As the 100-day deadline given by the government to roll out a self-regulation code draws to a close this month, the pressure is mounting on video-on-demand (VoD) entertainment platforms such as Netflix, Zee5, Amazon Prime and Disney+Hotstar to come up with a solution. The over-the-top (OTT) video streaming companies have been sparring about the specifics, unable to come to a uniform decision on the mechanism.

Last month, in a meeting between officials of the information & broadcasting (I&B) ministry and heads of the OTT platforms, the government representatives clearly said that they were looking for an adjudication mechanism for addressing consumer complaints. By this, they implied the two-tier system to look at complaints that have been endorsed only by five companies, SonyLIV, Voot, Jio, Eros, and Disney+Hotstar. The rest have been disregarding the mechanism, fearing it may curb their artistic freedom and impact the cutting-edge programmes they create.

More companies were open to signing the first draft of a regulatory code released in January 2019 under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), which defined VoD platforms as online curated content providers. The original draft asked platforms to follow the laws of the land that disallow showing child pornography, acts of terrorism and disrespect to national symbols, among other things. It stipulated that they categorize their shows according to suitability for different age groups and carry content descriptors and create dedicated teams to address content-related complaints from consumers.

However, the OTT sector had to revise its self-regulation code based on feedback from the government, which was keen to have it set up an external body to resolve content-related issues raised by consumers. Thus, the revised code included the creation of a Digital Content Complaints Council to be chaired by a retired judge, in line with the complaints mechanisms followed by the broadcasting sector, for both entertainment and news channels.

Firms not in favour of an external body for redressal feel that the broadcasting sector is based on “push” content where the consumer has no choice and therefore may require different rules, while OTT platforms are based on “pull” content where the consumer exercises his/her choice and “pulls” the content that he/she wants to see. They argue that OTT audiences are more individualistic and watch content in a personal space on a smartphone or laptop unlike TV, which is viewed with the family. Besides, they feel they have taken steps to empower the consumer to make a choice. These include content synopsis, trailers, programming classification and guidance on sex and nudity. Along with such precautions, they have added a parental lock system for kids and prefer to deal with complaints internally.

Arguments against the two-tier complaints mechanism are based on the fear that the platforms may be asked to edit or take down shows, which could cripple their creativity.

After the meeting with I&B ministry officials, the OTT firms have gone back to IAMAI and the matter is now pending with its digital entertainment committee. For the moment, there seems to be no consensus on the issue, though there are murmurs of OTT firms such as Hungama and Shemaroo veering towards agreeing to the revised self-regulations code.

It is important at this juncture for the streaming industry to bury the differences and show a united front because the sector is growing rapidly. A report by Media Partners Asia, a research and consulting firm, said that it sees India’s online video market scaling to $4 billion in revenue by 2025 with SVoD (subscription lead video-on-demand) contributing a greater share as it reaches more than $1.5 billion, while advertising grows to $2.5 billion.

The immediate need to build a consensus on self-regulation also stems from the fact that if the OTT sector does not roll out its own code, the government may be tempted to do so. At a recent virtual roundtable with Hindi daily Dainik Jagran, I&B minister Prakash Javadekar made his intent clear. He said that currently OTT is covered by IT and digital laws. However, while television monitors content and receives complaints, there is no such mechanism for OTT. Therefore, OTT must propose a mechanism for itself. If not, the government will consider a legal option.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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