With the government mandating the provision of a Content Evaluation Committee to be set up by broadcasters in the proposed Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, the broadcast industry termed it a form of pre-censorship.
The CEC will encompass all the platforms including OTT and the broadcasters are concerned that the government will have more control over the content.
However, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is of the view that comparing CEC with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) or calling it pre-censorship is a distortion by some people.
“CEC is a form of self-regulation as it will be constituted by the broadcaster, who will appoint its members of their own choice. CEC is just a layer to ensure transparency at the broadcaster’s end. The government is keeping itself at arm's length from any possible interference by suggesting a CEC,” Sanjiv Shankar, Joint Secretary (Broadcasting), I&B, told BestMediaInfo.com.
With rising concerns related to the objectionable depiction of incidents or usage of language, people sought to bring TV and OTT content under CBFC or any other similar institution. People argued that by the time self-regulation or any government intervention comes in, the damage is already done.
The joint secretary said that the CEC would be better placed to address this issue as it puts the onus on the broadcasters.
When asked if the requirement of CEC will be at the network level or channel level, Shankar said that it has been left to the broadcasters to decide.
There will be a negative list in CEC where a few genres will be exempted. For example, LIVE programmes. Movies could be another genre exempted from CEC as they already carry CBFC certification.
Broadcast industry veterans flagged that already TV entertainment was reduced to saas-bahu and the broadcasters were largely refraining from experimenting with their content due to regulatory burdens.
An industry expert pointed out that all the broadcasters were and are still playing safe.
“While Hindi GECs are surviving largely on Saas-Bahu serials, English entertainment channels were operating with a beep-beep sound. Coupled with the onslaught by OTT, English GECs and Movie Channels died,” the expert commented.
When asked if CEC would further discourage the broadcast sector from experimenting with content, the senior bureaucrat dismissed it.
“When there is good content, subscribers will return to TV and that will encourage more experiments and investments,” said Shankar. “There are programmes like KBC, Indian Idol, Khattron Ke Khiladi and Bigg Boss. All are distinct but they are doing well on linear TV.”
Besides regulatory issues, broadcasters have maintained that the lack of experimentation with the content is also due to the advertisers who have played safe.
“Only a few of them supported experiments in content IPs on television. For example, Tata Safari sponsored two seasons of “24” on Colors which was the most expensive television show at that time. But somehow, the show did not garner the huge TRPs required to continue. And, such experiments stopped on TV. A similar piece of content works well on the OTT platform. What does regulation have to do with this?” a senior broadcast veteran said.
Indian broadcasters lack the courage when it comes to produce critical documentaries and there were virtually no such documentaries made in the last decade.
When asked if documentaries are brought under CEC in the aftermath of the BBC Documentary row, the joint secretary said there is no connection whatsoever.
“If a broadcaster is producing a documentary however critical that could be of government or society, which is vetted by its own content evaluation committee, who can stop them from broadcasting it?” JS Shankar said.
On the accusations that the CEC will prove to be an accelerator for the decline of the television sector, Shankar said that unless the broadcasters improve the content, the turnaround will not happen.
“They can follow the programme code and advertisement code and bring their OTT content on linear TV as well.”
“Legacy technologies are facing challenges from new technologies. Behavioural change is not only a function of regulation. TV as a favourite platform for content consumption has given way to mobile,” Shankar added.
When asked how will India become a global content hub after so many layers and regulations, Shankar said that instead of calling it regulatory obligations, we see it as setting the process to meet the emerging challenges for the broadcast sector.
“The government remains committed to a free business environment and the proposed Broadcast Advisory Council is a further evolution of the self-regulation regime. The majority of its members will be non-government including the chairperson. This will replace the Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC), which was a government body,” he said.
Moreover, Shankar added that the multi-layered filters are not for every piece of content. For example, the Broadcast Advisory Council will come into the picture when there is a dispute which was not addressed by the first and second layers of the self-regulation mechanism.
Shankar emphasised that the government is going the extra mile to strengthen self-regulation and it has empowered the self-regulating bodies.
Denying that CEC will add to the compliance burden, Shankar said that in the trade-off between regulation and adding more value to the whole process, we have to see what is more important.
“In any case, the legal and S&P teams evaluate each piece of content for any possible backlash. Broadcasters just need to publish their names. It is just that there will be a standing committee whose members will be known to the public. It will encourage transparency at the broadcaster’s end,” said Shankar adding that the CEC will have a check on those content creators who have an opaque system and at times were pushing content with certain motives under the garb of freedom of speech and expression.