Government intervention in regulating OTT content has once again become a topic of debate. Some believe that this intervention will limit creativity and freedom of expression, while others argue that it is necessary to improve the quality of content.
In an exclusive conversation with BestMediaInfo.com, some content makers said that certain guidelines by the government hamper the creativity process and freedom of speech, while others stated that creative freedom comes with a responsibility.
This comes in the backdrop of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Anurag Thakur, taking a tough stand on complaints against content on OTT platforms, saying that vulgarity and abusive language is not acceptable in the name of creativity.
He also said the government had taken a serious view on complaints of vulgarity and abusive language in the content on OTT platforms and will not hesitate to take tough action to stop this trend.
Earlier in January 2023, Thakur had said that the I&B ministry receives complaints about content on OTT platforms, but almost 95% of grievances are settled at the level of producers, while others get resolved at the second stage of the association of publishers of the content.
The minister said only 1% of complaints reach the inter-departmental committee and it is ensured that strict action is taken in such cases. Thakur said in some cases, content has also been taken down from the platform.
In 2021, notified under section 87 of the IT Act, the Code of Ethics for online news and OTT platforms, the government suggested self-classification of content and a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism for OTT platforms.
The Supreme Court in the year 2021 stated that there should be screening of some shows and web series before they are displayed to the OTT audience.
On the other hand, a number of petitions have being filed against various web series in the past few years. For example, multiple FIRs were registered against the makers of Aashram while petitions were also filed against the release of web series Mirzapur. Earlier, the makers of the web series Tandav were also charged with offenses.
Recently, while observing that that the challenge for enacting appropriate law or guidelines to regulate content on social media and OTT platforms needs urgent attention, the Delhi High Court ruled that the language used in TVF web series 'College Romance' does not pass the "morale decency community test, transgresses into area of obscenity".
It has become necessary for the government to intervene
Sooraj Bhalla, Founder and Director - 91 Films and former founder and CEO of Mates, the entertainment specialist unit of media agency Madison World, believes that the government should predominantly be involved in every business of media. The I&B Ministry is responsible for monitoring such things and since the country has chosen them to be the leaders everyone should respect that.
Speaking on similar lines, Sonu Tyagi, Founder and Director, Approach Entertainment, said that it has become necessary now for the government to intervene as the audience is being served vulgarity, absurdity, nudity and semi-porn in the name of entertainment. Just in the name of creative freedom and reality, one can't have abnormal characters all around.
“I find most of the content on OTTs absurd, as I mostly can't relate to them in any way. We also have positive things and characters in society but watching content on OTTs looks like we only have crime, sex and abnormality in this world. All this is being done just to titillate the audience. It also impacts the mental well-being of the audience in a negative way as they start taking it as reality,” Tyagi added.
According to Bhalla, this intervention will have zero impact on the content creation process.
“In my opinion, creativity doesn't get jarred by guidelines. But freedom of expression is a different context. Today, there is an ample amount of content not even on OTT but on other platforms as well so we need to choose what we need to consume and the government should have guidelines on those processes,” Bhalla added.
Tyagi believes that the government's intervention will definitely improve the quality of content as the filmmakers will also show the positive things in society today.
“We can't show weird things in the name of creative freedom. Creative freedom comes with a responsibility. Do we want to show crime, blood and sex all around or do we also have normal human beings in this world? Strict censorship is not required but monitoring is definitely required so that we can have good positive content as well,” he added.
Recently, the Netflix series Rana Naidu received quite a backlash for its abusive and sexual content.
A couple of weeks ago, the Delhi High Court had ruled that the language used in the TVF web series 'College Romance' does not pass the "morale decency community test, transgresses into the area of obscenity". Back then, the Court had asked the government to take steps to check the language on such platforms.
If profanity is reduced brands would be happy to participate
Bhalla said that brands to a certain extent may be a bit iffy but there are multiple examples in the past where controversies have actually led to box office successes but that has not affected the brands from thinking about whether they should participate or not.
“In the AVOD model, brands have their own filters through which they look at every content piece. They anyway have a very strong team externally and internally as agency, content and media partners and creative agencies to guide them in this direction,” he added.
Furthermore, he went on to say that if profanity is reduced for specific purposes, more brands would be happy to participate because that's one thing that they don't like to be surrounded with. They want to be in a cleaner environment.
Tyagi believes that brands also have a responsibility towards the public and society. If the brands are cautious about what kind of content they want to associate with, it will help the industry and audience in a positive way as they will get to watch good content and stories. Brands should be associating themselves with good stories rather than titillating content.
Censorship of any kind alters final output, guidelines limit creativity
On the contrary, Appurva Hooda Bhoker, Head of Business and Expansion at Dot Media, said that when it comes to OTTs, the one thing that sets them apart from mainstream media is their ability to create impactful content with complete creative freedom.
“While there has to be an internal self-regulation before you create such content, we believe that extreme censorship of any kind not only alters the essence of the final output but also hinders the trajectory of stirring real conversations about grave issues that are the need of the hour,” she said.
Furthermore, she added, “Cinema has and always should reflect the undercurrents of reality and raw humanness in its truest form. Censoring the one platform wherein this liberty is exercised is not something we condone.”
Striking a similar tone, Vaibhav Modi, Founder-Director of Victor Tango Entertainment, said that for decades, creators and content makers used to look for opportunities to tell more kinds of stories and more diverse topics etc and with OTT it has become possible.
“It will be better if the government doesn't intervene because that keeps the freedom of creativity and expression alive. If you look at creative expression, guidelines do limit creativity but at the same time storytelling is a very social phenomenon and it impacts our families and behaviour in our society. So, some sort of guidelines are good but it totally depends on how stringent those guidelines are and how limiting they are. As a director, I feel these regulations should come from within ourselves as a creative community and not from the government,” Modi stated.
He also said that censorship has been in this country for many years and it's not that the content makers have stopped making good cinema because of that. It's not an absolute state of limiting creativity.
Censorship or regulation being applied to OTT content should be done in consultation with some experts from the producer fraternity and OTT platforms so that it is an inclusive policy. If it's a one-sided policy crafted by only bureaucrats it might be counter-productive, Modi added.
Freedom of speech to be curbed if the government intervenes
Bhoker said, “We definitely believe that creative liberty, freedom of speech and cinema-driven conversations will be curbed if the government intervenes in the process.”
Having said that, everyone involved in the creative process when it comes to an OTT production should have an internal dialogue and understand the repercussions of the product they set out to create. Rather than sensationalising public concerns, having a sensitive, honest approach towards them will not only help the cause but also reduce the need for government intervention, she added.
Controversial content and brand association
Bhoker believes that “While some brands might consider non-regulated content an issue when it comes to their personal interest, most brands, we believe, have shifted their perspectives on the same.”
Marketing has, over the last couple of years, grown and become a much more transparent process than it used to be and associating with content that is controversial, stirs thought and moves people is likely to be equally beneficial for the brand as well, she stated.
Modi said that the brands are engaging with the audience much more on social media today than integrations into the content. “I don't think brands will be shy of associating with any content although they have a compass of what values they want to connect with.”
A scriptwriter/content developer, speaking under conditions of anonymity, said that OTT platforms should continue to be self-censored by the content creators and platforms themselves, the government should not interfere with content on OTT.
"The state is anyway controlling films via the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), we don't need yet another government body to regulate what is created online," he stated.