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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Opinion | Why streaming platforms must unite in India

Directors and producers feel that over-regulation leads to mediocre content

Can creative freedom be absolute? This long-standing debate is at the heart of the current divide among over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms. A section of the burgeoning streaming industry is strongly batting for self-regulation, for which it had first framed norms in January 2019 under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). Last week, it revised those norms and added a second layer to the original complaints redressal mechanism, a move that did not go down well with some of the original signatories to code for curated content. Of the nine signatories last year, only five agreed to the new code. There are close to 35 OTT platforms operating in India, including both homegrown firms such as Hoichoi, Hotstar, Voot and Zee5, as well as global biggies such as Netflix and AppleTV.

The January 2019 code defined OTT platforms as online curated content providers and focused on three things. It prohibited platforms from showing child pornography, acts of terrorism, and disrespect to national symbols. It asked them to categorize and classify shows clearly mentioning their suitability for different age-groups and carry content descriptors. It mandated platforms to have dedicated persons, teams, or departments to receive and address consumer-related concerns and complaints related to content.

The revised code stipulates setting up of the Digital Content Complaints Council (DCCC), an external body to take up the complaint if the complainant is not satisfied with the platform’s response. The body, to be chaired by retired judge A.P. Shah, will have eight other members. It mimics the complaints bodies set up by the broadcasting sector, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority for news channels and the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council for general entertainment channels.

It is this second tier of grievance redressal that has irked several OTT platforms. They feel an external body will impinge on their creative freedom. “The old framework balanced creative freedom with customer empowerment," said an executive with a streaming platform who did not want to be named. “We see no need for another tier in grievance redressal," he said, adding that the proposal for the second tier has come from broadcaster-owned OTT platforms. “Broadcasters are used to telecasting regressive and restrictive content on television, unlike some of the cutting edge content on our platforms, which has global appeal. This new body will act as a censor and curb artistic freedom," he said. Several others argue that it’s time for the programming code for television to loosen up instead of curbing freedom of online platforms.

Global OTT platforms claim they display the show synopsis, offer trailers, and age-appropriate programme classification along with guidance on nudity, sex and violence. They say that through these mechanisms they have empowered the consumer to choose content. Besides, for younger children, they have provided a parental lock system. For complaints, there’s an internal redressal system. As the platforms haven’t got many complaints, they feel the existing mechanism is working and there is enough creative choice. “This is the golden age of entertainment. Such censorship will cripple creativity as well as the industry," said the executive quoted earlier.

Creative directors and producers feel that over-regulation leads to mediocre content and if every complaint is entertained content creators would be shy of picking certain themes. If the government found the earlier code wanting, it would have intervened, some feel. However, those pushing the revised code feel that those opposed to it are living in a fool’s paradise. “The only way to avoid government interference is to institute a strong redressal mechanism," said one of the signatories to the new code. Among those who have signed the new code are Zee5, Hotstar, Voot, and SonyLiv. They argue that nowhere does the new code use words such as censorship, editing, or taking down content. DCCC understands the difference between pull and push content. “All we are promoting is self-governance," said an advocate of the new code.

“The idea is not to interfere with creative freedom but to make them (streaming platforms) accountable. The code could evolve with time. Artistic liberties should come with more responsibility," Justice Shah said at the event where DCCC was announced.

Clearly, the need of the hour is for OTT platforms to bury their differences and create a blueprint for the industry that balances creative freedom with self-regulation, which is always a good idea. Besides, OTT rules could evolve as audiences mature.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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