Should Government Censor In-Flight Movies?

by on October 3, 2007 · 6 comments

Legislation has been proposed in the House of Representatives that would regulate “violent entertainment” shown during airline flights. Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) and several co-sponsors argue that a “Family Friendly Flights Act” is needed to protect kids from such fare while they are flying. In my latest editorial for the City Journal, I point out why it would be a mistake to empower federal regulators to become “Long-Range Censors” and show that many voluntary alternatives exist. Read on…
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Long-Range Censors
We don’t need government regulations on in-flight programming.

by Adam Thierer
City Journal
October 3, 2007

Any parent who travels regularly with young children knows that fidgety kids and long, cramped airline flights are a bad mix. And when the kids start pulling each other’s hair or running up and down the aisle, a good movie or TV program can serve as the perfect sedative. But not all in-flight shows are okay for kids. When airlines show programming with violent content on the overhead screens—a bloody gunfight, say, or King Kong ripping apart a dinosaur’s jaws—it can terrify children, and disturb mom and dad.

Some in Congress are suggesting that new regulation is the answer. Democratic representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina, along with several cosponsors, recently introduced the Family Friendly Flights Act, which demands that airlines create “child safe viewing areas”: no publicly viewable TV screens would air violent programming within ten rows of the designated zones. The act defines “violent programming” as any movie originally rated PG-13 or above, or any television show rated PG-V or PG-14-V or above. In other words, the pre-edited versions of films or TV shows that studios produce especially for the airlines would still face a ban, based on their original ratings.

Despite the best intentions behind it, such regulation is unwarranted. Enforcement of the FFFA would spawn a needless and expensive regulatory apparatus, and given the ambiguity surrounding what constitutes “violent programming,” constitutional challenges would certainly follow, too.


Don’t get me wrong: like most parents with small children, I don’t want my kids to see many things that are on TV. When we’re at home, my wife and I can tailor our children’s media experiences to our liking. There are excellent rating systems and outstanding parental-control tools on the market to help us ensure that what our kids see is in line with our personal values. I recently put together a book, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, to catalog the options at our disposal. But it’s not as easy to control what our children see during a long flight—none of the parental controls that I discuss in my book is available inside airplanes, and we can’t just change the channel. The best thing we’ve got going for us is that kids are short and the seats in front of them are usually tall enough to block their view. But sometimes the screens are directly overhead, or kids will stand on their seats to watch.

What, then, are the alternatives to government censorship of in-flight films? Well, parents can bring or rent a portable DVD player (or a small laptop with built-in DVD player) and headphones; such devices usually keep our children engrossed in favorite programs. We also bring other activities to keep them occupied for the flight’s duration. Another option: personal screens for each passenger, which many airlines already use. But even on those flights that have them today, my kids will sneak a peek at whatever the guy across the aisle has on his screen. Perhaps airlines could put “privacy film” over the seat-back screens that would prevent viewing them from an angle, much like the protective filters that many people already use on laptops to foil wandering eyes.

Another possibility: airlines might offer some of the seating arrangements that Shuler desires voluntarily, packing parents with young children in front of planes and offering different viewing options in those rows. But there’s no need to mandate such “playpens,” when carriers can use them to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and cater to families. Alternatively, some airlines might voluntarily restrict the type of content shown on morning or early afternoon flights, when children are more likely to be traveling.

More could probably be done on the pre-edited films to curtail the violent scenes that cause some parents the most heartburn. At a minimum, airlines should take steps to inform travelers better about the sort of film content that they can expect on certain flights. If the airlines see that children will be traveling when parents book tickets, perhaps the website or booking agent could inform the folks that adult-oriented fare will be running. That would at least give parents fair warning.

In all these cases, parents can press airlines and content providers to work together to solve the problem without heavy-handed government regulation. No solution will be perfect, of course. But marketplace approaches are certainly preferable to government rules. If we get federal regulators involved in trying to sort these things out, what’s next? Laws for the JumboTron at ballgames and restrictions on TV screens in store windows? We can find ways to fly the friendly skies without unfriendly regulators coming along for the ride.

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    I agree. It’s asinine for the government to subsidize violent movies through the copyright program and then regulate them.

    Congress is like a guy holding a pair of bolt cutters trying to cut off a rusty bolt with a pair of nail clippers. If they’re serious about problems caused by violent content, or anything else that doesn’t promote the progress of science and useful arts for that matter, they could just stop giving violent content such a long copyright term.

    Saying that copyright needs to be content-neutral is like saying that the Department of Health and Human Services needs to be health-neutral, and give grants to teach kids to smoke and shoot heroin.

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    I agree. It’s asinine for the government to subsidize violent movies through the copyright program and then regulate them.

    Congress is like a guy holding a pair of bolt cutters trying to cut off a rusty bolt with a pair of nail clippers. If they’re serious about problems caused by violent content, or anything else that doesn’t promote the progress of science and useful arts for that matter, they could just stop giving violent content such a long copyright term.

    Saying that copyright needs to be content-neutral is like saying that the Department of Health and Human Services needs to be health-neutral, and give grants to teach kids to smoke and shoot heroin.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I very rarely fly, but I wasn’t aware that airlines were in the habit of showing potentially controversial movies. The last time I flew was in 2005, and to Italy. On the flight over, the only thing on was Sahara, a movie that was hardly what one would call offensive to any normal person with children. Seems to me like things are already under control.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I very rarely fly, but I wasn’t aware that airlines were in the habit of showing potentially controversial movies. The last time I flew was in 2005, and to Italy. On the flight over, the only thing on was Sahara, a movie that was hardly what one would call offensive to any normal person with children. Seems to me like things are already under control.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    If I had the option to take a flight showing R-rated movies with the knowledge that no children would be on the flight, I’d be willing to pay a slight premium for it…

    But I’ve never seen a plane offer anything above PG except on those that offer individual entertainment (e.g., Air New Zealand, Virgin Airlines).

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    If I had the option to take a flight showing R-rated movies with the knowledge that no children would be on the flight, I’d be willing to pay a slight premium for it…

    But I’ve never seen a plane offer anything above PG except on those that offer individual entertainment (e.g., Air New Zealand, Virgin Airlines).

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