People wanting to automatically mute the foul language in "Seabiscuit" or skip the violence in "The Patriot" have a new option - a DVD player from RCA that filters content deemed objectionable.
Thomson, which owns the RCA brand, will sell the players in some Wal-Mart and Kmart stores as well as on Wal-Mart's Web site starting this month even as the filtering software they employ faces a legal challenge from Hollywood.
"I think there may be a market for something that gives the parent more control and does it in a way that doesn't alter the original presentation," said Dave Arland, an RCA spokesman.
The filtering software is from ClearPlay, which had offered it previously for watching DVDs on computers and began talking to RCA last year about a standalone player.
The partners are hoping the current stir over broadcast decency, spurred by Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl show, will help boost sales.
"The reality is people have pushed the limit so far, that there are people who want to have that kind of control," Arland said.
The DVD player carries a suggested retail price of $79 and will ship with 100 filters for movies such as "Daredevil" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl."
Filters for newer releases are available each week through a monthly subscription of $4.95, though getting them into the player is cumbersome. The filters are downloaded over the Internet and burned onto a CD for transfer to the DVD player. ClearPlay's library currently contains filters for about 500 movies.
RCA has other parental control features on its products, including v-chips in its television sets, which allow parents to block certain programs in their entirety.
A more recent feature included on select TV sets is called "KidPass," a timer that allows parents to set a limit on daily viewing in 30-minute increments.
The company even tried a DVD-filtering device in 1998 called "scene-snip." The option, developed by RCA, allowed parents to screen a movie and mark scenes they found objectionable. The player would then skip over those scenes when the movie was played. That player was dropped because it was too expensive at a time when DVD players were rapidly falling in price, Arland said.
ClearPlay works in a similar fashion, with employees for the Salt Lake City company watching the movies and noting objectionable areas.
Various filters are then created in four broad categories: violence; sex and nudity; language and "other," which includes explicit drug use.
Viewers have options within each category. Under language, for instance, viewers can filter for six levels, including "vain reference to the deity" or "strong profanity." Viewers can filter out only the most "graphic violence," or choose a more restrictive "moderate violence" option.
Bad language gets muted and questionable scenes are skipped over.
DVDs also can be watched unfiltered. No filters are created for extra content, including deleted scenes and documentaries. For movies where violence is central, such as "The Passion of the Christ," no filter will be created at all, said Bill Aho, ClearPlay chairman.
"Consumers have always done it," Aho said. "They've covered their eyes or they've stopped the movie or they've fast-forwarded it. This is a practice that has existed ever since the VCR."
Hollywood studios are not covering their eyes - or holding their tongues.
"ClearPlay software edits movies to conform to ClearPlay's vision of a movie instead of letting audiences see, and judge for themselves, what writers wrote, what actors said and what directors envisioned," The Directors Guild of America said in a statement.
"Ultimately, it is a violation of law and just wrong to profit from selling software that changes the intent of movies you didn't create and don't own," the statement said.
The DGA and studios filed a lawsuit in 2002 against ClearPlay and a Colorado video rental store, CleanFlicks, which uses its own software to decode a DVD, alter it for content, then burn a new, edited version, back onto a DVD for rental.
The lawsuit is still pending. ClearPlay contends its software is not illegal because it does not alter the original DVD.
RCA's Arland said the company is monitoring the lawsuit but decided to introduce the model after major retailers expressed interest in the technology.
Analysts question how successful the new DVD player will be, especially considering that an existing parental control technology, the v-chip, is barely used.
"I think they'll sell a few units, but I don't see a groundswell of demand," said Todd Chanko, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "It's only been since Janet Jackson that the FCC has decided to start reminding parents they even have v-chips."
ClearPlay's Aho said he does not favor censorship and would not want to see regulators dictate the content of films or TV shows.
"If anyone is trying to censor here, it's the studios telling families you shouldn't be able to do this," Aho said. "That strikes me as having the earmarks of censorship as opposed to us saying, 'Let's give people a choice.'
"If you want to watch 'Kill Bill - The Director's Cut,' if there is one, then great," Aho said. "That's your choice. But if I choose to watch 'Gladiator' maybe with a little less blood, that's my choice."
By Gary Gentile