The debate over the regulation of over-the-top (OTT) content gained momentum after I&B Minister Anurag Thakur raised pitch against excess abusive language and nudity in Indian OTT shows and gathered support from different quarters of society including Bollywood.
When asked about the way forward, industry experts told BestMediaInfo.com that rather than the government typically certifying or censoring OTT content, industry bodies should handle this responsibility and provide an audience grievance redressal mechanism.
As of today, two self-regulatory bodies exist in the country- the Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF)-led Digital Media Content Regulatory Council (DMCRC) and IAMAI-led Digital Publishers Content Grievances Council (DPCGC).
Therefore, experts from the industry opine that the government should not intervene directly but allow these bodies to carry out their job.
Ashish Golwalkar, an independent media consultant and the former Head of Content, Sony, Digital Business and SET, said, “Television as an industry has been doing quite well with respect to self-regulation. The Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) has done a fantastic job in terms of regulating this kind of content. This happened at some point in time when the government wanted to have film-like censorship on TV. Later, the industry realised what it may lead to and then they themselves came forward and established certain norms and structures or processes wherein any viewer can complain to a particular body and there is a proper redressal system.”
“Doing similar things for OTT platforms is a good idea. I don't think government regulating content is a good idea but if OTT platforms and stakeholders come together and form a body that can have the audience redressal mechanism as it is in the BCCC. This step can avoid the interference of an external party to censor the content,” he added.
Meanwhile, a highly placed industry source told BestMediaInfo.com, “A self-regulatory body for TV rolled out in 2009 which became as regressive as the CBFC. As a result of this, all our Hindi and English channels became ‘beep’ channels and OTT brought in more English content to the platforms.”
Talking about OTT platforms, a top executive at a broadcast network said that there are two groups advocating for the regulation of OTT content: those focused on economic regulation and those focused on content.
“Those in favour of economic regulation, including DPOs and telcos, argue that the same rules should apply to all similar services. DPOs assert that there is currently no economic regulation in place for OTTs, while telcos contend that OTT platforms are utilising their bandwidth without paying them. However, this is not entirely accurate as the voice business used to be dominated by telcos, whereas data has now taken over, resulting in a multi-fold increase in their business. Thus, it is incorrect to suggest that telcos are losing out because of OTT content,” the source stated.
The executive added that this approach is not helpful as it limits consumer choice and ultimately harms the end-user. “So, right now because of this skewed regulatory paradigm everybody is opting for OTT. Therefore, it would be better for DPOs to advocate for regulatory reform of their own sector rather than trying to bring other sectors into that fold,” he said.
He went on to state that individuals who have failed as producers or directors, or who are unable to create high-quality content, and are not receiving enough projects from OTT companies have formed their own lobby.
“In developed countries, the government does not typically certify or censor content, but rather industry bodies handle this responsibility. For example, in the United States, an industry body certifies movies, rather than the government. It is questionable why bureaucrats should be responsible for certifying movies, given that they may not have expertise in the subject matter or knowledge of art and storytelling. This approach stems from a colonial past and unfortunately continues in India,” he stated.
If pre-screening of content comes, it may be challenging to determine what is suitable for all audiences
Golwalkar believes that there has been an ongoing debate about the regulation of OTT content, especially as it relates to content that may be considered offensive or harmful to certain audiences.
“One perspective is that the government should regulate OTT content to ensure that it aligns with cultural and societal values. This would involve creating guidelines and laws that OTT platforms must follow to ensure their content is appropriate for audiences. Some potential benefits of such regulation could be better protection of viewers, especially minors, from harmful or offensive content, and a more consistent standard of content quality across all platforms,” he said.
“However, the regulation of OTT content can also have some drawbacks. For example, it may lead to censorship, which could limit freedom of expression and creativity. Additionally, it may be difficult to define what is considered suitable or offensive, as different people may have varying values and beliefs,” Golwalkar added.
Furthermore, he went on to say that on the other hand, if the government chooses not to regulate OTT content, it may be difficult to tackle the issue of harmful or offensive content. In this case, platforms would have more freedom to create content, but viewers may be exposed to inappropriate or harmful content, especially minors. In this scenario, individuals must rely on their discretion when deciding which content to consume.
“While pre-screening may be effective in some cases, it may be difficult to ensure that every piece of content is appropriately screened. Additionally, pre-screening may limit the creative freedom of content creators and could potentially cause delays in releasing content,” he added.
Is a lobby in India pushing for government regulation of OTT players?
According to an industry source, there is a lobby in India that is pushing for government regulation of OTT players. The lobby comprises of legacy players - including unsuccessful producers and directors - as well as theatre owners who see OTT platforms as a threat to their business, DPOs and telecom companies.
The source contends that the regulatory paradigm for OTT should be different from that of cinemas and TVs and that the Indian IT sector's success demonstrates the benefits of a non-regulated industry.
“The IT sector has become the country’s biggest exporter,” he added.
Going back to the time when cinema used to face censorship after Independence, the source said that the Indian government kept the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) intact, though it was renamed as the Central Board of Certification in the early 2000s. However, despite the name change, the board continued to censor films heavily, rather than simply certifying them as suitable for different age groups.
“This led to a lack of creativity and innovation in Indian cinema, with producers and directors restricting themselves to tried and tested methods of making love stories and family stories. While India was the world's leading film industry in terms of quantity, this did not necessarily translate to quality or financial success,” he added.
Abusive content and movie releases on OTT
Golwalkar said that the notion that millennials like abusive and explicit kinds of content is a mere generalisation, as very subsequent generation is smarter than the earlier.
“Also, it is our responsibility to feed content that is appropriate and at the same time there shouldn't be any regulation but the makers have to be very cautious about what and when they are using. I am not in favour of censoring such content but many times I have personally seen that language or particular scenes that do not have any particular importance in the overall screenplay or the story. It's a restraint that the content makers have to exercise,” he added.
During the pandemic, theatre owners faced a difficult situation due to their businesses staying closed. Though theatres were closed, the producers were under pressure to release the film in order to generate income and repay their debts. As a result, many films were released on OTT platforms during this time.
Some theatre owners had complained that a few producers and production houses were colluding with OTTs, creating a monopolistic situation and releasing movies directly on these platforms. The Competition Commission of India (CCI) had conducted a study and found that this situation was temporary and that movies cannot be equated with the small screen.
According to the industry source, there is a persistent lobby that aims to subject OTTs to licensing and regulatory requirements, which could lead to a tariff regulation similar to that of television. However, such treatment would not be beneficial to OTTs.
“Union Minister Anurag Thakur had said that he wanted India to become a global hub but in the same breath he also said that OTTs should not misuse their freedom to produce vulgar content. So, what does he mean by this flip-flop?” the source stated.
Furthermore, he went on to state that the self-regulatory body - BCCC - has data which shows more than 50,000 complaints have been received against Bigg Boss, which is broadcasted on TV.
Some vested interest groups are now targeting OTTs in different ways but the only goal is to bring OTT into economic and content regulation under the government, and it would be a sad thing if it happens, he said.
“Under the IT Rules 2021, there is a three-tier mechanism. First tier is at the company level, second tier is at the industry association level, the third tier is at the Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC). So, the IT Ministry through these IT rules has allowed MIB to regulate OTT content. The last major controversy around OTT content happened against ‘Mirzapur’. So, some time should be given to the IT Rules to become effective. Before it becomes successful how can one say that it's not working?” he questioned.
Speaking about the difference between OTT, TV and Cinema, the industry source stated that both TV and cinema are push content platforms.
“It is individual viewing for OTTs and to have an OTT connection you need to be above 18 years old because when you subscribe to a platform you need to make payment online. For that you need to have a bank account or credit/debit card and people above 18 years old have those. On top of it, unlike TV and cinema, this platform has necessary technological tools that are age gating, content descriptor and categorisation. A parent having a Netflix/Hotstar connection can easily fix parental control, but if that parent is not doing his/her duty, then how can they blame the platform for that? Overall, this is lack of knowledge, lack of sensible debate and then there is too much noise,” he added.
Use of abusive language in web-series/movies is a matter of personal preference
Meanwhile, Golwalkar said that the use of abusive language in web-series and movies is a matter of personal preference and cultural values. While some viewers may find it unnecessary or cringe-worthy, others may find it fitting for the characters or story being portrayed.
However, if there are concerns that such language may be harmful or offensive to certain audiences, there are a few things that can be done to address the issue as per Golwalkar:
Ratings and warnings: OTT platforms can provide ratings and warnings for content that contains abusive language or other potentially sensitive material. This can help viewers make informed choices about what they watch.
Parental controls: Many OTT platforms offer parental control features that allow parents to restrict access to certain content for their children. This can help prevent minors from being exposed to language that may be inappropriate for their age. Self-regulation: Content creators can exercise self-regulation by being mindful of the language used in their work. While they should have creative freedom, they can also choose to avoid excessive or gratuitous use of abusive language.
Feedback mechanisms: OTT platforms can provide feedback mechanisms for viewers to report content that they find offensive or harmful. This can help the platforms identify problematic content and take appropriate action.
Sensitivity training: Content creators and platform employees can undergo sensitivity training to help them better understand the impact of language and other potentially sensitive material on different audiences. This can help them make more informed decisions about the content they produce or allow on their platforms.