OTT players claim voluntary compliance as TRAI petitioned on anti-tobacco norms breach

MUMBAI / NEW DELHI: Even though the Indian government has asked the broadcast carriage and telecoms regulator TRAI to rein in OTT platforms for alleged flouting of norms relating to tobacco and alcohol advisories in programmes, a majority of digital players claim to be voluntarily adhering to government directives meant primarily for TV shows despite absence of regulations for the sector.

"As we belong to the traditional medium of television, it comes from within to carry Indian government-advised disclaimer (relating to scenes in TV shows and films involving tobacco and alcohol consumption),” Alt Balaji CMO Manav Sethi told, adding, it is “not mandatory” for OTT platforms to do so, though.

According to Arre co-founder and CEO Ajay Chacko, "OTT platforms are regulated under the Information Technology Act, but carrying a disclaimer relating to tobacco and alcohol consumption in shows depends upon the online content creators. We certainly carry a disclaimer highlighting the negative effects of alcohol and tobacco on health in our shows as done in films."

In a controversial and much-debated move, which some critics dubbed as killing creative freedom, the ministry of health and family welfare, some years ago, had come out with a directive stating that all films and TV shows had to carry a disclaimer regarding the negative effects of tobacco and alcohol consumption during scenes where artistes were shown doing the same.

But why a hue and cry now relating to shows on OTT platforms?

The ministry of health, according to a report in Millennium Post yesterday, has written to TRAI to ensure that OTT players such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar, Reliance Jio and Voot adhere to the ministry’s directive relating to anti-tobacco and alcohol norms. The ministry felt that OTT and digital platforms were not running health-related disclaimers as done by movies and traditional TV shows. 

But, why lobby with TRAI, which doesn’t regulate or govern content-related issues? In the opinion of the ministry of health, as enunciated by the newspaper report, internet-based services fell within the purview of the Telecoms Ministry and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the issue was flagged with TRAI since anti-alcohol and anti-tobacco agencies were finding it difficult to enforce the rule on errant OTT players.

Though a source in Voot said it voluntarily runs during shows a health warning ticker -- like "Smoking is injurious to health" -- as part of “best practices", the health ministry's letter to TRAI highlights the conundrum of content regulation relating to OTT platforms.

Indian films and TV programmes started carrying disclaimers on the negative effects of alcohol and tobacco consumption to adhere to the health ministry directive, indirectly enforced by the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB), but at present there are no regulations relating to OTT platforms in India.

TRAI has been debating the issue of OTT regulations, as part of net neutrality, with the stakeholders for over a year now but is still in the process of finalising its recommendations, which are expected to be unveiled some time soon.

However, it is pertinent to point out that TRAI’s jurisdiction doesn’t extend to content regulation and is limited to content distribution and distribution platforms. As there’s no official content regulator like the Ofcom or the FCC, Indian TV channels broadly follow industry-formulated self-regulation norms, guided by pointers enumerated in the Cable TV Networks Regulation Act that’s enforced by MIB.


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