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Disappointing mainstream media misses the point on OTT streaming regulation

If you read an editorial about the proposed regulations for streaming services in a mainstream news publication recently, then you might have come across phrases like “controversy around OTT platforms” and “lack of regulation”. Such descriptions, even from publications that largely opposed strict rules for streaming services, have effectively swept under the carpet one of the most significant steps impacting creative freedoms in our country in the last decade.

There was no “controversy”. There were conservative attitudes, sure. But none of those attitudes were pronounced. Some are upset about foul language in web series. But that’s because TV and cinema have been subjected to a state that is hell bent on suppressing realistic portrayals of everyday life on the big screen and the small screen for generations. An actual exercise of creative freedom can thus feel out of place and obscene; but that’s what parental controls are for.

The conservative attitudes, if fleshed out critically, at worst translate into this: Indians cannot be trusted to take informed decisions about what they watch, and what their family watches. As such, it is necessary for the government to make sure some content is completely shut off from the public’s reach. The new IT rules 2021 effectively extend this power of the state to the online world, and amounts to al all-out attack on creative freedom if there ever was one.

The mainstream media, on its part, completely missed this. Instead, it has afforded space and legitimacy to dubious political outfits in recent years to hijack the conversation by manufacturing controversies around streaming shows like Tandav and A Suitable Boy, thereby chilling streaming services’ will to exercise their unique freedoms.

Missing the point

Mainstream media news writing has frequently, and obliviously, lent credibility to bad faith smear campaigns by calling them “controversies”; that isn’t a phenomenon limited to shows on streaming platforms. Opinion writing is a little more interesting because of the influence it likely wields within the corporate and state power structures.

1. There are controversies on OTT platforms, therefore there is a need to regulate: Take this piece from the Hindu Business Line, approaching streaming regulation from a World Trade Organization (WTO) perspective. In it, the authors say:

Since new movies were not released in cinema halls during the lockdown, the OTT platforms served as a good alternative source of entertainment to Indian viewers. Various controversies and issues related with adult content, violence, abusive language, picturisation of religious places, etc. soon made the policymakers realise that there is a need to regulate the content shown on digital media. (emphasis added)

Our take: Is adult content an issue? Is violence an issue? Is abusive language an issue? Picturisation of religious places? Sure, you can argue that they are. But at what level are they an issue? In most democratic societies, the state’s role is limited and it is a decision that families and individual viewers make based on the detailed information streaming services already present to them. However, while the judiciary and legislature in most countries adjudicate or intervene in such matters, in India such censorship and oversight powers have been handed over to the executive branch of government. This is done without Parliamentary deliberation and in the case of the new IT Rules 2021, the government has entirely usurped what is traditionally a matter for the courts to decide upon.

Deciding what films and shows can be made is not something for the state to decide. And yet, the authors, both professors, advance this regressive and illiberal assumption that our living rooms need state regulation, and they do so as an aside while making a completely different point on Indian obligations under the WTO for regulating e-commerce. This kind of rhetoric flies under the radar while normalizing harmful attitudes to creative freedom.

2. OTTs need to “understand context of a geography”: Then there’s this opinion piece on Business Standard advocating a “govt-industry joint governance model” for streaming platforms in the country. In it, the author argues:

There is a visible temperamental shift in the type and kind of content users now want to watch. OTTs have been at the centre of a sto­rm for displaying content that may be considered contrary to the beliefs of certain sections. Proper warnings on age classification, maturity filtr­a­tion, content descriptors etc are aspects very critical for OTTs to adhere to, lack of understanding of which has created a furore and discourse to clearly demarc­ate what degree and mechan­isms of control shall exist and with whom. There is a percept­ion that OTTs need to unders­tand the context of a geography whe­re the content is being released.

This medium has great pot­en­tial in a true democracy like India that is blessed with a creative and artistic community backed by a large population of that pat­ronises it. So, it is im­p­ortant for this indus­t­ry to continue to be responsible. (again, emphasis added)

Our take: Make no mistake, couched behind all this misleading rhetoric are three main arguments: Indians cannot be trusted to choose what they watch, streaming services must not let creators be that free, and there is a legitimate “storm” or controversy about streaming services. All of these are, intentionally or not, insidious and unhelpful additions to the dialogue. It is the kind of rhetoric that led to the growing pressure for streaming services to be regulated.

3. “Crass commercialism”: And there is this editorial by the Hindu, which argued correctly that government-backed interests were artificially encouraging hostility towards OTT platforms. But the editorial also had this to say:

The inexorable growth of OTT channels has infused creative talent into film-making, aided by the absence of overbearing censors and vested interests, although it might be argued that it also has a small minority pursuing crass commercialism.

Our take: Even in the best of times, there is always some unhelpful rhetoric about there being some content that should not be allowed to be shown. This attitude only reinforces the Indian state’s decades-long conditioning of the population that they are best placed to determine what is fit to watch. And this generation is close to falling into the same trap.

What streaming can accomplish

Creative freedom is worth fighting for, and is arguably as important as freedom of speech on social media. Art that is consumed by many people has power, and perhaps that’s what irks our lawmakers and politicians: that the truth cannot be spun and that it cannot be censored. That diverse art and film can help dispel many of our cultural and social biases, prejudices and inequalities, is a threat to our existing political culture.

Indian society has gotten used to letting the state wiled power over the individual for far too long. Unhelpful and under-cooked rhetoric from mainstream media is the last thing we need when the stakes are so high.

Also read

**Update (March 23, 2021 4:42pm). Updated based on Editorial Direction. Originally Published on March 22, 2021 6:40 pm.

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