I have been writing about regulatory issues to do with the television sector in India and would like to highlight recent efforts for introducing protective regulatory mechanisms that are urgently required to bring some semblance and credibility back to television content today.
In my last column, I argued for a regulatory structure of “co-regulation” that could work for our dynamic television sector. Such structures, however, are usually based on generally used mechanisms such as codes of broadcasting practice and complaint-addressable procedures.
Healthy competition postulates a level playing field in which all players are bound by the same transparent rules. Such rules curb licentiousness but offer adequate space for creative expression. It is perverse to view them as moral policing. As society and media evolve, the rules of the game change. For example, in India, kissing onscreen was taboo at one time.
The core issue is not the necessity of rules and regulation but about who makes and enforces them. It is clear that existing media regulations, especially those concerning content, are archaic.
Also See Suggested Scheduling of Programmes (Graphic)
Also Read PN Vasanti’ s earlier columns
The absence of a separate regulator for broadcast and new media has opened the space for the government to intervene in an ad hoc manner. Last year, the government directed AXN channel to go off air for a period of three months for what was considered to be obscene programming. More recently, it banned an advertisement for a men’s deodorant that was also considered obscene.
Like most governments try to do, the current United Progressive Alliance government asked the information and broadcasting ministry to address the wide gap in content regulation of broadcast media. The idea is to use the government’s powers to protect public interest by giving directives to channels (much like directives were given in the AXN case or the deodorant advertisement one). These directives are few and could be considered as arbitrary.
The ministry is also looking at various options for content regulation including self-regulation and co-regulation. As part of this, in 2005, it appointed a committee comprising industry representatives, independent experts and civil society for drafting a Content Code (Self-regulation Guidelines for the Broadcasting Sector) to serve as a basis for “self-regulation”. As part of this committee, I have been privy to the debate and discussions that finally led to these guidelines and the code.
This document lays down a self-regulatory mechanism that can be operationalized through two tiers. The first tier is the broadcast service provider who will create internal gatekeepers for content audit. The second tier is envisaged to be an industry body which will also co-opt civil society members for receiving complaints and acting upon them. The idea of content code and regulation is not new but what is new is the mechanism for self-regulation and co-regulation by an industry vigilance. The guidelines and code suggest that all programmes be scheduled with an awareness of the likely audience in mind. Each broadcaster is expected to categorize their programmes based on theme, the subject treatment and audio-visual presentation, and slot it accordingly (see table below). Following the watershed model, programmes suitable to children (categorized as “U” signifying universal viewership) can be scheduled at all times. From 8 in the evening, “U/A” category of programmes can be viewed under parental guidance. From 11 in the night to 4 in the morning, adult programming can be scheduled. But even in adult programming, there are certain restrictions for television (such as pornography, promotion of drugs, smoking, tobacco, solvents and alcohol). Through the use of categorization and appropriate scheduling, people may protect themselves and their families from viewing offensive programming without infringing on the viewing options of others.
Additionally, the code envisages a redress system (complaint redress procedure) to take into account audience and community concerns about depictions that incite or condone violence, or that portray certain people in a demeaning manner. This suggested “Content Code”, however, is now under wraps, after much pressure from various media organizations, and has remained as yet just another document on the ministry’s website. One contentious issue that has been raised by some media professionals pertains to the regulation of the news and current affairs genre.
My next column will discuss that and the need for uniform code across genres.
P.N. Vasanti is director of the New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization, Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org