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Video streaming industry divided over contours of creative liberties

Disagreements over the extent of creative liberty to be accorded to content creators and the treatment of issues such as nudity and religion have split the video streaming industry, three production studios and platforms executives said.

While broadcaster-led apps such as Disney+Hotstar, Sony LIV and Voot preferred to play it safe under the aegis of the Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF), companies such as Netflix and Amazon have formed a self-regulatory body under the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) as they want to retain the option of working on edgy themes, the people cited above said on condition of anonymity.

Content on some streaming platforms may be more nuanced, going forward, with the self-regulatory bodies—Digital Media Content Regulatory Council (DMCRC) by broadcaster-led apps and Digital Publishers Content Grievances Council (DPCGC) by the others—each set to come up with their programming guidelines for a medium, which had, thus far, remained free of any control.

On 25 February, the government notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, to ensure tighter control over streaming platforms, among other things.

Marathi film producer Akshay Bardapurkar, who is floating a video-streaming platform called Planet Marathi, said it is obvious that services known for edgy content have joined IAMAI. “They will get that freedom there. On the other hand, nearly 55-60% of content on broadcaster-led apps is syndicated from TV,” Bardapurkar said, adding that if compelled, he will join IAMAI since he wants to be known for liberal content.

“Self-regulation is important, but we need to ensure that we do not end up over-regulating content. We have to realize Indian shows and films travel across the world. But sometimes, a few scenes or dialogues used to make a point in the story may appear disturbing to some. How else will my show have an impact?” said a producer making a slate of shows for OTT (over-the-top) platforms.

It is clear that broadcast networks are trying to protect both turfs, TV and digital, the person said, while the likes of Netflix and Amazon are focused on digital, allowing creators more depth to tell stories. “The web any way allows for an individual viewing experience, so the user can make a choice. It’s a two-way medium unlike TV,” the producer pointed out.

“Any industry will stay divided on rules because every platform doesn’t run on the same guidelines and content. There will be a difference in content, and that’s what these bodies are here to review. As creators, we feel the creativity and crux of content shouldn’t be compromised,” said Nivedita Basu, head, content and acquisition at Biiggbang Amusement, a video-streaming platform dedicated to short movies.

Late last month, the Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF), formerly Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), the apex body for broadcasters, said it would expand its purview to cover digital platforms, including OTT streaming firms under one roof. While IBDF hasn’t formally announced any members, companies such as Star, Sony, Zee and Viacom18 are presumed to have joined, given their existing broadcast businesses. Viacom18 declined to comment, while the other three did not respond to Mint’s queries on reasons for the formation of two self-regulatory bodies and possible impact on content.

“There were obviously disagreements (on the approach to be taken), and that undercurrent was felt even before the pandemic when the I&B (information and broadcasting) ministry had first asked us to come up with a code of self-regulation,” said a senior executive whose platform is part of IAMAI. Major points of conflict included ‘ticklish issues’, the person said, such as nudity, the portrayal of religious issues or of a specific community, though “political aspects are out of the question for all since Tandav”.

“The TV industry is used to certain restrictions and complying with boundaries comes naturally to them, whereas here, people want to experiment and push the envelope and will fight tooth and nail to make sure they are heard,” the person said, adding that it is unlikely that the two bodies will ever come together, except in case of “some kind of a catastrophic event”. While his own platform, like many others, has mostly hosted family content, the person said, he would like to know he has “retained the freedom to experiment when he wants.”.

“Nobody wants to offend sentiments today, but for web creators, the idea has always been to not have a censor board,” said Vibhu Agarwal, CEO and founder, Ullu, a subscription-based service primarily known for adult programming that has now forayed into family content and is part of IAMAI. Live Mint

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