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In name of educating viewers, anti-tobacco norms can kill OTT content: Experts

The lack of industry awareness and consultation has made it even more challenging for OCCPs to comply with these regulations within 90 days, experts said

The guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which mandate online curated content platforms (OCCP) to include anti-tobacco warnings, pose practical challenges when it comes to their implementation, as per experts.  

Several industry experts who had come together as part of a panel hosted by Empower India said that these rules are expected to have a notable impact on the overall consumer viewing experience and raise concerns about potential restrictions on creativity and artistic freedom. 

During a virtual media briefing, hosted by Empower India, to deliberate on the repercussions of the mandate on consumers' viewing experience, artistic expression, and overall OTT business, K Giri, Secretary General, Empower India, said “It is absolutely mandatory to understand the platform, its stakeholders and technology before announcing a policy. In the case of OCCPs, the Union Health Ministry has not done due diligence and created guidelines that are going to impact the entire sector and the viewers. In the name of educating the viewers on the ill effects of tobacco consumption, what has been announced can kill the OTT content.”

Tamanna Sharma, Economics Associate, Koan Advisory Group, spoke about the practical difficulties in implementing the new norms, such as creating and incorporating warnings in multiple languages. 

“This will definitely pose a challenge due to the growing trend of dubbing multiple movies in various languages. For instance, if a movie is originally produced in Hindi, it necessitates crafting the warning message in Hindi and subsequently replicating it in multiple other languages for films in regional dialects,” Sharma stated. 

Prahlad Kakar, Ad Guru, said, “I think overall this is a very futile exercise because, despite all the statutory warnings, there is an increase in the number of people that are smoking. So, obviously, it is not working at all. There is a need for an effective dialogue to address this issue.”

Shreya Suri, Partner, IndusLaw, believes that the manner in which the amendment has developed clearly indicates a lack of inclusion of stakeholders who could have provided valuable insights on the existing implementation challenges.

“These amendments have left all stakeholders in a fix, as far as implementation is concerned, with much left to interpretation it lacks the required degree of clarification. Further, the one size fits all approach is unreasonable given the clearly distinct and varied nature of ‘programmes’ available across all online curated platforms. The amendments will also have a significant impact on existing contractual arrangements of OTT platforms with title owners and producers, given that while obligation has been imposed on OTTs, the rights to editing and making changes to the content to the extent which appears to be mandated by these amendments would ordinarily remain only with producers,” Suri said. 

“What will also need to be evaluated is the capability of implementing these changes across all modes of access to these platforms, including via handheld devices, as well as how this will be perceived in the context of users having paid for premium or ad-free subscriptions. There is a definitive need for the ministry to relook at these guidelines in consultation with all industry participants,” she added. 

Kakkar highlighted that previous attempts at implementing statutory warnings have proven ineffective, as evidenced by the increasing number of individuals who smoke. It is crucial to acknowledge that people consuming content are consenting adults. 

“Implementing these compliance measures would impose a significant burden on the OTT industry, potentially compromising the global reach and impact of Indian-originated content, thus undermining our soft power. Instead, we must focus on identifying substantial solutions to tackle the issue of smoking, going beyond just token steps,” he added. 

Sharma believes that the OTT content is predominantly consumed on small 5–6-inch mobile screens, which provides limited space for incorporating additional warnings without compromising the viewing experience.

She also added, “It is imperative to bring all OTT platforms under the purview of existing Self-Regulatory Bodies (SRBs), ensuring a standardised adherence to rules and regulations across the board. Additionally, there is a pressing need for enhanced implementation of age-gating and age verification measures on OTT platforms to prevent inappropriate content from reaching underage viewers.”

Sharma, who is also a part of the study by Koan Advisory Group - 'The Effectiveness of Tobacco Disclaimers on OTT Content Services', said, “Our whole point of the study was to see will these additional warnings be effective. So, in the survey, we covered around 1,900 OTT viewers. Almost 66% of them or two out of every three respondents said that they are already aware of the age ratings and content descriptions present on OTT platforms which is something that is well established in the IT Rules, 2021. These IT Rules were created to ensure that users are able to make a well-informed choice about the content they are trying to watch.” 

“We also tried to assess whether these additional warnings would impede the enjoyment of the viewing experience. Moreover, the majority of viewers expressed that they perceive OTT platforms as a more personal viewing experience compared to television. Therefore, if these additional warnings are introduced beyond age ratings and content descriptions, it would ultimately detract from the viewers' experience and have little to no meaningful impact,” she added. 

The experts also highlighted that meeting the requirements of the set mandates would entail a laborious and costly process of reviewing and editing existing content thereby diverting valuable resources from content creation and platform development. The lack of industry awareness and consultation has made it even more challenging for OCCPs to comply with these regulations within 90 days. 

Additionally, the logistics of including multiple warnings in different languages across a vast library of content is burdensome, particularly for smaller OTT platforms. These stringent requirements may also deter international creators from including warnings in their content, resulting in popular international titles being unavailable in India. 

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