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Streaming Services Decide Whether To Put Advisories On Content That Hasn't Aged Well

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As streaming services take up the massive film and TV libraries of their corporate parents, it's becoming obvious that some of this material has not aged well. How the streamers handle this says a lot about the companies in charge, according to NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, who joins us now. Welcome back, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: We're going to start with Disney and its streaming service, Disney+. Disney has a number of films and old cartoons with a lot of cringe-inducing stereotypes. Here's a scene from the Disney film "Dumbo" with a flock of black crows.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUMBO")

CLIFF EDWARDS: (As Jim Crow) What's cooking around here? What's the good news? What's frying, boy?

NICODEMUS STEWART: (As Specks) Just look down here, brother.

JAMES BASKETT: (As Fats) And prepare yourself for a shock.

CORNISH: So how has Disney+ handled this sort of thing?

DEGGANS: Well, I'd say it's been in fits and starts. You know, when Disney+ first debuted way back in 2019, they put a very basic, kind of two-sentence advisory on some films that wasn't particularly obvious when you called up the movie to look at it. And now they have a more extensive content advisory that's several paragraphs long, and it appears on the screen for about 12 seconds before the movie starts. And it says in part, quote, "this program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and wrong now."

So this advisory directs you to a spot on disney.com, their website, called Stories Matter. And there, they explain how they put together this group of experts to advise them on which films should get an advisory. And they list a few of them, like "The Aristocats" and "Swiss Family Robinson." And films that get these advisory also get pulled out of the kids profile section of Disney+, which is when some people noticed the change.

CORNISH: And what's the response? Are there alternative ways Disney could have handled this?

DEGGANS: Well, I think so. I think the content advisories on the movie should be specific to every film. Let viewers know exactly what scenes in "Dumbo" are problematic and why and how those scenes are different from those in, say, "Peter Pan." Give us a comprehensive list of all the films that are getting these advisories, and talk publicly about why they're doing this. I mean, I've tried for a while to get somebody from Disney to talk with us about this subject, and so far they've refused. Maybe they're concerned about damaging their brand. But frankly, I think they could learn a bit from what a competitor like HBO Max did.

CORNISH: Explain how they've handled things.

DEGGANS: Well, HBO Max had a challenge in "Gone With the Wind," which has been criticized over many, many years for how it glorifies the Old South during the time before the Civil War when Black people were enslaved. And they pulled the film off the library for a while and developed three videos explaining its problematic legacy. They also created this video advisory that airs for about four and a half minutes before the film starts explaining the problems in detail. And while they were pulling all this together, some executives talked about what they were doing.

CORNISH: You know, there are going to be many white people in particular who find these to be beloved works of art from their childhood who are going to criticize these moves by these big brands. How do you think about all this?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, people might say this is about cancel culture, but these films aren't getting canceled. They're not eliminated from Disney+. But people should know exactly what's in them so they're aware of the stereotyping and they're less affected by it. And some people might think this is coming out of nowhere, but HBO Max's advisory on "Gone With The Wind" pointed out the NAACP complained about that film when it was being made in 1938. People have been talking about these stereotypical depictions for many, many years. It's just taken a while to get the media companies to listen. And now that they are, let's have these discussions transparently so that audiences can learn.

CORNISH: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.