The drama unfolding over OTT content self-regulation

The industry appears divided once again; befuddling the MIB.

KOLKATA:  There was a time when no one even believed that over-the-top platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar (now Disney+Hotstar) would go beyond the premium urban audience. The digital fillip that most of India  got since Jio's rollout, and the pandemic and lockdowns has seen streamers not only reach out to nooks and crannies in interior India, but also become a must-have service for hundreds of millions of Indians. The rapid spurt in popularity of the edge-of-the-seat risque content that these platforms have been serving has brought with it some woes as well - the main one being regulatory intervention by the Indian government.

While praise has been showered on them for unlocking creative freedom in terms of stories, the OTTs have been flagellated more than once by an audience set whose sentiment was hurt either on account of some "objectionable" scenes or dialogue. The aggrieved folks fled to the courts and filed public interest litigation after litigation against several series and films as well.

When there's a hue and cry from a certain section of society, politicians obviously have no option but to take a closer look-see and then force the government to step in. Which is exactly what happened when the Modi-led central government started paying close attention to the streamers and eventually introduced new rules to regulate OTT content at the beginning of this year which came into effect on 26 May.

“That is the first battle we lost. We wanted to resist the government's interference but the new rules have been introduced,” a senior official with a leading OTT platform commented, on condition of anonymity.

On 27 May, the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB)  sent a letter seeking compliance reports to the new rules from OTT platforms as well as digital news publishers in 15 days. The government is within its rights to ask for the information as the law has been notified. At this juncture, the information it is asking appears to be harmless, albeit the spirit of the law is questionable, a legal expert with a leading law firm explained.

But what is more concerning at the moment is the action that is taking place amongst the various players around the rules.  There is the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) - under whose umbrella most of the digital publishers and early-mover  OTT platforms - had banded  over the past few years. The association had been consulted by the authorities for members’ feedback before the new rules were drawn up. And announcements had been made that a structure would be created  under it to meet the regulatory requirements. But there was talk all along that all was not well among its members, some of whom were not agreeable with the direction that the legislation was taking.

That there are differing points of views became more than apparent last week when the  Indian Broadcasting Foundation  (IBF) – the association for linear television  broadcasters - announced that it would extend its purview to cover digital streaming platforms under a new name the Indian Broadcasting & Digital Foundation (IBDF). It would also form a self-regulatory body, the Digital Media Content Regulatory Council (DMCRC), as required under a three-tier oversight mechanism.

 According to the official quoted earlier, some of the players were not happy with the way the IAMAI was dealing with the situation. With so much back and forth, the body also started losing its relevance before the MIB, he added. Hence, the broadcaster-led OTT platforms like Disney+Hotstar, SonyLIV wanted to look out for other options, especially when the top management of these organisations wanted to ensure their rapidly  expanding digital business does not fall foul of the law..

On the other hand, the IAMAI has formed the Digital Publishers Content Grievances Council (DPCGC) as part of the self-regulatory and grievance redressal framework for online curated content [OCC] publishers. Ten OTT platforms including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video have confirmed their allegiance to the IAMAI structure. The reason, the official told us, is that they did not want to be a part of a body that is dominated by broadcasters.

Top MIB officials are today bewildered by the situation that has cropped up. Where earlier, there was a vacuum in terms of industry responding to demands to get its act together on content self-regulation, now it is grappling with problems of plenty. A question that is begging for an answer, according to sources, is should the two bodies be recognized or not? 

Although no rule under the new guidelines restricts two independent bodies having oversight over the sector,  a part of the ministry is skeptical about the efficacy of such a step. Others however, point out to the news broadcasting vertical – which  also has two independent bodies overseeing , one serving the old guard of early newscasters, and the other, the newbies.

In this situation, what is more important for both bodies is to reach out to the ministry with all their compliance reports, an industry observer noted.  IBDF has announced that it will file a new content code and self regulatory mechanism that is going to be similar to the Broadcast Content Complaints Council (BCCC) model that the MIB has been asking for.   

On the other hand, the OTT platforms are in talks with the ministry asking for more time to fall in line, which it has been loath to do. According to multiple industry sources, the platforms are putting in their best efforts to comply with the timelines. Although digital publishers have challenged the regulation in courts, it is unlikely that OTT platforms will take that route. Moreover, observers believe that MIB will not take any cohesive proactive  step against non-compliant platforms in the first instance.

The days ahead will reveal in which direction the OTT sector and the MIB  will tilt. In the meanwhile, streamers have achieved what they do best: come sharply under the spotlight, once again.

( reached out to all the players in the streaming sector. No one was willing to speak let alone come on record, keeping in mind how delicately posed the situation is. However, a couple of the platforms finally agreed to share their views with us, but they preferred to stay anonymous.)

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