Everybody hates television edits of movies - the wacky overdubbed lines, the awkward blurring of naughty bits, and the haphazard cuts for time. But there are a few instances where I do prefer watching the television edits to the actual films. For instance, I don't think I ever would have watched the Will Ferrell comedy "Blades of Glory" if it hadn't been one of these versions.
A quick digression before I get to the meat of this post. "Blades of Glory" premiered in March of 2007 and was shown last night on ABC. The fifth "Harry Potter" film from July 2007 is airing tonight. This means the interval between theatrical and ad-supported network television exhibition has shrunk to less than three years. "Spider-Man 3" might be showing up sooner than I thought.
But back to the point. I know there are a lot of controversies and sensitivities around any kind of editing of films for broadcast. Only a very few movies with adult content, such as "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" appear unedited on American network television out of respect for their artistic impact and integrity, but for the most part strong language, violence, and sexual imagery are strictly curtailed.
America is far more stringent about this than most, which is ironic considering our tradition of free speech protection. Canada, for instance, aired both parts of Quentin Tarantino's ultra-violent "Kill Bill" on its national public broadcasting station CBC, without touching a frame. The only concession was to air the program at a late hour when children wouldn't be watching, but in the US, this isn't nearly enough. The US broadcast version made drastic cuts for language, sex and violence. It was so sanitized, it even went as far as to edit the name of the Bride's car from the Pussy Wagon to the Party Wagon.
The editing overkill is largely explained away by the networks as serving the public interest by keeping potentially objectionable content away from children and other sensitive persons. The films themselves are not considered truly censored, because the films are always easily available in their original versions from other sources - except finding them usually requires time and money that may keep some of these films away from those who don't have the resources. And of course the expensive premium channels almost never edit, which is blatantly hypocritical.
In general, I think the systems stinks. The content restrictions keep more interesting films away from the public and the networks are allowed to royally mangle most of the ones it gets its hands on. The original creators have some control over how their work is presented under the law, but they have to give up practically all of these rights if they want their films to have any public exposure at all. In fact, the only one that commonly remains is the notice screen preceding any broadcast that indicates a film has been edited for time or content.
The only time I can remember any sort of challenge to the status quo was in 2002 when the company ClearPlay tried selling a video content player that would create edited versions of any movies that were played with it. Concerns about copyright violation ultimately sunk ClearPlay, but it did get enough dialogue going in the wider press to get some cable networks to loosen its content restrictions. In 2003, Comedy Central started showing completely unedited programming in 1AM weekend slots.
However, I have to admit that I do benefit from the system. I don't watch movies like "Blades of Glory" because I don't enjoy raunch for the sake of raunch. I can take it in small doses when it's done well, but that's a rare thing outside of Judd Apatow movies. Scatological jokes, toilet humor, and the graphic depiction of unpleasant bodily functions usually just make me wince. I'm not as sensitive about profanity, but my parents are, and I've had to vet stuff for them lately, so I've had to be more aware of it too. There's an awful lot of both types of content in movies today, far more than there was ten years ago.
With edited television versions, I don't have to do any work at all. I know I'm not going to see the excrement monster in "Dogma" or the full frontal shots from "There's Something About Mary" and "Something's Gotta Give." Some films plan ahead and do TV-friendly versions of certain scenes, often substituting dialogue to avoid those awful overdubs. So I can watch films I would otherwise avoid because of concerns about the content.
"Blades of Glory" is a prime example. It was only rated PG-13 to begin with, but featured an extended vomiting sequence, crude sexual situations, and plenty of innuendos. ABC's Broadcast Standards and Practices excised or shortened the worst of them so I could enjoy Will Ferrell's desperate man-boy buffoonery and John Heder prancing around in a peacock-themed skating costume without feeling like I needed to take a shower afterward. Truthfully it was a pretty lousy movie, but the editing helped me enjoy the few charms it had.
I still think the system could be better. There's no reason why other network and cable stations couldn't follow Comedy Central's lead and start showing unedited films at later hours while keeping the edited ones on primetime. Or let the directors make some of the edits themselves instead of going in and making unwatchable horrorshows out of "The Matrix" or "Interview With the Vampire."
I hold out hope that things will improve, and the networks and studios learn to take advantage of the chance to create different versions of their films. I know of at least one instance where the TV version actually substantively improved on the theatrical version - when the director of "Waterworld" was allowed to go back and restore the original ending. Now that was something worth sitting through commercials to see.