A censor board for OTT platforms? Think again. | Mint

A censor board for OTT platforms? Think again.

The regression of India into a culturally sensitive society has already affected the viewing experience of Indians. (Bloomberg)
The regression of India into a culturally sensitive society has already affected the viewing experience of Indians. (Bloomberg)


  • Content filters could suffocate entertainment and come to prove counter-productive for the government. Quality entertainment needs a mature audience as well as mature governance.

In its obsession with treating Indians as children, India keeps coming up with strange things. The latest is inside a policy draft released by the ministry of information and broadcasting to seek public opinion. It wishes to regulate streaming platforms like Netflix and cable networks by forcing them to appoint “Content Evaluation Committees" that will “certify" series and films on these platforms, a bit like how the Censor Board approves films meant for theatrical release. These panels will have “eminent individuals" as members, “representing different social groups, including but not limited to women, child welfare, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, minorities etc…"

This is a part of the government’s ongoing effort to regulate entertainment. In 2021, it proposed a provision by which a film that has already been certified by the censor board can be reviewed if a person in the audience is offended. In a nation where it is a norm for people to wait years for justice, this policy attempted to provide express relief to those claiming to be offended, a group that can include charlatans and extortionists. The dim idea was canned. I don’t know why; its dimness is an unlikely reason. We always lament the bad things that happen in India, but we should take time out to marvel at the mystery of why some good things happen.

There have been other good developments. In 2021, through a list of guidelines, the government accepted that there is nudity in art, that it is okay, and that a 16-year-old’s life will not be ruined by the sight of a naked body. The guidelines prescribed age-ratings and attempted to create a system where thin-skinned Indians offended by content must first approach the grievance committee of the platform instead of taking the more entertaining route of police stations and courts. Still, nothing stops people from filing criminal charges against a platform or filmmakers, but at least the government thought of an alternative.

All major streaming platforms, including Jio, have objected to the current effort to create censor boards for over-the-top (OTT) content, and to other provisions in the policy draft. A person who was in the same room when a major streaming platform and the government spoke told me that platforms feel suffocated by this government’s loud and frequent contemplation of how it wishes to control what is viewed. Apart from censorship, what worries them is that three ministries are trying to regulate them: the ministry of electronics and IT; the ministry of information and broadcasting; and the ministry for communications.

The regression of India into a culturally sensitive society has already affected the viewing experience of Indians. HBO Max, famed for its quality content, had planned to enter India and produce local stories, but the platform eventually dropped the plan. I am told by people in the know that a part of the network’s reason was the fear that Indians are too spoiled for choice and stingy to pay the right price for great fare. But another major concern was the risk of censorship. Much of HBO’s content requires not only a mature audience, but also mature governance.

What does the government want? It wishes to control what people watch. We can pretend to be aghast, but I think it is somewhat natural for an Indian government to do that. India seeks to exert two kinds of control. Political and cultural. Political control can be exerted by trying to rein in or influence the news media. Resistance might be valiant and noble, but the Indian state probably holds most of the winning cards. India’s cultural control, though, is a bit easier to resist. Why is this distinction important?

India’s recent policies have clubbed news media and entertainment channels as a monolith just because they qualify as online streaming platforms. Maybe what the government is concerned about are activists who tend to call themselves “independent media." To avoid looking like China, which restricts journalism, India tends to club the news and entertainment media together. So, among the first things that streaming platforms should achieve is to get India to make a clear distinction between facts and fiction, between journalism and a TV series. This is important because measures that are aimed at news activism should not suffocate entertainment in collateral damage. India does want to control culture, and it also wants to empower those who are offended, but in my view not as dearly as controlling news and activism.

What would I do if I were in the government and my pragmatic goal was to control what is useful to me but let Indians prosper otherwise? I would not suffocate entertainment. Already, in the world outside our screens, in the real world, India is a boring place, a republic against fun. For a country of this size, very few people visit it. Maybe the government should get out of at least one form of entertainment.

The best way to control an industry is by letting its executives and artists thrive. The more people have to lose, the more careful they would be about not losing it all. People are usually slaves to their prospects.

For entertainment to thrive, it needs to be free. When entertainment is constricted, the sector gets filled with conformists and sidekicks and those who specialize in safe bets. Already, streaming platforms all look alike. As a result they fight on price, and Indians pay among the lowest fees for streaming content. The fare on offer is not going to be improved by a censor board of “eminent" people.

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