OTT under I&B Ministry ambit
By Manish Sinha (VP & Business Head - Media Services & Solutions, TO THE NEW)
The last decade saw phenomenal democratization of entertainment. Quality visual entertainment broke its bounds from conventional television and movie theatres and moved to new age devices like laptops, tablets, smart TV, gaming consoles, smartphones, etc. Unimaginable leaps in technology, cheaper high-speed internet, sophisticated electronics, and advanced cloud computing paved the way to an age of information unlike any other. India rode this wave to become one of the largest and the fastest-growing markets in the world for digital consumers, with an internet penetration of 50% at 687.6 Million and smartphone penetration of almost 700 Million by the end of 2020. This gave rise to a new dimension of entertainment in the 21st century- OTT content platforms. This was a golden opportunity for OTT platform creators to capture a major chunk of the youth, who were tech-savvy, had a modern lifestyle with little time for conventional entertainment and were open to a larger variety of genres to choose from.
In an age when digital has turned the tables and democratised the system, OTT platforms like Youtube also removed the entry barrier for talent. All one needs is a camera and a good story to make their mark. With very little legislation in place to regulate the content, creators now had almost unlimited artistic liberty. The Viral Fever(TVF) is a case to this point. They pioneered the initial web content scene with break out shows like Permanent Roommates and TVF Pitchers, showcasing unconventional yet relatable content, delighting the young target audience. Until this time, the OTT behemoths like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video were not focusing on producing custom content for the Indian market and were only showcasing feature films. Identifying the success of web content, Netflix and Amazon bought their first original series catering to the Indian audience, Sacred Games and Inside Edge respectively. The Indian OTT market has never been the same with more unconventional, entertaining, dark and raw content being released; which in turn would have been heavily censored or even banned if were to be released in a movie theatre or on a television channel.
Nevertheless, this led on to a debate over the excessive freedom enjoyed by OTT platforms and their content partners regarding the extent of violence, nudity, sexuality, use of drugs and blasphemous language in the content. In September 2020, 15 major OTT players signed a self-regulation code created by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). The Online Curated Content Providers or OCCPs had also proposed a Digital Curated Content Complaints Council along with the self-regulatory mechanism as a part of its proposed two-tier structure. The aim was to give creative freedom to the creators while having a framework for age classification, content descriptions and parental controls in combination with an individual structural grievance redressal body. Nevertheless, in November 2020 the Information and Broadcasting Ministry shot down these proposals and announced that online content, including all news and audio-visual content on OTT platforms, would fall under their purview.
The move to bring the OTT platforms under the I&B ministry could also mean that these platforms would have to comply with regulatory guidelines and apply for approval / certificate of the content they wish to stream. This in itself can give rise to conflicts as it may lead to curbs on creative expression and most OTT shows may now be judged against an arguably unreasonable and harsh set of rules and will most likely be heavily censored. With such compliance being regulatory in nature, OTT platforms will also need to make significant investments to modify their content supply chain and workflows and hire skilled manpower to cater to regulatory guidelines.
OTT players are expected to resist any censorship of their shows as they have specifically invested in culturally and politically sensitive but relevant shows. Another worrying aspect of this move is the possibility of misuse of the I&B Ministry power to curb freedom of expressions and speech and can even become a tool of manipulation by political parties at the helm, changing every 5 years. This being said, we will also have to see as to what guidelines, if any, does the I&B ministry put in place for regulating these OTT platforms. This is definitely a momentous time for the OTT Industry and only time will tell what will unfold in the future.
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