Family Technology – The TV Guardian

“Family Technology” reports feature reviews of various gadgets that can enhance or assist parents with their family media experience.

Chances are good that at some point you have viewed a movie that leaves you saying, “What a great film, but why did they include all that bad language?”

It appears someone heard you.

Principle Solutions, Inc. offers a device called the TV Guardian, a diminutive “black box” that stands watch for bad words and stomps them out before they reach your ears. Available at Wal-Mart and from many online family and Christian websites, the device has become a popular choice in homes where television is carefully considered.

If you are able to connect the audio and video outputs of your VCR to a television with audio and video inputs, you’ll have no problems figuring out the simple connections. The unit I received was packaged with clear directions showing how to connect it between your VCR, satellite receiver, or cable box and your television.

Once in place, you no longer use your television to change channels, but instead rely on your VCR/satellite/cable box for surfing the airwaves.

If you’re wondering how the device can tell when foul language is on the air, it puts another technology to a unique use. Closed Captioning has been available on many broadcast programs since the early 1980’s. Originally intended for people with hearing disabilities, Closed Captioning provides an electronic text transcript of an entire television program or movie. The text information is synchronized with what is being said through the standard sound of your television.

However, a few years ago the FCC mandated [LINK “FCC mandated” to: ]] that many programs must be Closed Captioned, which has resulted in a profound increase of the service.

But the captioning stream, embedded as little tiny white lines that dance around above the viewing portion of the television picture, can have many other uses – one being a way for a device like the TV Guardian to know when to turn off the sound and eliminate “bad” words.

I spent an evening with the TV Guardian hooked into my television and home theater system to see how well it lived up to its promise. For the most part, I was very impressed – but it does have some limitations.

Inside the device is a list of every imaginable foul phrase and profanity – over 150 of them according to the company. Each word coming through the captioning stream is compared with this list. When the TV Guardian finds a match, it immediately cuts the sound. At the same time, it places the captioning information over the picture with the offending word replaced with another non-offensive expletive.

The little plastic box has few controls. A switch sets the filter to “off,” “moderate,” or “strict.” The latter covers all the list of words, while the middle setting allows religious terms and some mild profanities to pass through. Another switch sets the text mode, allowing you to only see text when the box is muting the sound, or you can set it to see all the captioning text with editing, or another setting turns the box into a standard captioning decoder.

Also included is a setting to view the output on channel 3 or 4 of your television (if you don’t have video inputs on your TV) and a red light to let you know it’s plugged in.

I started with the ultimate test, a viewing of Erin Brockovich, the infamous movie starring Julia Roberts playing an unemployed single mother. Showing perseverance and determination, Robert’s character and the resulting story offer many positive messages, but the language coming from her mouth prevented many parents from enjoying this movie with their older teens.

Returning from the nearest rental shop, I could only find a VHS copy as opposed to a DVD (a fortunate substitution which I’ll explain in a moment). Pressing play, my wife and I sat back and let the Guardian work it’s magic.

Not long into the film, the sound suddenly muted and words appeared on the screen. The TV Guardian had made it’s first “edit,” and provided us with a slightly modified text version of the script so we could still follow the plot for the moment in which there was no sound.

Needless to say, at times the resulting edited sentence is somewhat strange, as particular expletives are used in ways that make it difficult to simply replace the word with something else.

As obtrusive as this sounds, after the first few interruptions I hardly noticed I was reading a sizable portion of the movie. In the end, we enjoyed Erin and only heard two mild profanities.

Erin Brockovich is an extreme example with which to test the unit. Obviously, many families will be interested in viewing PG and PG-13 material with fewer harsh words, in which case you’ll notice the editing even less.

However for DVD owners, the box presents some difficulties.

First, not all DVD’s use the Closed Captioning standard. Almost all have DVD “subtitles,” but these are incompatible with the TV Guardian – it can only read true Closed Captioning. The most prominent studio choosing to not use the standard is Universal Studios – the distributors of Erin Brockovich and countless other titles.

A test of the Erin Brockovich DVD confirmed this. The TV Guardian wasn’t able to read a Closed Captioning signal, making the unit useless. Other Universal titles rendered the same unsatisfactory results.

Excuse me for becoming overly technical, but being a home theater buff myself, I was somewhat frustrated with other DVD issues involving Dolby Digital signals and S-Video and component video connections. These are preferred methods of sending audio and video to your entertainment systems, resulting in a higher quality signal.

The TV Guardian only has capabilities for standard “composite” video, and stereo sound, which makes it completely compatible with the older Dolby Pro-Logic standard used on VHS tapes and the standard audio outputs of DVD players. However, if you want to use the newer Dolby Digital feed, you must employ a “workaround” [KIM – Link “workaround here: ]] that will only operate if: a) Your DVD player has a Dolby Digital decoder built into it, or b) You use a coaxial digital connection between your DVD player and Dolby Digital receiver as opposed to the more popular optical or TOS-link connection.

For S-video, the manufacturer instructs you to purchase a couple of “S-video to composite video” adapters. This will allow the unit to work, but you lose the increase in quality S-video provides. The product’s website offers another alternative for component video users [KIM – Link “component video users” here: ]] which I didn’t test.

The Guardian will also assist with viewing broadcast TV. Using your VCR or satellite receiver to change channels, the box monitors the Closed Captioning signal for bad words. But again, some limitations exist.

For instance, there’s a good chance the TV Guardian would not have caught rock singer Bono’s expletive during the Golden Globes broadcast [Link?? ]]. That’s because most live telecasts are unscripted, requiring a captioning operator to input the text at the same time we hear it, resulting in a delay of a few seconds. So by the time the captioned signal reaches your home, the TV Guardian would mute the sound after the offense occurred.

Also, live captioning is more prone to “typos” and other errors – which may even occur in taped programs. So if an expletive isn’t spelled correctly, it won’t trigger the box’s muting circuitry.

If you own a TV/VCR combo unit, you’ll be out of luck again unless you have separate sound and video outputs on the VCR and inputs on the TV. Otherwise, you cannot put the TV Guardian in between the two.

As for HDTV, I did no testing in this area, but my research indicates [LINK “my research indicates: ]] the device should function if put between an HDTV converter and your television. However, be aware of the quality limitations discussed before. The attraction of HDTV is a better picture, so the component video workaround indicated on the company website is likely your best bet.

Finally, Principle Solutions Inc. is also licensing the technology to DVD manufacturers. Sanyo is one of the first to offer a DVD player and DVD/VHS combo unit with the circuitry built in. This allows you to use the high quality outputs DVD provides without concern about adapting signals, however it still has the same incompatibility issues with Universal DVDs.

The bottom line is for the average consumer with a VCR and television, the TV Guardian works very well. And if you’re content with standard video connections between your DVD and TV, it functions nicely with the exception of Universal Studios DVD’s.

Obviously it won’t do anything for violence and sex (although another technology I’ll be covering soon attempts to do this), but for those movies where the greatest offense is profanities, it can clean up after itself very well.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…