On November 9, the Union government announced that news websites, streaming services, films and other digital media would be brought under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). Until then, these were not actively supervised by a line ministry and it was the Information Technology Act, 2000, that provided the overarching legal umbrella to online content services.
The governmentâ€™s decision to bring online services under the MIB comes at a time when various digital platforms had crafted a self-regulatory mechanism for themselves. In October, 15 online curated content providers (OCCP), including Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+Hotstar became signatories to a self-regulation code which, among other things, sets up a grievance redressal mechanism for consumers. In the same month, digital news websites formed two separate associations. First, 11 digital news organisations came together to form the DIGIPUB News India Foundation. Its members include TheWire, Newslaundry, The Quint, Scroll.in and The News Minute among others. Second, websites such as OpIndia, Republic World, Desh Gujarat and Assam Live formed the Indian Digital Media Association (IDMA).
With the MIB stepping in, these online content services will be vulnerable to rulemaking that will negate self-regulatory efforts. This may have a direct impact on the quality of content generated in India. Future regulatory interventions should not take us back to a time when content was formulaic, risk-free and bereft of imagination.
The 90s are a shining example of content that was set in a template. Saas-bahu sagas in which both ladies are central to family dramas, a poor man robbing rich people because they were the cause of evil and slapstick comedies that reinforced gender stereotypes. These sorts of TV shows were a consequence of what broadcasters thought would appeal to their audiences and also pass muster with governments. They seldom had scientific evidence to gauge whether the content they aired appealed to viewers. The same holds true for news content too. Newspapers and TV channels decided what their audiences would read and watch. In short, content during the 90s was supply-led without any clarity on whether it satisfied consumer demand.
With the advent of technology, content creators who had made their mark on television and in print, pivoted to digital formats. Each of them now has granular data, which tells them about the kind of content their audiences consume, the platforms, timing, and the location from where they do so. In short, it is these technology-driven market dynamics that dictate the demand-oriented content that is now flourishing online.
In this context, if the MIB were to adopt a prescriptive approach, it will turn the clock back by two decades. Content creators, well-versed with the ins and outs of traditional broadcasting, will be left with little choice but to create shows that are formulaic, unimaginative, play to the gallery and pander to stereotypes. After all this was the secret sauce of their success in the 90s and might still work in the 21st century â€” albeit in a different format.
The advent of OTT platforms has created a perception that there is a wide variety of differentiated content that people willingly pay for and consume. It is true that some of these platforms have broken a proverbial glass ceiling but they remain exceptions vis-Ã -vis innovative content. A vast majority of their counterparts are still creating content that is templated and limited in its ambition â€” a throwback to TV content in the 90s. Narrow rules or standards will only encourage the creation of such content. Instead, the government must leave content to the twin wisdoms of self-regulatory mechanisms and market dynamics to determine quality. Only then will Indiaâ€™s OTT sector be able to create content that can hold its own against international competition.
(The author works at Koan Advisory Group, a technology policy consulting firm. This article is a part of the Koan Advisory-BestMediaInfo.com series on technology and society. Views expressed are personal.)