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Clearing the Content with ClearPlay


Over ten years ago, consumers were being introduced to the "next big thing" in home entertainment. The DVD disc was about to hit the marketplace with a huge list of promises -- the most obvious being far better picture and superior sound compared to videocassettes. But among the other features was the purported ability to be able to change a movie's content by simply pressing a button.


We can't blame the designers of the discs and players for not being able to pop in a copy of an R-rated shooter and push "G" and instantly turn it into something your six-year-old can watch. Instead, it was up to movie studios to make use of the discs' inherit ability to randomly access and skip various sections of a movie. Unfortunately, the creators of films didn't take kindly to the idea of turning their "art" into something they had never intended.


Yet, when the marketplace demands something somehow, somewhere, someone tries to make it happen. Originally companies began sprouting that were copying DVDs and cutting out little bits of movies that they deemed unlikely to meet most family's standards. The problem was this process involved circumventing the encryption built into nearly every commercially released DVD movie -- a process which is illegal by itself. Then the extracted film was edited and burned to a new DVD, creating a variation of an original work and resulting in further copyright infringement issues.


(For those who read my column, you know this was a process I didn't approve of for various reasons. See Why the End of "Sanitized" Movies is a Good Thing for all the gory details.)


After a long battle between studios, movie directors, and movie editing companies, a court decision finally determined the process was indeed illegal. However during this battle, another technology was slowing building that offers a far better solution to the problem.


Marketed under the trade name "ClearPlay," the concept is simple from a consumer's point of view. If you have ever tightly gripped the DVD player's remote control hoping to fit fast-forward just at the moment a dress is dropped or bullets begin to blast, you now have a far better alternative. A ClearPlay DVD player essentially handles the fast-forwarding for you, so you can relax and "enjoy the show" (using ClearPlay's tagline).


What happens in the background is a little more complex. Editors at ClearPlay get their hands on a copy of the DVD prior to its commercial release date, and they fastidiously examine every scene. Any language or potentially bothersome visual content is noted and encoded into a special computer "script." When the DVD and this special script are both put inside a ClearPlay DVD player, the machine is able to use the information on the script to bypass sections of the movie that you have deemed inappropriate for your family.


So if guns start firing at the 53 minute, 14 second, 10 frame mark, and the mayhem ends at the 53 minute, 27 second 16 frame mark, the player will skip the intervening few seconds in a way that is nearly imperceptible to the viewer.


The benefits of this technology versus the pre-edited movie scenario are many. First, you can use any commercial copy of a DVD movie (ClearPlay currently has over 1,300 titles covered in its editing list, and releases dozens of new and old titles each week). So it will work with new releases you are planning to rent next week along with your favorite titles you purchased a few years ago.


The second big reason ClearPlay is a superior solution is because it allows you to decide what is and isn't appropriate for your children. In the many years I have been reviewing movies for parents, I have come to recognize how standards differ between homes. Some families are okay with violence but are sensitive to language and sex. Others are more tolerant of romantic interludes, but don't want to see blood and gore.


A simple menu on the ClearPlay machine allows the user to determine what they are willing tolerate in various categories including sex, violence, profanities, religious blasphemy and drug and alcohol depictions. In each of these settings you can choose three levels of acceptable content or have the unit ignore the category completely.


Finally, when the kids go to bed, parents can simply choose to turn all filtering off, and use the unit as a standard DVD player. Of course, all of these settings are protected by a password that you set.


To download the information into the DVD player, the new ClearPlay units come with a USB memory card (often referred to as a "thumb drive"). After loading a small program on your Windows computer, every time you put the USB card into your PC, the most recent movie information is downloaded to the card. The process takes about two minutes. Next put the USB card into the plug on the front of the player, and a few moments later you are ready to watch the newest releases.


(At this time, ClearPlay has a manual way of doing this for Apple computer owners. However, I have a newer Mac that is Windows capable so I simply used the Windows application. ClearPlay says they are working on a native Apple Mac solution.)


Over the years, many gimmicks and gadgets have come across my desk, but ClearPlay has impressed me beyond my expectations. I used to do professional broadcast editing, so I'm somewhat picky about how my movies are sliced and diced. With skepticism I loaded up the release of Sydney White, the latest Amanda Bynes movie that my daughter was begging me to see but I was reluctant to let her view due to sexual innuendo and language.


A quick download later, we started the film, and I was very impressed with the results. The most obvious modifications were when the unit muted the sound to avoid profanities. However, it was great to not have to hear the usual four letter words -- a moment of silence was a far better alternative. Even more amazing, visual skips were often indiscernible. In fact, I rewound some scenes and kept an eye on the player's time counter and discovered little bits and pieces were being removed. But only by watching the time skip by a few seconds could I tell it was happening.


This PG-13 title was turned into a much better PG-worthy movie but, obviously, this machine isn't magic. It can't rewrite scripts with bad morals or alter films with themes that may not be suitable for family viewing. However, it truly shines during those movies where you find yourself thinking, "That could be a wonderful movie if they just hadn't..."


And for home theater buffs, the player has all the usual digital audio outputs (optical and coaxial) along with component video with HD upscaling. My only complaint is the remote control's quality is mediocre at best, but a universal remote would serve most of the player's functions.


In 2005 a specific law was passed titled the "Family Movie Act of 2005" which protects the right of private citizens to use technology like ClearPlay to filter content from movies in the homes. This will allow technologies like ClearPlay to develop even further in the future, and hopefully we will see high definition solutions over the next couple of years.


My own experience with ClearPlay has impressed me to the point where I am officially recommending their products to my readers. The price of the unit is extremely reasonable and you can purchase a ClearPlay player through the Parents Television Council, which will not only give your family a great way to watch the latest movies, but will support the PTC as well.


Once you get one of these in your home, you will never want to watch another movie with your children (or perhaps even by yourself) without it.


Rod Gustafson




Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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