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Indian television is often accused of pandering to the lowest common denominator when it comes to standards of content, thanks to the intense competition for viewers among the more than 400 non-news channels.

However, it is also competition and the need to stand out that is leading to a change in this trend. Slowly but steadily, content producers are learning to address demand creatively. A television entertainment viewer today has a wide variety of quality content to select from. More localized and customized content is also available to meet distinct preferences.

The change is also due to the efforts of the industry to self-regulate and address complaints. The News Broadcasters Association, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) and the Advertising Standards Council of India are among those playing a proactive role in pointing out slippages in news, non-news and advertising content, respectively.

IBF set up the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC) as part of efforts to adopt self-regulatory guidelines and a programme code. The council consists of eminent people, members of national-level statutory commissions and industry stakeholders with a retired Supreme Court judge as chairman.

The IBF guidelines provide for a two-tier mechanism for ensuring compliance with content code and certification rules. Self-regulation at the individual TV channel level is the responsibility of the broadcasters concerned. At the next level, BCCC examines complaints about television programmes received from viewers or other sources, including the ministry of information and broadcasting and non-governmental organizations. The council will check whether the programmes conform to guidelines.

IBF’s 52 members representing 250 channels run scrolling text on screen inviting viewers to send complaints to the council. This resulted in 3,441 complaints between 20 June and 16 December last year. Among these, only 479 specific complaints were found valid and taken up by BCCC during the course of eight meetings held in the period. The discarded complaints were mostly suggestions or requests or not in the council’s purview as they related to advertising, films, news or those who weren’t IBF members.

In 23 cases, covering 161 complaints, the council asked channel representatives to take action as the self-regulation content code was seen to be violated. In almost all cases, the council decided that the channel’s reply and follow-up action were satisfactory and further action was not required.

For example, 58 complaints were received against the show Gajab Desh ki Ajab Kahani on NDTV Imagine, regarding allegedly indecent clothes, obscene language and vulgar content in some episodes. After reviewing the programme, the council told the channel not to show it during general viewing hours (5am to 11pm) as it was inappropriate for children and young viewers.

Twelve complaints against the serial Muddu Bidda on Zee Telugu related to the perception that it urged children to indulge in violence and also affected them adversely. BCCC found the content objectionable and called the channel for a hearing. The council told the channel to be careful while telecasting such content and avoid such material in the case of children.

The council considered 35 complaints against the show Grind on MTV and 31 complaints against Comedy Show on Sony. However, BCCC was of the view that the programmes prima facie didn’t appear to violate the IBF guidelines and decided not to uphold the complaints.

The channels have generally been accepting of the council’s findings and have sought to adhere by the IBF code. Clearly, the council has been quite tolerant and patient with channels, especially since the self-regulation system is quite new to the industry.

Viewers finally have a forum to express their grievances, and channels get to listen to objections from the people who watch. This is already reflecting in the changing focus of programming, not just in the tackling of challenging themes and issues, but also the more creative and sensitive depiction of such matters within the self-regulation content codes adopted by IBF.

Hopefully, greater audience feedback will mould television entertainment in ways that address what is in the interests of the people and not just what interests people.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

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