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The digital divide: Why GEC-led OTT platforms distanced themselves from independent players

OTT platforms such as Hotstar, Zee5, SonyLiv, Voot and others pulled out of the IAMAI umbrella at the last minute and decided to broaden the purview of IBF to absorb their digital arms to comply with the new IT Rules. Why didn’t the traditional players go ahead with the IAMAI-led self-regulatory body SRB? explains

Till recently, all over-the-top (OTT) players were working together under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) towards a self-regulatory setup to meet the requirements under the new IT rules, 2021.

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The OTT platforms owned by traditional broadcasters, however, pulled out at the last moment and announced the renaming and expansion of the industry body Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) into the Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF) to accommodate their digital streaming assets.

The announcement led to a lot of speculation as to why traditional players have gone their own way. Why didn’t the entire streaming industry come together as one and what’s the point of having two different self-regulators for the same industry? 

Explaining the rationale, a top executive at an OTT platform said there is no dispute between the two bodies and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 allow for multiple regulatory bodies. 

“There is no fight here. We formed a self-regulatory group as IAMAI was moving slow and only discussions were being conducted. In the meantime, we would all become non-compliant with the rules. Then platforms would be held responsible. Multiple regulatory bodies are possible under the IT Rules,” said the official, whose OTT platform is now under IBDF’s self-regulatory body.

While 10 OTT apps—Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, MX Player, Alt Balaji, Arha Media, Firework, Hoichoi, Hungama, Lionsgate Play and Shemaroo—have agreed to stay under IAMAI’s self-regulatory body, eight platforms have committed to join IBDF.

It is interesting to note that there are two different self-regulatory bodies in TV news also – the NBA-led News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) and NBF-led Professional News Broadcasting Standards Organisation (PNBSO).

Asked if multiple regulatory bodies will create confusion and give channels the option to shift to another body if they are dissatisfied with their ruling, another industry official denied its possibility.

“Unlike the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) where we ourselves set up the self-regulatory body, here the government has given a structure for OTT’s self-regulatory bodies to function, and everybody has to function as per the rules. If an OTT player switches to another regulatory body, the government will take action against the body as they form the third tier in this mechanism. The government is monitoring the functioning of these bodies,” he said.

A prominent independent OTT player said the reason TV biggies wanted their own setup for their streaming platforms is that their main business is still GEC-focused and their streaming platforms are not their main source of revenue. “Whereas for us, it is our bread and butter. Also, broadcasters may want to be seen toeing more of a government line so that their traditional source of revenue is never hampered. Hence, they wanted their own setup,” an executive from the platform said.

In the digital news publishing industry, there are two different industry bodies — the Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA) set up by all traditional newspaper and television news channels and Digipub, which has been set up by independent digital news publishers.

It is widely known how the traditional news players-led DNPA sided with the government and lobbied against independent digital players, including news aggregators. So much so that government, while seeking information on compliance of IT Rules, 2021, released a separate form for traditional media’s digital platforms.

Last week, NBA President Rajat Sharma had urged the government to exclude digital news platforms of traditional media from IT Rules, 2021. The message is clear — leave out the established media houses as they are not responsible for what independent news publishers are doing.

“Perhaps, something like this would have triggered IBF to distance themselves from independent OTT players,” the executive from the independent OTT platform said.

A senior executive from the M&E industry dismissed the view of some OTT players that linear broadcasters are keen to mirror the traditional content regulation on TV in the OTT space as fear mongering and motivated, as content code of TV and content code on OTT operate in different spheres as one is governed under the CTN Act and the other by IT Rules. “They are not foolish enough to put themselves under the shackles of the CTN Act. The pure OTT players want to perpetuate this myth to discourage others to join the IBF led body,” the executive said.

Asked about the impact of this digital divide, an industry veteran said any such divide usually benefits the government as independent players have been left on their own fate. “Sadly, the only one on the losing side is content, which is becoming impossible to experiment with amid the extreme social atmosphere,” he added.

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