- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

Frequent flyers find plenty to complain about — the quality of airline food, the indignity of extra security screening, the attractiveness of flight attendants.

Recently, however, some travelers voiced a gripe of a different sort: They wondered if political correctness had run amok on in-flight movie screens.

After seeing “The Queen,” passengers on a number of U.S. airlines complained about edits made to the film, which stars Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in the days after Diana, Princess of Wales, died.

The film isn’t violent. Neither is there nudity. In fact, “The Queen,” up for a best picture Oscar this month, is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

So what changes had viewers fuming in online discussion groups?

The word “God” was excised seven times. The censorship didn’t fool listeners, who could tell what word was missing. “(Bleep) bless you, ma’am,” is what they heard one character tell the queen.

The word “homosexuals” was also redacted, leading to some confusion. When Prince Philip snidely says that Diana’s funeral would be attended mainly by “celebrities and homosexuals,” one FlyerTalk.com poster said he thought the queen’s husband was talking about “celebrities and God.”

Most of those complaining accused the airlines of censorship. “How patronizing of AA,” one FlyerTalk.com patron posted after seeing the film on an American Airlines flight.

“[T]his seems to be Political Correctness taken to the extreme,” another declared. “Is God (or god) Dead on United?”

“The Queen” was booked by every major U.S. carrier. But don’t blame any of them for the heavy-handed editing. There’s an entire industry responsible for your airborne entertainment.

“The Queen” was provided by Jaguar Distribution Corp., a 25-year-old California company that distributes films to airlines. President Jeff Klein said he was as surprised as anybody when he heard about the film’s edits. Describing them as “almost funny,” he says, “The instructions generally would not include any such excision. I think it was just a young, inexperienced editor who was trying to be as ultra-conservative as possible and thought this might be a problem.”

Mr. Klein thought “The Queen” had just one instance of foul language that needed editing. His company has sent out new versions of the film.

Jaguar outsources its editing. In some cases — Mr. Klein says it’s not the norm — the director himself might handle the editing. Sometimes producers request approval of changes.

“Language, visuals, nudity and excessive violence” are the most common targets, Mr. Klein says, adding: the goal is to preserve the “integrity” of the film.

Last month, for example, the Uma Thurman vehicle “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” aired. This reporter noticed that a threat to put a chain saw in someone’s rear end turned into a threat to put a chain saw in someone’s nose. Such re-dubs for broadcast television and in-flight viewing are often recorded when the movie is filmed.

All airlines get the same version — at least in the U.S. “There are some restrictions in the Middle East that prevent us from showing bare shoulders or the drinking of alcohol,” Mr. Klein notes.

U.S. airlines may carry the same versions of films, but they don’t carry the same films. Mr. Klein says American Airlines is “the most conservative U.S. carrier with regard to their film selection.”

“You have to look at what is going to appeal to a wide range of customers,” explains September Wade, a spokeswoman with American. “When you’re talking about a main cabin viewing, you could have a 40-year-old all the way down to a toddler.”

It’s a lasting decision: Movies air for an entire month.

Miss Wade notes that during the winter and summer holidays with more children aboard, the airline programs more family fare. Films generally become available for in-flight viewing about two months after their theatrical release, but sometimes classics get a chance, too.

“We rarely get feedback about the movies, except if we do something very different,” Miss Wade says. That happened — favorably — when the airline showed the Mel Brooks classic “Young Frankenstein” two Octobers ago.

“Movies are generally edited to a level more stringent than those used for general broadcast television,” Miss Wade notes.

“That’s simply because every person can see it, even people that choose not to listen,” explains Rob Brookler, public relations manager of the World Airline Entertainment Association, which represents nearly 100 passenger airlines worldwide and about 250 suppliers of in-flight entertainment and communications.

Mr. Brookler notes the standards are often different for content shown on personal entertainment devices. These portable or seat-back players are mainly a perk for premium class passengers, but more airlines — such as Virgin Atlantic — are making them available to everyone. Since only you (and sometimes your neighbor, as Miss Wade notes) can see them, you’re more likely to encounter an unedited film on these on-demand devices.

Filmgoers likely won’t see Martin Scorsese’s brutal mob drama “The Departed,” another best picture nominee, in the main cabin. But some carriers — though not American — offer it on personal devices.

“I can’t say there is a single point of view in the industry, because it’s evolving,” Mr. Brookler says. “And some airlines still feel like even though you can choose what you can watch, it’s just not good policy to show an unedited film that is potentially upsetting given that you’re in a closed airline environment.”

Movies depicting air disasters have traditionally fallen into this category. But some airlines — mainly outside the U.S. — are pushing the envelope. Mr. Klein of Jaguar Distribution Corp laughed heartily on learning that Virgin Atlantic and the Australian airline Qantas allow passengers to watch “Snakes on a Plane.”

JetBlue may be the bravest U.S. carrier. It carries live television, and one FlyerTalk.com poster reported watching the National Geographic Channel series “Air Emergency” on a flight.

This reporter recently watched a film about the 1999 EgyptAir crash on an airport television screen while waiting to board an EgyptAir flight in Cairo.

Both Mr. Klein and Mr. Brookler report that airlines have become more sensitive since the September 11 attacks. “Anything about terrorists now is avoided,” Mr. Klein says, adding that films about political unrest now usually suffer the same fate.

Mr. Brookler says to expect the increasing availability of personal entertainment devices to change in-flight entertainment. In addition to movies, you can get video games and interactive content. Cyprus Airways, as this reporter recently found, offers lessons in conversational Greek from the BBC.

But don’t expect an end to censorship anytime soon.

Mr. Klein points to the thing that got his company in a bit of hot water to begin with: religion. In our fractured world, cultural — including religious — sensitivity means movie censors will probably have jobs for years to come.

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