OTT platforms in a fix over offensive int’l content

While such programming don’t technically follow Indian codes and ethics, platforms sign contracts to edit and modify content to suit the tastes of Indian audiences, much like practices followed for censoring Hollywood films when released theatrically in India.

Lata Jha
Updated27 May 2023
Recently Netflix was slapped with a lawsuit over an offensive comment on actor Madhuri Dixit in a 15-year-old episode of American sitcom Big Bang Theory. (Mint)
Recently Netflix was slapped with a lawsuit over an offensive comment on actor Madhuri Dixit in a 15-year-old episode of American sitcom Big Bang Theory. (Mint)

New Delhi: The recent controversy around Netflix getting slapped with a lawsuit over an offensive comment on actor Madhuri Dixit in a 15-year-old episode of American sitcom Big Bang Theory has brought attention to the slippery ground that streaming platforms tread, with respect to international content.

While such programming don’t technically follow Indian codes and ethics, platforms sign contracts to edit and modify content to suit the tastes of Indian audiences, much like practices followed for censoring Hollywood films when released theatrically in India. Platform executives agree international content can ruffle feathers easily.

Disney+Hotstar, which earlier housed HBO Originals, was regularly criticized for censoring shows on the service, and when Viacom18 signed a content deal with Warner Bros. Discovery for its entire content slate, including HBO content, there were speculations that JioCinema might also follow suit.

While the platform has so far not censored episodes of shows like Succession or Game of Thrones, the mere idea of sanitized versions generates an uproar among viewers who want to watch content in its original form.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” said a senior executive at an OTT platform, who did not wish to be named. “Some of the international content that we have rights to is a bit sensitive from Indian sensibilities, but if we censor it, our subscribers don’t like it. So we try to find a balance. Sometimes, we wait and watch. If there is any objection from the government, we quickly edit or remove it.”

Incidentally, the Indian government has often warned streaming platforms for showing obscene content and abusive language. On 19 March, Minister of Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur said these platforms were given freedom for “creativity, not obscenity,“ adding the government will not back down from taking necessary action against them.

Further, while those familiar with developments at Netflix said the platform hasn’t received an official or formal complaint on its teen drama Class, ministry sources confirmed that the legal head at Netflix India was asked to remove the series from the top 10 or trending lists. The Spanish original Elite, on which the show is based, however, is available on the service.

Sometimes, preferring to err on the side of caution, several platforms censor or remove content even when the same show is streaming on another service, without cuts. For instance, in 2019, Amazon Prime Video took down the first episode of the fifth season of CBS’ political drama Madam Secretary, titled ‘E Pluribus Unum’ in India. The episode, which dealt with Hindu extremism, is however available on rival platforms Voot and JioCinema.

“Taking something down is the last resort but all streaming platforms have clauses built into contracts where the acquired content should not defame anyone or lead to religious or political issues within the country. In the past couple of years, contractual arrangements have become even more solid,” Mehak Khanna, partner at legal firm Khaitan & Khaitan said.

There is no hard-coded framework in place for the censorship of OTT content while theatrical content continues to be guided and regulated by the Central Board of Film Certification.

“In the case of OTT platforms, the onus of censorship lies with the self-regulating bodies. The Parliament recently notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guideline and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 which governs all OTT platforms operating in India irrespective of whether they carry domestic or international content. The rules do not distinguish international content from domestic and all content is treated at par in so far as governance is concerned,” Pooja Tidke, senior partner, Pariam Law Associates said.

Gaurav Sahay, partner, SNG & Partners, Advocates & Solicitors said there are rules and regulations relating to international content in India. But currently, there is no authority in place to pre-screen content on OTT platforms.

In another example of an Indian streaming platform getting into trouble for international content, he pointed out that Disney+ Hotstar, had blocked an episode of John Oliver’s satirical show, Last Week Tonight in 2020, where he had criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

 A senior executive at a streaming platform that regularly acquires international content and has multiple partnerships in place said the service prefers to self-censor shows to avoid getting into trouble. “We don’t want any controversies, plus, a lot of these things, for example, frontal nudity is quite unnecessary. So we clean things up ourselves. When we’re paying millions of dollars for licenses, we definitely retain the right to edit the show,” the person added.

That said, Indian audiences can be quite forgiving of bold international content and it is mostly local programming that ruffles feathers. “At the same time, there are consumers who may not distinguish between international and local content and simply see it as the platform’s responsibility to keep Indian sentiments in mind,” the executive said.

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