We are living in the golden age of in-flight movies. If you're old enough to recognize the sound of a dial-up modem, then you remember how movies were once reserved for only long flights. One movie, for the entire plane, shown on bulky monitors hanging down every 10 rows and censored so severely you were lucky to salvage a comprehensible plot.
But today — oh, today! — the in-flight entertainment choices are phenomenal. Thanks to on-board servers and broadband connectivity, you can stream new-release and classic movies, watch live TV, browse music channels, play video games and read ebooks — not only on the seatback screen, but on your own laptop, tablet or smartphone.
But with the explosion of in-flight entertainment choices comes a new twist on an old dilemma. When you turn every seatback and iPad into a movie screen, how do you make sure that potentially offensive content — graphic violence, nudity and culturally insensitive gags — isn't thrust in the faces of kids or the unsuspecting passenger in the middle seat?
You do what the entertainment industry and airlines have always done; you censor them. For the biggest blockbuster movies, studios themselves create an "airline version," which is scrubbed of the bloodiest violence, the steamiest love scenes, as well as any references to plane crashes or terrorists. But there's also a booming cottage industry of in-flight entertainment content companies whose job is to edit and distribute customized versions of Hollywood movies to suit the tastes and taboos of different international markets.
Sex, Violence and Pork
Amir Samnani is senior vice president of content services for Global Eagle, the market leader in providing both in-flight content and streaming technology for airlines serving every corner of the globe. Samnani says that the in-flight movie-editing business is all about matching the content of the movie with the culture of the airline.
"You can get away with a lot of stuff on European carriers, because the countries they represent aren't as culturally conservative compared to other regions in the world, like Indonesia or the Middle East," says Samnani. "Those [other] airlines are a little more conservative."
Jovita Toh, CEO of Encore Inflight Limited, told CNN that while Europeans might be open to seeing more skin, gory violence turns them off. In the Middle East, it's sexual language and nudity that must be scrubbed, while Singapore travelers don't want to see anything that alludes to homosexuality. Toh also said that airlines serving majority Muslim countries ask to edit out mentions of "pork" or "pigs" in subtitles.
Samnani at Global Eagle says that he's never been asked to cut out shots of bacon or sausage from a movie, but his team is definitely on the lookout for any dialogue or sight gags that make fun of a particular religion.
"Airlines fly all over the world nowadays," says Samnani. "You can't say or show something that portrays that you're insulting a religion or a faith group or any country or any culture."
Language in general is not as big of an issue, says Samnani, because in-flight audio is played through headphones, not broadcast through the whole cabin. Still, pretty much all airlines draw the line at the "C-word," he says.
There are no U.S. or international laws that spell out exactly what can or cannot be shown on in-flight entertainment screens. Instead, there's an industry trade group called APEX — Airline Passenger Experience Association — that works with movie distributors and airlines to establish general guidelines for in-flight content, but most censoring decisions are left to the discretion of individual carriers. (The 2015 film "Carol" about a lesbian couple in the 1950s was heavily edited for viewing on Delta flights but not on United or American Airlines. Delta said it took the edited version it received from the movie studio and doesn't have the rights to request some edits and not others.)
How Streaming Changed the Rules
In 2007, a pair of U.S. congressmen introduced the Family-Friendly Flights Act, which aimed to shield young children from violence and nudity in in-flight movies by creating "child-safe viewing areas" on planes where any movie rated beyond G couldn't be played. The legislation was never passed and no similar bills have been proposed since.
Compared to the old in-flight entertainment systems, the new streaming technology gives passengers a tremendous amount of control. And that element of personal choice, says Samnani, takes some pressure off of the airlines to police content.
"The airlines are a little bit more lenient when it comes to streaming," Samnani says. "What the airlines are doing now, before the movie starts, they have a little disclaimer. They'll say, 'This movie has some unsuitable content — nudity or language.' And then you as the passenger have to say yes, I still want to watch it. You're clicking, you're choosing something to watch."
One film expert checked the running times of movies shown on two major airlines (Virgin and Air Canada) and found that two-thirds were the same length as the theatrical presentation, while 14 percent were shorter, which gives you an idea of how many in-flight movies are cut. Intriguingly 21 percent were longer — most likely due to the "director's cut" or some other version made for home viewing being shown.