The Chorus in The Chaos was recently given the opportunity to interview the CEO of VidAngel, Neal Harmon. Below is a transcript of that discussion.
While TCITC may not share the same religious background as Neal, we both share a belief in the usefulness of tools and technology that can protect our families from questionable media. I use VidAngel regularly, alongside other internet filters, to limit (and hopefully outright prevent) content that I would understand to be harmful or would challenge my personal convictions.
As Christians, living in an age of streaming instant media, it’s important that we be mindful of what we click and invite onto our TVs, phones, and computer screens. If we are going to embrace high speed media, we need to be aware of its dangers and how we can protect ourselves. I think this is especially true when we consider the impact on the next generation. The habits, protective measures, and entertainment-consuming patterns we display now will be observed and modeled by our children. Streaming media is not going away; if anything, it’s gaining steam. For this reason, we encourage all of our readers to investigate tools, like VidAngel, and prayerfully consider how to use them.
With that brief introduction, here is the interview with CEO of VidAngel, Neal Harmon.
Jack Lee (TCITC): Neal, thanks for joining us. For our regular readers, and those within the Patheos universe that might not be familiar with VidAngel, could you give us a brief overview of what VidAngel is and why they should know about it?
Neal Harmon: Sure, VidAngel allows you to filter profanity, nudity, and violence from popular movies and TV Shows that are on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO. So, for example, you could filter out profanity from the movie Wonder, or nudity out of Game of Thrones, and many other different options.
Jack: Where did your inspiration for VidAngel come from?
Neal: Well, 4 brothers, we started VidAngel together because we have young children and we love great content. We wanted to share great content with our families, but there are certain things we don’t want repeated in our homes. Children are like sponges and they experiment with whatever they encounter. So, with just a few skips or mutes on our favorite shows, we could share them with our whole family.
Jack: I agree and have very similar interests in shielding my family. Elaborating on that theme, something we write a lot about is the moral decay that our culture is experiencing. So, in the context of that and the sexual revolution we find ourselves in, how important is it for parents to monitor the entertainment that enters their homes?
Neal: It’s extremely important these days. The median age at which young people encounter pornography or sexual abuse has been falling and falling as the years have gone by. Whereas, my parents worried about abuse from adults, now there’s even abuse between children because of the sexual perversion that has occurred. No filter will solve this problem. It needs to be a holistic effort of the entire family to help each other learn, protect, and inoculate ourselves from what can enter our minds and pervert our sense of sexuality. That’s a great question and something we should be concerned about.
Grayson Gilbert (TCITC): What are some ways you believe we can positively equip people, and children when they get to maturity, to think about sexuality in a healthy way?
Neal: Well, the number one thing we can do is model it as parents through a loving relationship where we care for and look after the happiness of our spouse, or partner. If we do that, first and foremost, then our kids will have a positive model. Effectively, the conversations need to happen between parents and children at a younger age. There are number of materials and books that are used. There are so many great materials out there to help introduce the topic and discuss it. But having a relationship with our children where they feel like they can come to us, talk to us, and where we can answer their questions is huge.
Jack: Do you think that what VidAngel is doing is pushing back the tide of sexuality and pornography coming out of Hollywood?
Neal: I would say that it can. VidAngel is a tool. People can use the tool to enhance their experience and make entertainment good for their own home. I suppose it can be used as an excuse to watch content that you wouldn’t normally support as well. I feel that any kind of technology can be used for good purposes and purposes that are not good. So, if you’re exposing yourself to story lines and things that you normally wouldn’t, because you can filter some of it, [then] I’m not sure that’s a positive thing.
But, I think most people are using the tool for the right reason and they are pushing back the tide. Just because you use VidAngel doesn’t mean you are, as you say, “pushing back the tide.” It just depends on what kind of content choices you are making. But the nice thing about VidAngel is you don’t only have ability to choose content by title, but you also have choices about what parts you want to expose your family to.
Jack: You alluded to one of my favorite aspects of VidAngel, that is, the detailed nature of the filter options. Having the ability to filter not just nudity, violence, or blasphemy but also “immodesty” is extremely helpful. It’s one of my favorite features.
Neal: That’s what I love about creating VidAngel is creating a product that I would use and I’m glad it has been helpful for you too. I’m a little sheepish because I know it can be a lot better. We are working on versions of VidAngel that are coming and are much, much better. But, VidAngel is better than anything that is out there.
Grayson: Following that thought, I have a question in regard to how you catalog your filters. Is someone watching everything and tagging it? How does that actually work?
Neal: That’s a great question, Grayson. This process works with a combination of computers and people. We have a tagging community that lives all over the country. These people will tag subjective content in videos. It’s surprisingly difficult for computers to understand subjective things, like “immodesty”. Nudity is a lot easier for a computer to pick up on. Certain words are easier to pick up. The Artificial Intelligence technology we are working on will help us with that.
Within the tagging community, we have each “tagger” agree to only tag things they already watch, if they are not being paid. So, if the person is already watching Game of Thrones, they will tag Game of Thrones. That was our attempt at creating a system where everyone stays within their own values.
Grayson: Considering how Hollywood is constantly pushing the boundaries, do you think there will be a day when questionable content is so abundant that if you’re using a filtering device, like VidAngel, it would render something unwatchable?
Neal: I think there already is content like that, for me personally and the way I set filters. There are number of movies on our system that I will never watch because its too choppy or the content of the storyline is too degrading. This is me and my value set. Different people come to VidAngel with a different set of values and cultural backgrounds.
Jack: Changing gears a bit, how would you answer a critic who would say that if you filtered the bible the way VidAngel filters TV, you would have to filter all kinds of violence, lust, adultery, etc.?
Neal: To be frank, there are certain things I’ve read in the bible that if they were put on a screen, I wouldn’t want to watch them. I’ll read them. But images, for me, are different than words. You can’t get images out of your mind after you’ve seen them. It’s a lot easier to learn from the text and what God’s trying to teaching you then to show things in gory detail.
Jack: I know that VidAngel has been very active in producing their own content, such as movies and things like Dry Bar Comedy. Any favorites and recommendations for our readers?
Neal: As far as Dry Bar Comedy goes, my favorites would be Zoltan Kaszas. Zoltan is really funny! Dennis Regan is super funny. There is lady coming out today [Jessi Campbell]; I saw her show live and laughed until I cried. The shows aren’t always the same live. I’m surprised how sometimes the ones that are less funny live turn out to be more funny on screen, and vice-versa. So, I don’t yet know if I would recommend hers. But, I think it’s going to be hysterical.
Also, there one from a guy that came out last week called Shayne Smith. He’s covered in tattoos, so I’m not sure I would show it to my kids, but he definitely teaches kids that getting tattoos is a bad idea. He comes from a really hard background and it sounds like he made a big change in his life. But, the last story he tells [laughing] in the last 10 minutes – it killed me! I was laughing so hard!
As far as non-Dry Bar Comedy, I love My Brother The Time Traveler. It came out over Christmas. It’s not necessarily a Christmas movie; it’s set in a cabin. That show was shot in 6 days by a bunch of talented filmmakers who did it for fun. It has a nice indie feel to it and it is hilarious.
Jack: In closing, what’s next for VidAngel? Anything we should be aware of or watching for?
Neal: I think we will start seeing some more positive news when it comes to VidAngel and our legal situation. We’ve been very quiet the last 6 months, but I think we’ll start seeing some positive news coming out. In terms of the product, we just submitted the Roku App to The Roku Channel Store. So, its going to be an official distribution; we’ve been in beta for a long time. Now, you’ll be able sign up through Roku and use Roku billing within the Roku Channel Store.
Down the road, we’ve got a lot of great things planned. Our goal, inside of VidAngel, is to make the app our favorite movie app and our primary app that we use. There are all kinds of features we’re wanting for our children and families that aren’t there yet. But they are coming, and we are looking forward to that.
Jack: We are looking forward to that as well. Neal, thank you for time.
Neal: You bet! Thank you guys for helping us get the word out, using the system, and being so supportive. What makes VidAngel possible is the wonderful community that has surrounded us and supported us. We will keep fighting for the wonderful customers we have.