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For Netflix, Zee5 and other OTTs, will coming under I&B Ministry mean content censorship?

Experts say that too much regulation will mean people looking for options like Torrent to get uncensored content and it could also impact the subscriber base of the OTT platforms.

November 13, 2020 / 06:46 PM IST

Reactions are mixed regarding the Centre's order on bringing online content providers under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

While some experts believe that the move will impact the creative freedom that video streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Zee5 are enjoying, others think that it is a step in the right direction considering the objectionable content some of the OTT players are streaming online.

"The regulation of online content providers is a terrible mistake. It will make for terrible content decisions that will hinder any innovation happening in Indian storytelling," said Utkarsh Sinha, MD, Bexley Advisors, a boutique investment bank focused on early-stage deals in tech and media.

Ask N. Chandramouli, CEO, TRA, a consumer analytics and brand insights company, what the move means for video OTTs. "When any sector comes under regulation it becomes a limitation for that sector," he says.

"The move can limit the type of content that is allowed, and anything that does not appeal to the existing authority may be censored. OTT is becoming the dominant access to content, and it is important that no government body alone prescribes which content should be shown. It not only limits creative freedom, which in turn affects audience engagement with the OTT platform," Chandramouli pointed out.

Experts say that too much regulation will mean people looking for options like Torrent to get uncensored content. It could also impact the subscriber base of the OTT platforms.

"OTT platforms have been running substantially well in India so far, and the bringing of OTT under a ministry was unnecessary," he added.

But analyst Karan Taurani who tracks the media and entertainment space closely and is the vice president at Elara Capital thinks that video OTTs coming under the ambit of the ministry may not lead to censorship of content. "However, the ministry may be forming some framework for regulating the OTT space," he said.

He also said that the move is a good starting point to create some sort of level playing field between traditional and digital media.

While TV viewers can raise complaints if the content is objectionable, the same is not the case with digital content. Many viewers have been pointing out the need for regulating OTT content.  Many have also raised objections.

Sacred Games, a show on Netflix had got into trouble after many political parties alleged that the show defamed India's late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Another show called Madam Secretary on Amazon Prime Video had to delete an entire episode after objections were raised for its India version.

According to Sandeep Goyal, Chairman, Mogae Media, a marketing agency, a lot of the stuff on OTT was bordering on soft porn.

"The intervention and regulation by the MIB (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) was only a matter of time. I think governmental oversight will ensure that there is lesser sex, nudity, violence and blood. And contrary to popular belief, this does not mean reducing creative freedom, only keeping down needless titillation," he said.

Adding to this, Sanjay Bachani, Founder, Film Karavan, said, "In India, it is important to keep sensitive content in check. So, it might be a good thing that OTT platforms will come under the ministry of Information and Broadcasting, but overall we don’t know to what extent these rules will get in the way of telling stark stories authentically."

This is why some experts believe that "OTT needs to be as unregulated as possible and that the boom in creativity in content will be affected the moment over-regulation picks up.

"While the notification issued by the government is unclear, it does seem to indicate a change in its thinking. Earlier, the government was in favour of self-regulation and had articulated its stance against censorship or any form of intervention," said Hemant Mehta, Managing Director and Chief Strategy Officer Insights Division, Kantar.

He hopes that "the current notification would not lead to video content being reviewed and certified – as censorship narrows the creative freedom as well as the expanse of subjects and stories that can be narrated.”

Sharing similar sentiments, Karan Bedi, CEO, MX Player said, “We want to ensure this act not only takes cognisance of the nature of the content being released, but also ensures that we safeguard creativity in this rapidly growing sector.”

Harshita Gaur, who played the role of Dimpy in the second season of Mirzapur, an Amazon Prime Video show, said, "As long as it is only certification, till that point it is okay. But if this means censorship of content then that would be a disadvantage because the whole purpose of web was to tell stories in the most raw form, whether it is related to a city or to an industry or social issues."

Even Ankur Rathee who has worked in web series like Taish, Undekhi, Four More Shots Please said, "Censorship of any cinematic medium is a censorship of ideas and that is a very slippery slope. Certifying content for age groups I can get behind, but restricting filmmakers’ freedom to be uninhibited storytellers is wrong. To get in between an artist and their audience under the guise of “protecting the moral fabric of society” is, ironically, detrimental to the cultural preservation and evolution that films facilitate."

This is why many felt that self-regulation was the best regulation for digital content.

In fact, in September this year Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) had announced a code called the Universal Self-Regulation Code for Online Curate Content Providers (OCCP) in India.

As many 17 leading OTT platforms had come together and had formulated a framework for classification of content as well as a grievance redressal mechanism via an advisory panel.

According to Sinha, the only viable approach is the route taken by IAMAI (voluntary self-regulation) when it comes to regulating online content.

Maryam Farooqui
first published: Nov 11, 2020 06:23 pm