Neal Harmon, CEO of the content-filtering company VidAngel, is on a mission to help families enjoy the best Hollywood has to offer while tuning out the worst. The company unveiled a new filtering service for Netflix and Amazon videos nearly seven weeks ago to overwhelming demand.
In the first 30 days, the service “had over five times the number [of subscribers] we had hoped to have,” Harmon told me. Harnessing the power of VidAngel costs $7.99 a month and takes a little bit of tech know-how to complete the sign-up, log-in, and filter-setting process. But it’s no harder than setting up the Netflix or Amazon Prime accounts needed to make VidAngel work.
While VidAngel does filter out specific vulgarity, it doesn’t take into account overall worldview. Plenty of the titles available on the platform, such as House of Cards, Dexter, or Breaking Bad, would still be unsuitable for children even after the smut is cut. There are videos on VidAngel that Harmon won’t watch himself.
“There are a lot of TV-MA titles and rated-R titles that I fundamentally disagree with the storyline and the premise of content,” Harmon said. “I had to ask the question, do we choose what gets published on VidAngel, or do we allow people to use the tech for what they choose they want to use the tech for?”
VidAngel execs went the latter route, relying on ratings, box office returns, and customer requests to decide which videos to filter. The surgical precision of the technology allows users to block instances of objectionable content in a show individually or as a whole. So, let’s say a family doesn’t mind seeing hand-to-hand combat, but doesn’t want to watch blood and gore. Under the “violence” category, mom and dad can choose to block “a woman’s bloody leg is visible” but leave “a man punches several men,” both references from the latest Hunger Games movie. Or they can block all violence with one click of the remote.
VidAngel could be a Godsend for many media-conscious families, but a devil is lurking in the details. Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros. oppose the company’s model and have sued for copyright infringement. In December 2016, a judge issued a preliminary injunction against VidAngel, which had to close down its filtering service for a time.
Before the injunction, VidAngel used a complicated checkout, check-in system to let users watch titles as they came out on DVD. Studios got paid the full market price of the DVD each time a user watched a video. After the injunction, the company revamped to filter Netflix and Amazon content, and the service reopened June 13. But Disney has notified the court it still opposes VidAngel, and the future of the service remains unclear.
VidAngel has mounted a robust legal and public relations defense, arguing the federal Family Movie Act of 2005 allows filtering and the service causes no financial harm to the studios since viewers already pay for the content—first by paying for DVD copies of the film and now by paying for their existing streaming accounts. At the same time, VidAngel has started producing original content, including more than two-dozen clean comedy specials. Several of the specials are among the service’s most popular titles, beating out some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. (Remember, “clean” doesn’t necessarily mean “Christian,” and subscribers should still watch with caution.)
Harmon hopes the studios will take note and instead of fighting VidAngel, listen to the demands of the company’s customers.
“VidAngel’s goal is to fight not only for the right of families to filter in the modern age on modern devices, but it’s also our second goal … that the filter choices of families and of individuals become a feedback loop for artists and creators,” Harmon said.
— by Lynde Langdon