While some say self-regulation is a positive step for online video platforms, others are urging for a rethink
The debate whether online video platforms should censor or regulate their content has been going on for a while. The recent development on this front is that as many as nine leading Online Curated Content Providers voluntarily signed a self-regulatory code of best practices under the aegis of Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). The platforms include Netflix, Hotstar, Jio, Voot, Zee5, Arre, SonyLIV, ALT Balaji and Eros Now.
In conversation with Moneycontrol, a few industry players talked about the impact of self-regulation on over the top (OTT) platforms, on business and whether this will give way to piracy.
“Eros Now has opted to follow the model of self-regulation, which is different from censorship of any kind. We have collaborated with other OTT services under the aegis of IAMAI to draw up and implement a Code of Best Practices for self-regulation. Self-regulation is about empowering the consumer to make informed choices. This also enables Eros Now to offer more engaging and cutting-edge content to its viewers and subscribers. We believe this strategy is a lot more progressive, keeping in mind the form of Internet video, giving the power back to the viewers and will benefit the eco-system at large,” said Ali Hussein, COO Eros Digital.
Due to the absence of a regulator in India, OTTs self-regulated their content in India. Netflix follows minimal self-regulation across the world. On the other hand, Spuul complies with laws of the land they operate in. However, this meant no standard norm for regulating content.
This became a point of concern for many in India who took offence to the depiction of nudity, sex, violence and messaging that criticize the country and its leaders.
Last year, Netflix’s first Indian original series Sacred Games found itself in trouble when a PIL (public interest litigation) was filed in Delhi High Court. One of the leading actors of the series, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, delivered a dialogue calling the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi fattu. The Hindi word was loosely translated as p*** for the English subtitles. And this led to an outrage.
Back in 2015, the platform had censored the film Angry Indian Goddesses and also delayed the release of the movie.
However, with the self-regulation code in place, the signatories will be prohibited from showing content banned by Indian courts, “disrespects” the national emblem and flag, “outrages” religious sentiment, “promotes” terrorism or violence against the state and shows children in sexual acts. A redressal mechanism has also been set up for customer complaints.
On whether this will impact the online video market, Vikram Mehra, MD Saregama India (producer at Yoodlee Films), said, “To say that censorship will affect the online market is to assume that OTT platforms is the place people go to to find ‘objectionable’ uncensored content. This is not the case. I believe OTT platforms allow creative people and writers a platform where they can express their work without commercial trappings. if censorship is done with reasonable guidelines, I don’t see it impacting the online video market.”
He added, “The onus of censoring and the extent of censorship lies with each individual platform. For content creators like us, we will go by the sanctity of the story and how best we can bring it to the screen without compromising on the creative vision. Case in point: two of Yoodlee Films — Ajji and Ascharyachakit — had subject matters which were edgy and traversed unconventional routes. Both films are now available on Netflix because the films were true to its milieu and reflected our time.”
According to a report by media research and consulting firm Media Partners Asia (MPA), the Indian online video industry is expected to touch $1.6 billion in revenue by 2022, from the estimated $340 million in 2017. The growing appetite of Indian consumers and binge watching is strengthening the online video market in India.
Will regulating content hurt business?
According to Hussein, “Self-regulation makes a consumer aware of the type of content he/she is likely to watch and carries appropriate disclaimers for guidance. Hence, there is no censorship of content. The consumer is offered a choice and is made aware of the content type so that he/she can make informed choices. The OTT services work on the pull rather than push technology and hence the consumer is king. We believe that the roll out of this new understanding will further enhance consumer viewership across platforms.”
Mehra is of the opinion that “if the quality of content available on platforms is superior, and the platforms are mindful of the creative expression of a writer or director while drafting the censorship rules it wants to adhere to, it won’t affect the (OTT) industry so much.”
Hussein also clarified that “the premise of censorship and self-regulation is starkly deviant.” He added, “We have precedence with the model operational in advertising and broadcast industries. The Code of Best Practices is an enabler. This is going to support all aspects of the value chain including viewers/subscribers, advertisers, OTT brands and scale business.”
Some say it is the uncensored content that brought viewers in large numbers to the online video platforms and any kind of censorship or regulation could hurt the chances of OTT platforms to rake in big numbers.
Lust Stories, that explored love, sex and relationship in modern India, another Netflix original, raised many eyebrows. However, the film became the most-watched original in terms of percentage in its opening month in June.
Another point of concern with regulation of content is it may give way to piracy. Experts are worried that censoring content will encourage piracy as push people will seek out to uncensored material elsewhere. This, in turn, may also lead to cancelling subscriptions.
But Hussein thinks otherwise. “Globally, piracy is inversely related to ease of access to quality entertainment and efficiency in terms of speed to market. Given the high-quality screens and mobile phones consumers today carry with them, combined with falling data costs, people are keen to watch great quality content, in HD with additional features such as 5.1 surround sound etc. all on their mobile phones/other screens, at a place and time of their choice.”
“I believe, the consumer of today would prefer to watch good quality content on his/her phone or smart TV, rather than poor quality pirated stuff. Again here self-regulation and not censorship is going to provide the power back to the viewer and in fact provide an additional reason to use Eros Now rather than opt for piracy as an option,” he said.
Self-regulation of content by OTT platforms is being seen as a move to stave off government intervention and also a move to say no to censorship.
“OTT services are uniquely positioned to offer a wide array of choices to consumers, which were unheard of prior to this and simply not feasible in traditional media, given the time and bandwidth constraints. OTT services certainly do not need censorship of any sort, as they carry the unique ability to allow individual viewers to connect directly via separate devices to consume targeted content which is in the nature of private viewing, within a private space, accessed anytime on-demand, as per the convenience of end users,” said Hussein.
On the other hand, Mehra believes that “some sensitivities of the country and its political and social fabric needs to be adhered to, but users shouldn’t feel short changed when they consume the content on them”.
While some say self-regulation is a positive step for online video platforms, others are urging them to rethink their decision. Internet Freedom Foundation is of the opinion that the self-regulatory mechanism will hurt freedom of speech and consumer choice.They have also written a letter to IAMAI saying self-regulation is bad for online streaming platforms.