Broadcast networks have been in the crosshairs of the moral, and even the actual, police for decades, for the alleged crime of airing content which offends people’s sensibilities, for legal, moral, religious, or a sheaf of other reasons. This vulnerability can impose serious costs upon a broadcaster. In India, for instance, content that falls foul of the code prescribed under the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, could in extremis result in a broadcast channel losing its licence.
As early as the 1950s, broadcaster networks in the United States, recognising the perils of airing offensive content, started putting in place a system of checks and balances to catch offensive content before it was aired. Since then, Broadcast Standards & Practices (BS&P), the formal term for this activity, has been an indispensable unit in every network of consequence.
In India, the credit for introducing a formal BS&P process into broadcasting goes to STAR. Soon after launch in the early 1990s, STAR used templates, codes and processes, substantially adopted from FOX Networks in the US, to build out India’s first BS&P code and team. The idea was embraced, more or less across the board, within just a few years, and is nearly ubiquitous across broadcast networks today.
The slip through every checkpoint
Last week, the communications profession has been in a lather, about the hideously offensive advertising campaign by a deodorant brand, which appeared to actively promote rape culture. What has left everyone perplexed is how such an egregiously offensive advertisement was able to slip through every checkpoint, in its long journey from script to airing. Right-thinking broadcasters would readily agree that one or more BS&P team in one or more networks failed abysmally to do its job.
There was nothing subtle in the story; even a Standards & Practices (S&P) novice would have spotted, and stopped it. What might explain the lapse? BS&P occupies an unenviable position. The two departments with which it has the highest interaction, content and advertising sales, see it as prissy and meddlesome, getting in the way of exciting content or exciting revenue opportunities. Broadcast organisations have evolved structural solutions to mitigate the internecine strife which this often engenders. An internal system of dispute escalation, reaching top management, ensures that a fair and transparent process resolves tangles and obviates crises before they arise.
What could prejudice or weaken the BS&P system?
Audiences can be fickle. Content producers work tirelessly to bring them in, and keep them loyal. When they begin to fade away, though, content makers begin to get desperate, and their worst instincts: of vulgarity, salaciousness, gratuitous violence; using sensation and dopamine jolts to hang on to the audience, come to the fore.
Even those senior authorities, tasked with ensuring that S&P is observed in letter and spirit, are at this point, desperate enough to look the other way.
Advertising sales straddles the inside and outside worlds for a broadcaster. It must canvass clients and agencies to generate ROs, release orders, for advertising time. And ensure that campaigns which they fought hard to book, are aired on time and in full on their channels. These two activities: creating content which builds and retains audiences, and selling media time, which monetises them, become the critical bookends which keep the network alive and healthy. Sometimes, when crises loom, the S&P conscience keeper is an easy sacrifice in a climate of desperation.
Re-examine the process
It is not this writer’s case that, in the current instance, events unfolded exactly per the scenarios we just looked at. Lapses of reason can happen even with the soundest systems and highest standards of rectitude. However, if, and when, they do happen, an opportunity to re-examine the BS&P process presents itself. Importantly, this must involve a no-holds-barred examination of the internal escalation ladder. The last stop of this process is usually a C-suite occupant, ideally with minimal involvement with either content or ad sales, the CFO for instance, or the General Counsel. The latter has obvious advantages, having a sound understanding of the legal and statutory framework which governs the business. Formally, or at least informally, the business head or CEO is, in this as in all other issues, the final port of call.
It is imperative that all these authorities have high familiarity with applicable codes, and how to apply them. In much the same way as businesses now mandatorily train and retrain all employees on topics Diversity & Inclusion, Sexual Harassment or Safety, Health & Environment, S&P training ought to become a mandatory feature for everyone involved in the two operating functions, and the entire escalation matrix.
This would be a good time for industry bodies like NBDA and IBDF to stand up and emphatically recommit themselves, on behalf of all their member broadcasters, to S&P compliance, in letter and spirit. In passing, some further unsolicited advice, this time for advertisers. Large consumer businesses are now creating brand communication content, spanning a wide range of legacy and digital media, at a furious pace. If S&P provides a well-tested, generally reliable, mechanism for keeping broadcast content on the level, it is a ready-made process waiting for adoption in new use cases. We may have arrived at the moment where AS&P- Advertiser Standards & Practices, could become a thing. And maybe, ASCI - the Advertising Standards Councl of India, could help make it happen.