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Our culture isn’t safe in the hands of the streaming giants

Netflix and other platforms are quietly re-editing and censoring classic films and TV shows.

Angie Speaks

Topics Culture Politics World

Still shopping for physical media like CDs or DVDs? Well, you might not be able to do so for much longer.

Last month, Best Buy, the American retail giant, made headlines by announcing it was to stop selling DVDs and Blu-ray discs at the start of 2024, citing a massive drop in demand. This news arrived on the back of British retailer Tesco’s decision to stop offering physical media last year – a move, like Best Buy’s, driven by sluggish sales. It seems we could well be witnessing the complete disappearance of physical media in the relentless march toward digital streaming services.

Of course, there is little doubt that the digitisation of music, movies and books has brought huge benefits to consumers. But at a time when so much of our culture is being re-written, re-edited and redacted to satisfy woke sensibilities, retaining access to physical media is important. Indeed, it could soon be our only means of accessing films and TV shows in their original, uncensored form. The ability to watch the movie you love or the sitcom you never fail to laugh at may well hinge on your possession of a physical copy.

After all, in recent years there have been countless examples of films and shows disappearing from major streaming platforms or getting sliced and diced to appease censorious activists. In 2020, during the post-Black Lives Matter ‘racial reckoning’, both BBC iPlayer and Netflix indulged in a carnival of self-censorship. They axed comedies Little Britain and Come Fly With Me due to concerns about the use of blackface by their two stars, David Walliams and Matt Lucas. In 2022, Little Britain returned to streaming platforms, minus any sketches deemed offensive.

Noughties comedies The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen were also removed from Netflix in 2020, over similar complaints about white actors ‘blacking up’. Netflix has never seen fit to reinstate them.

Then there’s the treatment of classic British sitcom Fawlty Towers. In June 2020, ‘The Germans’ episode, famous for coining the phrase ‘Don’t mention the war!’, was pulled from the BBC-owned UKTV catch-up service. A fortnight later, it was made available again, but accompanied with a warning for ‘potentially offensive content and language’.

Films are suffering, too. Just this year, US streaming platform Criterion Channel decided to censor William Friedkin’s 1971 classic, The French Connection, without explanation. Roughly 10 minutes in, the streamer had clumsily removed a six-second sequence in which the lead character, Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, utters a racial slur.

Regardless of the precise nature of the ‘offensive’ content involved, the idea that streaming platforms and digital corporations feel they have the right to censor and re-edit films and TV shows ought to worry us all. It not only threatens the integrity of the films or shows involved. It is also deeply insulting to viewers, treating us like children in need of protection from corporate guardians.

It’s a similar story for books in the era of digitisation. Take the decision earlier this year by Puffin Books to re-edit Roald Dahl’s novels in order to eliminate content deemed offensive. Words like ‘crazy’ and ‘mad’ were excised, as were Dahl’s descriptions of characters’ physical deformities or disabilities, such as deafness. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the word ‘fat’ was removed to spare the blushes of Augustus Gloop and the Oompa Loompas became gender-neutral. These changes didn’t just affect the new printed editions – people who already owned ebook versions of Dahl’s classics discovered that their versions had been ‘updated’ or censored overnight. And there was nothing they could do about it.

That’s the kicker here. If you don’t own a physical copy of your favourite film or TV show, the next time you sit down to stream it, you could end up watching something very different indeed. This silent erasure and re-editing of our culture should disturb us all.

Angie Speaks is the cohost of the Mystic & the Machine podcast.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Politics World

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