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NEW DELHI : Ever since the Centre notified the rules to establish a self-regulatory architecture for over-the-top (OTT) platforms, video streaming services went into a self-censorship mode for content to avoid litigation and woo mass-market subscribers.

While OTT platforms have steered clear of political and religious themes, references to castes or caste-related issues are best avoided. All historical figures, especially Hindus, can be treated only as heroes, and nothing negative can be said about them, content producers and OTT executives said.

It is extremely important to censor shows to avoid explicit language and nudity even for bolder themes to ensure no one files a complaint, they said.

“Platforms are high on self-censorship and are contemplating each move they make," Akshay Bardapurkar, founder of OTT platform Planet Marathi, said. “Platforms realized that it is always safe to portray people in a positive light and not get into a controversy. No one has the might to take these things on unless you can operate in some other country," said Bardapurkar who has put on hold a satirical comedy that could ruffle some feathers in the political circles. Bardapurkar said one reason most services are happy to acquire films once they are released in theatres is because they are already approved by the censor board and are not likely to invite trouble.

Content that are being challenged on grounds of racial or communal hatred or violence is expected to continue, said Pranav Srivastava, partner at Phoenix Legal. Similarly, the government may intensify its scrutiny of content promoting fake news or those perceived as against national interest, he added. “More than the authorities, streaming services are mindful of not upsetting audiences to expand their subscriber base. OTT consumption trends and audiences have evolved over the last few years and not just owing to families spending a lot more time together," Rachita Arya, senior vice-president, OTT content at OML Entertainment, said. The platform has produced shows like Pushpavalli and Lakhon Mein Ek for Amazon Prime Video.

“Most platforms noticed that through entertainment, audiences sought love, escapism and connection with others, and this has reflected in their content selection themes as well. Besides, the political environment, too, has reinforced platforms wanting to err on the side of caution as per their own compliance with legal and PR teams that have their do’s and dont’s on content," Arya added.

Platforms like Disney+ Hotstar, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, ZEE5 and SonyLIV did not respond to Mint’s queries on changes in content due to increasing pressures. However, a senior executive at a streaming service said on condition of anonymity that platforms have realised there is no point pushing boundaries because it will only put consumers off. “Religious and political themes are being tweaked at the writing stage itself," the person said.

Given that top officials of platforms have been previously named in certain FIRs relating to content, platforms and producers are likely to tread carefully on sensitive subjects, depiction of real personalities and depiction of religion and religious practices, said Tanu Banerjee, partner at legal firm Khaitan & Co.

“Earlier legal counsel would be involved in documentation relating to production, financing and distribution of shows, or copyright-related issues. Generally, digital content was perceived risk free due to lack of regulation. This scenario has now evolved, as legal counsels are expected to review the produced content and carry out risk and liability analysis for potential claims," Banerjee said.

In terms of content review, legal counsel advise on compliance with Information Technology Act, 2000, Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code), Rules 2021, and other legislations that regulate content such as the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Indecent Representation Of Women Act, 1986 and so on. “Not only producers of audio-visual content, but creators of content in other formats have become increasingly aware of compliance requirement. For example, most recently we advised a producer of podcasts on content-related issues for a crime-themed podcast to be made available on a major audio platform," Banerjee said. 

However, while content that has courted controversy like Tandav or A Suitable Boy, is still streaming on the respective platforms, most services are ensuring a few top-of-mind shows across genres to woo different sets of audiences. “The initial distress (of being hauled up) has dissipated," said Indrajeet Mookherjee, managing partner at media agency dentsuMB India.

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