Wednesday, January 2, 2008 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Richard Roeper on regulating in-flight movies

Movie critic Richard Roeper of "Ebert & Roeper at the Movies" has a new video commentary up with some sensible thinking about the issue of regulating in-flight entertainment.

As I mentioned in this previous post, legislation has been proposed in the House of Representatives that would regulate "violent entertainment" shown on 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.

Roeper argues that "sometimes the content in these movies is a little too violent" and that the studios "should probably be a little more judicious in their editing." But Roeper is generally against regulation and doesn't think we need separate seating areas for kids on flights. He points out that adding another distinct seating section to airplane is just going to slow down boarding times. "It would be better if the studios themselves do a little bit better job cut[ting] the violent content so that kids don't need to see people getting shot and car crashes and all that stuff, but let's not get Congress involved."

I agree. As I pointed out in an editorial for the City Journal a few months ago, it would be a mistake to empower federal regulators to become "Long-Range Censors" since many better alternatives to regulation exist.

One alternative is what Roeper mentioned: Better editing. 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 better inform travelers 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. But that might be difficult to do since parents typically book flights months in advance and airlines might not know what movies will be shown.

Another alternative is for parents to bring or rent a portable DVD player (or a small laptop with built-in DVD player) and headphones. That's what my wife and I do when we travel with our kids. Such devices usually keep kids engrossed in their 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.

A final possibility: airlines might voluntarily offer some of the seating arrangements that some desire, packing parents with young children in front of some flights and offering different viewing options in those rows. But there’s no need to mandate such “plane 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.

Actually, some airlines have already taken some steps to differentiate themselves like this. Jesse Kalisher, who runs a website called Kids Safe Films, tries to pressure airlines to do a better job editing movies. On his site, Jesse lists airlines who are "kid-friendly" including Southwest (which offers no in-flight films), JetBlue (100% individual screens), and (for int'l flights) Virgin Atlantic, which apparently has personal screen and also warns all passengers to "shield your screen" to prevent children from accessing unsuitable content in-flight.

Jesse's Kids Safe Films effort is an interesting one because--although I disagree with his support of Shuler's federal legislation--I think it's fine that he has created a website and a movement to encourage airlines and studios to change things. In my book on Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, I point how third-party groups and parents working together can pressure media providers and programmers directly through public campaigns, or indirectly through advertisers, to change media content--or at least how and when certain types of content is shown.

That's the difference between voluntary and coercive solutions to social problems. In my opinion--and this is the principle that guides my thinking about all things--it is always preferable to use voluntary approaches to social policy issues (especially matters involving free speech) before resorting to coercive government solutions, which impose a single solution on all of society. That's why I hope that the pressure being applied by Kids Safe Films and average parents will led to innovative voluntary solutions to this issue. I think it will.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 4:24 PM | Free Speech