This TV gadget censors bad words with 1980's tech
It’s November. You know what that means! Hello and welcome to No Effort November, a series of videos for the month of November in which no effort is made. Are you a prude who can’t bear the thought of your children being exposed to naughty language in movies and television, but you just can’t bear the thought of missing out on watching stuff as a family? Are you looking for a technological solution to free you from the guilt of exposing your kids to bad words? Is it 1998? Well then have I got the solution for you, the TV Guardian. This amazing device attaches to any ordinary television set and transforms that foul-mouthed boob tube into a proper G-rated gentleman. Mostly. How does it work? State-of-the-art technology, of course! The TV Guardian filters out foul language from cable or satellite TV AND home video sources like VHS tapes, DVDs, and let’s not forget Laserdiscs.
Simply disconnect the video source from your TV and connect it to the Guardian. Then, connect the Guardian to your TV and now you can watch TV as a family without worrying about an F-bomb absolutely ruining your night. How does it work? State-of-the-art technology, of course! Didn’t I just say that? Uh, let’s begin with a look at this gadget.
The device itself is pretty simple, with two complete sets of composite video and audio jacks - which are helpfully labeled Right, Left, and Video, but you’ll have to guess which one is the input and which one’s the output. There’s also a coaxial RF out for old-school TV sets and another RF connection above it which is… unlabeled. There’s a DC barrel plug for power input, which they did bother to specify as 9v, 100ma DC, but forgot to finish the diagram for plug polarity. Helpful! We also find two three-position switches for changing settings.
We’ll get back to those. Lastly, there is one more switch tucked way behind a hole at the top of this panel which is once again unlabeled. They did a bang-up job here. That’s the channel 3 or 4 selector for the RF modulator, which you’d know if you bothered to read the manual. Now I know that this was likely a fairly low-volume product, and it’s also 20+ years old, but the cheapness of the construction here cannot be stressed enough.
This looks and feels like an electronics project box, and frankly if it weren’t for the TV guardian branding I’d think it literally was an off-the-shelf electronics project box. Of course there is a custom circuit board in here… [feigning sadness] oh no, I voided my warranty but yeah even this is pretty basic. Just a few chips and an off-the-shelf modulator, essentially.
That’s because this is using much of the same componentry you’d find in all sorts of contemporary video equipment. It’s just got a bit of a trick up its sleeve. The device uses our old friend closed captioning to watch out for profamity. Since I already made a video on that topic I won’t go deep into it here.
Plus it is November. But in the US, starting in the 1980’s television broadcasts and home video formats began regularly incorporating closed captioning in the form of a hidden data stream across the length of Line 21 in the analog video signal. Line 21 is near the end of the vertical blanking interval, which is a string of blank lines that help an analog television draw the image. While you’re not supposed to be able to see it, in the digital age we’re starting to find parts of it pop out occasionally, like here in Frasier.
These blinky dashes are encoding text and basic formatting, and they get extracted as high-low pulses by a television set, or a separate device, and decoded to generate text atop the image. This was a way to add captioning for those who desired it without making it part of the broadcast image, hence the name closed captioning. Now, an older analog television like this one, mindlessly drawing glowing lines on the face of a cathode ray tube over and over again, doesn’t process what it’s doing and this picture tube actually draws the lines, blinky dashes and everything. But they’re getting drawn outside the visible area, somewhere like here. That’s thanks to overscan: the actual image is blown out just a bit beyond the edges of the screen which was necessary due to the vagaries of analog video and since most picture tubes didn’t have perfectly rectangular faces.
So you weren’t ever gonna see this datastream unless there was something wrong with your television set. But modern displays what with their neat grids of pixels and discrete resolutions generally don’t stretch the image they are told to display beyond their borders. Some do for silly reasons which makes using them as a computer monitor very annoying until you find the “just scan” setting buried in the menus but... for the most part, a modern display or television will show the entirety of whatever you throw at it. And some less-than-careful analog-to-digital transfers have gotten done over the years, which captured part of the vertical blanking interval. That’s what’s happening in this episode of Frasier.
Whoever did the transfer didn’t take care to ensure the 480 rows of pixels they’d capture from the 525 lines of video started at, like, line 23 or 24. Or perhaps they just thought overscan was gonna live on forever. Anyway, back to the TV Guardian.
Baked into its programming is a dictionary of offensive words and phrases which, for science, I’d love to see but it’s not written anywhere in the manual, aw shucks. Now, when it’s turned on and active, it decodes the captioning data from line 21. If it finds a match with one of those objectionable things in its dictionary, the guardian jumps into action and… mutes the audio to protect the innocent. That… that’s what it does. Now, I may sound like I’m making fun of this little gadget. And I must admit that this particular form of parental control seems a bit… odd to my ears, but the way it’s done is actually pretty clever.
Here, let’s all settle down as a wholesome family and watch Goodfellas together with the Guardian turned on. Profanity is definitely the only objectionable part of that movie, right? [ambient road noise] So far it looks like a typical movie-going experience, but watch what happens here. [clunky thud, ambient noise] [audio cuts out] [Jimmy - What's up? Did I hear something? What the F - ] [audio cuts again] Not only was the audio muted, but when that happened the closed captioning was placed on-screen so it can be read and stand in for the missing dialogue. And that captioning was altered to remove the offensive word, in this case "fudge." But it didn’t simply remove the word, it also took out the the.
“What the fudge is that” became, simply, This sort of word swap or rephrasing is done whenever necessary. And it’s sometimes pretty good at keeping the context intact. Like, for instance in this scene. [ How could I go back to school after that and pledge allegiance to the flag and - ] [audio cut] [sound returns] Good government “bull excrement” was replaced with good government "baloney."
[ For us, to live any other way was nuts. T - ] Here, the line “to us, those goody good people who work 'shirty' jobs” got turned into “who work crud jobs”. Cruddy would have been a better fit but still, not bad. As much as this is clever, it’s really doing this because of a limitation stemming from how the captions work.
Captioning data is sent in spurts which encode all the text to be displayed on screen - and where to place it. Entire sentences are often displayed at once, in fact a call and response between two characters is sometimes on screen. The text will stay there until the next spurt of data is received which either contains more text and formatting or says to clear it.
So, if a chunk of captioning data contains a bad word or phrase, the TV Guardian knows it will be spoken at some point the text is displayed, but it doesn’t know exactly when. So the only thing it can do is mute the audio for the entire time that caption block appears on the screen. [Partner. Is that what you've been trying to tell me, you want me to be part - ] [audio cut] [It's not even fair, no?] As removing an entire sentence or more could very easily cause you to lose the plot, it has little choice but to display the text with the objectionable parts altered.
Now that is an optional feature. One of the two option switches we haven’t talked about yet is labeled "caption," and you can choose between On, Cuss, and Off. So far we’ve seen it in the cuss setting, but if you like, you can move the switch to “off” — using a tiny screwdriver or something because they’re recessed in a way which I can’t decide if was deliberate for parental control reasons or just bad design — and that will simply have it mute the audio and leave you wondering what was said.
I don’t know why you’d want that but you can do it! You can also have it leave captions on continuously, leaving nice and friendly phrases unaltered but, whenever someone uses a mouth which makes you wonder if they kiss their mother with it, it’ll cut the audio out and make whatever alterations to the written dialogue it sees fit. You can also choose how strict you want the filtering to be. If phrases like “My god” bother you, you’ll want the extra strict enforcement turned on. But if you’re just a little bit more lenient, you can choose the mild setting which lets such religious-adjacent phrases through, in addition to less-objectionable potty-mouth words.
Now these are printed in the manual. I won’t read them all off but it includes such bangers as balls, wuss, up yours, forms of screw, and even "H E Double Hockey Sticks." And if you only care that your children don’t hear these words but you yourself are in for a good profanity-laden evening, you can also turn off the filtering altogether.
Now, it’s probably obvious but this method has a few key weaknesses. We’ve already discussed how it has to mute entire sentences or more but, to reiterate, it has to mute entire sentences or more. And its decisions on how to fill in what it censors are good most of the time but can also be… really weird or even just bad. Here’s a list of all the examples that I’ve found. I’ll try to keep this family friendly, folks but you might not agree with all my decisions here so just be warned. We already established that "excrement" turns into crud, but if it’s phrased as “oh, shirt” then it becomes “oh, man.”
Pretty good. The phrase that rhymes with "missed off" gets changed to teed off (or just teed). Prick becomes jerk.
Bastard also turns into jerk. Uh… "rocksucker" was also turned into jerk. Really there’s a lotta jerks. But slut, ah well that turned into flirt.
It’s fine with moron. That’s cool with the guardian. The n word simply becomes ellipses which… yeah that’s probably for the best. A word now commonly considered a slur became simply “gay” so the caption “he’s treating me like a gay” popped up here.
Interesting. And then on the strict setting, balls gets turned into tail, which is funny because that word can also just mean… balls or be a name as happened here. Oh, and the exclamation "My God" becomes Man, which… I guess that’s fine. But then there’s the F-bomb. As any sailor mouth knows that particular word can mean many things and results to censor it will vary.
Here’s a decent example. "Maybe it’s me, I’m a little forked up." turns into "Maybe it’s me, I’m a little 'messed' up." Great work! That worked fine.
And it did a pretty good job earlier when it removed the the in "what the fudge is that?" But, uh, if it’s ever phrased as a verb, the guardian likes to change it to "wow." Like, you'll wow everything up. Or, go wow yourself. I mean, OK. Uh, if it see’s “fork’n” the word just gets removed and an errant apostrophe is left behind. And it appears to change some instances to “go away” which makes sense for “fork off” I guess but, "go go away your mother" doesn’t really mean anything intelligible.
That’s a total fail. Oh and, F... trucker is another word that becomes jerk. But even if it made perfect decisions all the time, it first relies on closed captioning to be A) there in the first place B) accurate and not itself censored and C) properly timed and in sync with the speech. By the time this thing was released most everything had closed captions in it, but with the rise of the DVD, some studios went rogue. And in fact, the manual calls out Universal for doing this. See, DVD players are capable of injecting their own line 21 captioning data so analog TVs hooked up to them can decode it on their own.
Here’s an example with The Birdcage, another film which I’m sure in the eyes of a TV Guardian buyer would be completely unobjectionable if only it didn’t have cuss words. But of course, DVD players could also display closed captions themselves. And far more capably, offering captions in multiple languages, commentary tracks, and in any style, font, or color the publisher desired.
Universal, it seems, deemed the newfound capabilities of DVD enough to negate the need for old-fashioned line 21 caption support in their releases, at least circa 2000. So for Universal's DVDs the Guardian has no idea what’s being said, and it’s f-bombs galore. Another issue comes from captions which don’t exactly match the dialog. This is actually quite common, usually when dialog is fast-paced. [ It was there that I knew that I belonged.
To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies. They weren't like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer, when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.] For instance, in Goodfellas, the Guardian correctly catches that terrible version of “ticked” when Henry’s narration says “my father was always ticked off,” but just after this Henry repeats “he was ticked” at the beginning of three separate phrases in something of a run-on sentence.
The captioning is structured more loosely, though, with the offending word only placed in the beginning of that sentence. So the audio is unmuted and the last one is… missed. [ ... was in a wheelchair, he was pissed that there were seven of us living in such a tiny house] Won’t somebody think of the children? Then of course, what if whoever wrote the captions was a prude who censored them? Instead of actually writing out H E Double Hockey Sticks they could have written "H asterisk asterisk asteroid." Now, doing that is very bad captioning practice - after all, if adults are choosing to see a movie with profanity and rely on captions, they’re not seeing the movie they chose to see if the captions are censored. So in the grand scheme that should be rare.
But oh the sweet irony of a prudish transcription causing profanity to slip through the TV Guardian. Lastly, there’s caption timing. Live events rely on stenographers furiously stenographering what’s spoken and that leads to a substantial delay in the captions. So better hope those sportscasters aren’t potty mouths. Scripted content is generally better, but it’s not perfect. The Guardian let quite a few things slip through in Goodfellas.
To be fair, they don’t claim perfection on the box. Another somewhat odd choice was an inability to censor any RF source. There is a coaxial input but this is just a pass-through, and as a matter-of-fact this shipped with a red cover over the top connection and there’s a note in the manual that basically says “don’t use this.” Yes, it has a built-in RF modulator for outputting to older TVs, but the censoring function only works on the composite input. So if you want this to work with live TV, you’ll either need to have satellite or cable, or you’ll need to use your VCRs TV tuner for over-the-air broadcasts from now on and hope your kids don’t figure that part out.
I imagine this was mainly a cost-cutting measure but it still seems silly. Oh, and since there’s only one input… well that gets fun when you have a cable box, a VCR, and a DVD player and you'd like them all to be Guardianed. Better hope your VCR is fancy enough to have two inputs, and then you can run everything through it. But if you’re not so lucky, you’ll need some sort of video switcher. The manual even says as much. The limitations we just went over are all technical ones, though.
There’s also a pretty glaring conceptual hurdle. I chose Goodfellas and The Birdcage to demonstrate this because I have a feeling the sort of person who bought the TV Guardian might object to some of the visuals and themes in those films. Just a hunch. The TV Guardian can’t do anything about the content or what’s on the screen; it can only ever be a pretty-good but not perfect profanity filter.
So I’m somewhat perplexed by the perceived value here. You’re still gonna need to screen for whatever you might not want your kids… seeing! I suppose there’s a lot of content out there which is otherwise pretty tame but which has a few sailor mouth moments. But it’s really only that middle-ground that this can do anything for. And if I may be so bold, if you’re that worried about your kids hearing the occasional bad word, well you better not let them leave the house.
That was a joke, just wanna be clear, but yeah - there’s a lot of profanity outside of television, hate to break it to you. Still, though, as much as I think this is silly and not at all for me, I will tip my hat to it for being pretty clever. And, if you think there’s some merit in this idea, or maybe you know someone in your life who would have loved one of these, well I have good news! This company still exists, and they make HDMI versions now so you can guard your Netflix.
Except, not actually. Yeah, they’re still relying on line 21 captions. Probably because HDMI doesn’t actually carry captioning data. The website makes it pretty clear that whatever you’re plugging into the new versions of this stills needs to have a composite video output for it to work, so the HDMI video feed is… I guess just a passthrough that it draws captions on top of? I dunno, I’d investigate further but this is No Effort November. Before I go, I want to do two more things. First, I want to thank my long-time patron Colin for sending this thing to me.
It’s very much not either of our jams, but it certainly is an intriguing use of closed captioning. And second… well I think it’s time I finally rip the band aid off about a certain video topic I promised. In my video on closed captioning, I said I’d be making a video on Teletext. And I said I'd do that “Soon” That was almost four years ago. So what happened? Well, I don’t think I’m the right person to tell that story.
I’ve never used it, and as such I really have no enthusiasm or nostalgia for it. For those that don’t know, which is mainly people outside of Europe, teletext was an earlier and way, way, waaaaay more capable use of the vertical blanking interval for sending data along with television transmissions. And I cannot stress the way way wayyyyyy more capable part enough. It wasn’t just captions.
It was full-on news, weather, sports information, trivia games, and even computer programs all sent alongside ordinary television. For whatever reason, probably the lack of a nationalized television broadcaster, that never got any traction here. Americans just don’t know what teletext is or was. We never had it aside from small-scale tests here and there. Those who live where teletext is common might be surprised that our closed captions work just fine on VHS cassettes - see our standard was designed with that in mind.
Teletext on the other hand is very high-bandwidth, and television sets couldn’t decode it from a consumer videotape. However, some really cool people have developed software techniques to recover the teletext information from home recordings, and archives are being built and expanded as we speak. That’s really interesting to me, but without a personal… connection to it, I just won’t give the story justice. I’ll leave that for someone else to tackle. I’ve put links to some info about Teletext and to the archive, if you're curious, down in the description.
But yeah, a teletext video… isn’t gonna happen on this channel. I bet there are some pretty cool videos on YouTube right now, though - ohhh goodness. No. Nooo…
Why are these popping up? They have nothing to do… OK, well if any of you out there have been holding off to make a video, waiting for me to do something, you go right ahead - I’ll even be on the lookout for ‘em. And this one’s pretty good if you want to learn a bit about it right now. Ok bye. ♫ profanely smooth jazz ♫ Are you looking for a technological solution to your fear of nope. Are you a prude who can't bear the thought of your children being exposed to [runs out of air] oh god I didn't take a breath at the right time Of course there is a custom circuit breaker... circuit board.
It's not a circuit breaker! Captioning data is sent in spurts which encode all the text tood ugh! Captioning data is sent in spurts which encode all the text to be displayed on - [laughs] That's a mouthful! Which encode all the text to be displayed! ...which encode all the text to be displayed on I made it! But I didn't think I did! ...which encode all the text to bees My god! All the text to be. Text to be. That's... all the text to be Haha, wow! As much as... [holding in laughter] Oh god. This is like Dietz Nuts all over again. It's not even supposed to be funny! It first relies on closed captioning to A) be there in the first place, B) [questioning, contemplative silence] Oh, yeah that's correct.
______________ __ __ ____ __ __ ______________ _______ __ ____ ____ ______________ __ __ SO, WHAT'D YA THINK? ______________ __ __ ____ __ __ ______________ __ __ ______________ __ __ ________ __ PRETTY COOL VIDEO, HUH? ______________ __ __ ____ __ __ ______________ __ __ ______________ __ __ ________ __ ______________ __ __ ____ __ __ ______________ __ __ ______________ __ __ ____ __ __ THIS GAG VIOLATES THE SPIRIT OF NO EFFORT NOVEMBER ______________ __ __ ____ __ __ ______________ __ _____ __ __ ______________ __ __ FOR SHAME