Earlier this month, a clutch of over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms adopted a self-regulatory content code to avoid probable government censorship. Among the signatories are streaming platforms of big broadcasting companies such as Hotstar, Voot, Zee5 and SonyLIV as well as independent firms such as Arre, ALT Balaji, Netflix and Eros Now. In the self-regulatory Code of Best Practices signed under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the streaming platforms have been referred to as Online Curated Content Providers.

The code is based on the premise that as the OCC industry grows, it will play an increasingly important role in the socio-economic landscape of the country. According to Uday Sodhi, business head, digital, at Sony Pictures Networks, which owns SonyLIV, as the OTT industry achieves scale, “it is time to lay down guidelines for ourselves. The consumer has expectation of maturity from us. We should start building the processes of protecting him." OCC providers have changed the way content is created and consumed. It offers freedom from appointment viewing and allows flexibility in terms of time, place and the device it is consumed on. What prompted the code is easy to see. The stakeholders thought it wise to adopt best practices before a government department stepped in and imposed unnecessary censorship. The pressure mounted as public interest litigations (PILs) and complaints against the OTT platforms started emerging. An NGO filed a complaint in Delhi high court against sexually explicit and vulgar content on a streaming site. A few months ago, another lawyer filed a PIL before the Nagpur bench of Bombay high court complaining about gory content and sexually explicit scenes in some web series.

Sodhi says that mature industries like advertising and television follow self-regulation through the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) and Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) for non-news channels respectively. “Even when BCCC was formed, naysayers predicted its failure but it has been widely accepted and the government has recognised its role," says a media executive declining to be named. Will the code impinge on the creative freedom of writers and directors of content? Sodhi doesn’t think so. “We are only classifying content. It is not like a cinema hall where a viewer walks in and watches a film. On OTT, he’s making a choice. We are giving him appropriate information to make that choice," he explains. Supporters of creative freedom of the streaming services expect their content to travel across the world. According to the code, “This effort brings together the key pillars of protecting interests of consumers in viewing content of their choice and defending creative freedom."

The significance of the code should be seen against the backdrop of the projected growth in the streaming industry. The OTT video streaming market in India is set to touch $5 billion by 2023, according to a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report titled Entertainment Goes Online. The online video base is expected to expand on the back of rising affluence and increase in data penetration in rural markets. According to the report, 82% of the users in the Indian market are engaged on advertising-led video-on-demand platforms (AVoD) versus 18% who pay for content on subscription-led (SVoD) services. The report estimates that by 2023, 40-50 million users will be paying subscribers of content while 600 million will be engaged on advertising-led platforms. Clearly, there will be a surge in viewers consuming entertainment online. Although most video-on-demand services launched with movie libraries, the focus has now shifted to creating original content. Star India’s video platform Hotstar has recently announced its foray into originals with an investment of 120 crore and a tie-up with 15 filmmakers. As the Indian entertainment market is dominated by single TV households, affordable data is creating an alternative in the mobile as the second screen. This has allowed viewers to consume content at their own convenience. Besides, increasingly, consumers are more open to paying for this convenience.

By 2023, 650 million or 48% of India’s internet users are expected to be from rural areas, the BCG report said. Video-on-demand platforms are likely to tap into this rural boom with regional language content. The creators of the code have also made a provision for a complaints redressal mechanism for consumers. Not surprisingly, the guidelines are being touted as those balancing creative freedom and consumer interests.

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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