Decency vs. Censorship Aloft

For decades, airlines have been showing movies with all the interesting parts edited out. They can hardly be blamed. We really don’t want the kiddies seeing all the sex and violence. But what happens with the new on-demand, individual seat-back video screens?

Some airlines are already showing unedited R-rated movies and racy cable TV shows on individual entertainment systems. Qantas, which shows such movies as "Borat" and "The Departed" on individual screens, won several awards from the World Airline Entertainment Association. (Yes, there is such a thing.)

But there is also a move afoot to require airlines to edit these videos to the same standards applied to video shown on traditional, overhead screens. No sexy scenes, minimal violence. The argument is that a passenger can be exposed to the images on his or her neighbor’s screen.

This all came to a head recently when a Delta flight crew mistakenly showed on its overhead screens some explicit shows that were intended only for  individual entertainment systems. When a passenger complained, the crew stopped the video and apologized to the passengers.

The passenger thought the material inappropriate even for the seat-back screens, and brought his complaint to Morality in Media. The organization issued a statement that said, in part, that "when it comes to viewing programming on ‘private’ screens, it should also be understood that other passengers sitting nearby are, for all practical purposes, a captive audience."

There’s a valid point in there, but I’m not sure I agree about the captive audience part. Nothing compels the passenger in the next seat to look at what’s on my screen except the passenger’s own curiosity. And I’m not sure that I, or the airline, is responsible for that.

Children are another matter. I don’t expect them to have the maturity to just look away from content that disturbs them.

Years ago my 6-year-old daughter and I were  riding the Times Square Shuttle in New York when the man sitting next to her opened a hard-core pornographic magazine on his lap. I put my arm around her head to block her view and we got up as quickly as we could, but it was a disturbing experience.

I can’t imagine someone getting away with that on an airplane, especially today. And I’m not equating the shows that people see on airplanes with hard-core porn. But I do understand that some people find those shows offensive, inappropriate and disturbing.

And it’s not helped at all by the fact that many passengers (I’m one of them) fly with portable DVD players on which they can play, well, anything.

It’s a thorny issue, but I’d like to think it can be addressed with courtesy and common sense. If an adult doesn’t want to see the images on someone else’s screen, I believe that adult can look away. If a parent sees something objectionable next to his or her child, I believe that parent can switch seats with the child. If there’s something objectionable no matter where the child sits, I hope that reasonable adults can work out a solution about changing channels or switching seats.

I know that some people honestly feel that isn’t enough to protect children who are, say, walking past someone else’s screen on the way to the bathroom. But there has to be a balance here with the rights of adults to choose their own entertainment, and I’m not sure how much more I’d like to curtail that.

(I also found an thoughtful discussion on this topic in the Frequent Flyer boards.)


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