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Content on OTTs: Between a rock and a hard place

For the last six months, a Mumbai-based producer was deeply invested in putting together proposals for two web shows, to be aired on top video streaming platforms. The script, episodes, director and tentative cast was in place for one, and a firmer plan with actors signed up was ready for the other. Today, both her proposals seem untenable and are on the back-burner as their storylines involved depicting media. Other than religion and politics, media, too, is suddenly a taboo topic for India’s over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms after the fear psychosis created by multiple complaints, FIRs and court cases against webs shows, their directors and platform executives.

The producer, left high and dry with her stuck projects, said she is not alone in her misery. It’s mayhem out there in Mumbai’s content production industry. “Everyone I know is on the edge not knowing what stories to pick. Streaming platforms are turning new pitches upside down and shelving the next seasons of the existing shows for fear of offending somebody— anybody,” she said. It could be the government, politicians, religious groups, nationalists— the list is endless.

To be sure, trouble for streaming services started even before the government notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, that now govern India’s OTT platforms. Political thriller Tandav aired on Amazon Prime Video allegedly offended religious sentiments leading to complaints and FIRs against the series producer, director and platform executives. In fact, the Allahabad high court denied pre-arrest bail to Aparna Purohit, the India head of originals at the company, although it was later granted by the Supreme Court. The series director too had to apologize and alter scenes after the information and broadcasting ministry intervened.

Clearly, the Tandav incident has spooked Mumbai’s content studios. Besides, even though the government kept promising a light-touch regulation, its new guidelines for the OTT sector have not instilled any confidence either.

Under the new rules, after two-tiers of apparent self-regulation, the third tier of complaints’ redressal involves an oversight body of government officials headed by a joint secretary level officer authorized to issue directions to block content.

Not surprisingly, producers are looking for ‘safe’ subjects to feed India’s sunrise streaming sector. According to a September 2020 report by KPMG, more than 40 video streaming platforms in India with firms such as ALT Balaji, Zee5, Disney+Hotstar, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, among others, grew by leaps and bounds in 2020. The year saw OTT advertising revenue grow at 26% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) over 2019 to reach ₹3,400 crore. Subscription revenue also grew 60% to touch ₹1,900 crore, the report said. It said that India had 22 million viewers watching subscription-led video-on-demand (VoD) content in 2020 projected to touch 57 million by 2022.

With the nature of content on OTT platforms likely to change, it remains to be seen if the sector maintains its growth rates in India.

Luckily the bigger platforms are subscription-led and so consumers may stay invested as they have vast international content libraries to offer.

However, a platform executive flagged concerns over the new rules around age classification of all content. “Our rules are different from those global platforms follow in other markets. To abide by Indian law, we will have to sit and manually reclassify all our global content again— which seems like an impossible task for now,” he said.

The business in the sector may be affected, too. The producer mentioned above said if her shows don’t go on the floor her cash flows will be affected.

Right now, thanks to OTT platforms studios are flooded with work. But if global firms are not able to monetize the shows made here, they may start rethinking their investments.

“Art and films mirror society. But at the moment the situation does not allow content producers to reflect what is happening in the country,” said Raj Nayak, a media industry specialist. “And that is a big challenge,” he said.

Yet others feel creative writers and directors can still send subtle messaging through their content. This is their real test on how they deal with the curbs on freedom of speech. They will need to be creative with their content. Mint

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