social networking websites.
As I show in the book, there has never been a time in our nation’s history when parents have had more tools and methods at their disposal to deal with unwanted material. Indeed, I actively set out to find instances of media exposure that could NOT be controlled using various tools, ratings, filters, etc.. And one of the few examples I identified was in-flight entertainment. After all, when you’re in an airplane and stuck in assigned seats with your kids, there’s not much you can do to avoid potentially objectionable content from being shown on the screen overhead. And it is also true that even personal screens on the seat heads can be viewed by others sitting nearby.
So, what can parents do about it? The primary answer is public pressure. Parents and other organizations might be able to work together to pressure airlines to self-regulate materials that cannot be blocked with parental control technologies. For example, Morality in Media and other organizations can pressure airlines to better screen material that will be shown on drop-down screens during flights. Another new group, KidSafeFilms.org, already does that. The group pressures airline operators to take steps to further restrict or edit what is shown in the open cabin space since parents have no control over it. Unfortunately, the organization is also asking visitors to the site to sign a petition to Congress asking for the regulation of such things, but that doesn’t mean that the alternative approach of using public pressure won’t work and encourage airlines to be more selective about the content they show on drop-down screens.
Incidentally, Morality in Media already has such a strategy for television programming. Its website has a section outlining several strategies parents can use to influence advertisers, programming executives, and cable operators before resorting to calls for censorship. To allow parents to pressure advertisers, the group publishes a book listing the top 100 national advertisers, with addresses, phone and fax numbers, names of key executives, and their products, along with a products list cross-referenced to the manufacturer. The group produces a similar book that lists the names and addresses of the CEOs of the leading broadcast and cable companies in America so that viewers or listeners can complain directly to them. Similarly, the Parents Television Council (PTC) awards its “seal of approval” to advertisers who only support programs that the PTC classifies as family-friendly. PTC also encourages parents to send letters and e-mails to advertisers who support programming they find objectionable and encourage those advertisers to end their support of those shows. There’s no reason that similar approaches couldn’t be used for in-flight programming.
Such efforts have been effective at changing corporate behavior in other contexts. For example, in late 2006 after years of pressure from various health groups and average parents, 10 major food and beverage companies announced new, self-imposed restrictions on advertising to children. These 10 companies, which included McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft Foods, and Hershey, account for more than two-thirds of all food and beverage advertising aimed at children. Among their commitments, they agreed to not advertise products in schools; devote half their advertising to promoting healthier lifestyles and foods; limit the use of popular third-party characters (such as cartoon characters) in their ads; and limit ads seen in interactive video games or promote healthy alternatives in those ads. The initiative will be monitored by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which helped craft the agreement.
If public pressure can help change corporate attitudes and outputs when it comes to food and beverage advertising, there’s every reason to believe that it can also change other types of media behavior. For example, in late 2006, intense public pressure forced News Corp. to abandon the publication of a controversial book by O.J. Simpson in which he described how he might have killed his ex-wife and her friend. Washington Post columnist Shankar Vedantam argued that this episode “showed that shame remains a powerful tool in America.” Likewise, in April 2007, radio talk show host Don Imus had his CBS Radio show and MSNBC television program canceled after making offensive remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Public outcry was so intense that almost all his largest advertisers pulled their support for his show less than a week after the incident occurred. Again, all this was done without resorting to government censorship.
So, even though I’m a father of two young kids and share concerns about what they can see on flights, I believe there’s a better way to deal with objectionable content even when parental controls are not available to me. I will let the airline know when I think they have crossed a line, and I will work with others to put more pressure on them to curtail certain types of programming I might find offensive. But I haven’t found the need to do that so far. I usually just bring my own DVD player or laptop and 2 sets of earphones along for the trip so that I can control what my kids are watching or listening to. And, luckily, they’re not tall enough to see the drop-down screens from their seats yet!