OTT Big Debate: Freedom of Speech or Taking Too Much Liberty?

The pandemic induced OTT explosion has been in the news for some time now.  It provided access to content that was as vast in quantity as diverse in quality. While it was successful in bringing the content of different genres to the consumer, it also raised a few eyebrows about the same.

Content, unregularised and unsupervised, can be misused by a few. These people take advantage of the liberty to put their views and thoughts across. However, can the quality of all content makers be categorized into one?

Despite the immense increase in popularity of OTT content, most of the content streamed has good entertainment value. This shows the commitment of the content makers towards upholding the values that India stands for. Yet there are issues and problems that need to be tackled.

There is a lot of talk about OTT platforms taking too much liberty. While there are few who are paying attention to the growing number of young and family-based users, there are many who are streaming inappropriate or objectionable content that can be easily accessed by young teenagers and even kids.

Let us attempt to analyze this ongoing debate of whether OTT platforms are taking advantage of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Indian Constitution to its entire populace.

Some Recent Controversies: The Background to Formulation of the Guidelines

The streaming of the web series “Tandav” on Amazon Prime, initiated this debate. Since its release sometime in January, this web series has been on the receiving end of trolling and complaints. It was said to have hurt the religious sentiments of a section of society.

So much so that even after a maker-issued public apology, the controversy refused to die down. Scenes were sniped but the threats refused to lose teeth. Today, the whole country, especially those that are active on social media, is divided on what to make of the controversy.

Why “Tandav”? The answer raised more questions than it gave clarity. Was “Tandav” made the scapegoat? Should it have been aired at a time in future when we were more receptive to such interpretations? Could the makers have been wrong in their judgement of what people want to see today?

“Mirzapur”, “Leila”, “Suitable Boy”, “The Family Man” etc. were part of the other OTT content that was also mired in controversy ranging from hurting religious sentiments, using abusive language, defaming Hinduism etc.

Interestingly, statistics show that these shows also went on to garner the highest viewership during the times they were streamed. The reason for this is quite clear.

Controversy generates interest in the themes and the content. This interest in content streamed on OTT platforms in India translates into overwhelming viewership. Does it also not prove that the Indian audience is ready to accept reality?

It is, unfortunately, true that if left unsupervised, the possibility of streaming crude and unsuitable content remains. This can have a debilitating effect on society.

With rampant usage of the internet and an immense increase in its penetration, there is hardly any control over who watches what. As a result, all content is available to everybody. 

Important Issues at Hand that Demand Censoring of OTT Content

      • Children gain easy and unmonitored access to content that is not suitable for their age. The violent, abusive and sexually offensive content rampantly shown over OTT platforms today plays on the children’s psyche. It influences their thinking and makes them do things that have repercussions and sometimes even detrimental ramifications. It is almost every day that there is news about juvenile crimes. It is not uncommon to see offensive behavior from kids even at our homes. 
      • While it is also important to make the kids understand what is right and what is wrong, it also necessitates the government to come up with stricter regulations for OTT platforms in India; one that will enable stronger and aggressive parental control over the content that is available to kids.
      • Even more debilitating is the trend of using violent and sexually provocative content to increase viewership. As mentioned earlier controversies act as catalysts that propel content to gain sudden peaks of views. This blatant misuse of “Freedom of speech” needs to be immediately stopped to save society from facing even more deterioration than it already has.

Thus, there is a need for measures and guidelines; especially in terms of content marketing and availability. There can be no disagreement on its importance.

It is a fact that unless the government implements stringent statutory measures, it will be difficult to control the content that is shown and curb its easy availability to viewers across groups and ages.

However, the question is not whether the Government should impose restrictions but whether the guidelines will be able to do justice to both sides, the content makers and the viewers.

Recent I&b Guidelines Regarding Digital Media

The recent spate of digital guidelines implemented by the I&B ministry too has given rise to debates and arguments.

While creative makers, actors and many other people have reacted in shock at the stringency of the guidelines, others have called it a violation of “Freedom of Speech”.

The point of concern is the stringency and the harshness of the measures proposed. The new policies require all OTT platforms in India to undergo the following three-tier oversight mechanism.

      • Tier 1 states that all content streamed on OTT platforms have to be adequately self-classified and given either a “U” for universal, U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A16+ or “A” rating. Each platform also needs to appoint an officer for grievance redressal and put up all contact details of the same on the OTT platform website.
      • Tier 2 requires the appointment of a self-regulatory body headed either by a Supreme Court or High Court retired judge. The appointment has to be spearheaded by a panel set up by the I&B Ministry. This body will have 6 other members from the entertainment, media and broadcasting sectors. It will be concerned with addressing grievances as yet unresolved by any digital media intermediaries. This redressal will have to be completed within 15days from the receipt of the complaint.
      • The 3rd and final tier will consist of an I&B ministry constituted inter-departmental committee. This committee will be tasked with resolving any conflicts that are referred to it either by the I&B ministry or the self-regulatory body. An authorized ministry officer, earlier placed in the rank of Joint Secretary or higher, will head this committee that will also be granted powers to issue OTT content blocking directions. Further empowerment of this committee comes in the form of its ability to even consider matters suo-moto if it thinks it is important enough. 

Effect of the Guidelines on the OTT Platforms

This unchecked power to arbitrarily take down content that the committee deems unfit will have a detrimental effect on the OTT platforms in India.

With much higher production costs than TV shows, can the OTT content producers afford such an eventuality? OTT content is limited to starting and completing a series within 8 to 10 episodes. TV shows go on for more than 300 episodes at times.

This further escalates the production cost of OTT content. But the new guidelines talk nothing about how producers will tackle these higher economies of scale. Who will bear this cost of censorship?

Moreover, who decides what content is appropriate? Will just an age-suitability classification be enough to ensure the appropriateness of content? The problem is much deeper. A look at some of the most-viewed OTT shows clearly reveals that objections to content have mostly been raised by government agencies or a small section of viewers.

However, these controversial contents have also garnered some of the highest viewership numbers. With the new guidelines in place, these shows will bear the maximum impact. Since most of these so-called controversial contents were streamed on some of the big OTT platforms, the recent guidelines will adversely impact their revenue and viewership.

The OTT market in India is predicted to show a 28.6% CAGR from 2020 to 2024. Reports by PwC indicate that the OTT market is predicted to reach 2.9 billion USD by 2024.

Yet today the future of the OTT is uncertain. Will they survive the digital media regulations and mechanisms put in place?

While the pandemic affected almost all industries adversely, the OTT platforms gained immensely from the lockdown. It was almost overnight that OTT platforms in India transformed from being the urban elitist entertainment media to being a source of mass entertainment.

Its unprecedented surge broke all barriers with statistics showing a 30% increase in the number of paid subscribers during the lockdown months of March till July 2020.

OTT came of age in India during the pandemic. It was further aided by robust and sophisticated media-streaming smartphones, better internet connectivity and tech-enhanced networks.

Today, India is expected to become the 6th largest OTT marketplace in the world. However, with the introduction of the OTT content guidelines on the 25th of February 2021, this growth might just become a distant reality.

Horns of a Dilemma

Today, OTT platforms have so much to lose. Censorship implemented keeping in view the prevalent moral, social and religious norms of the society will eventually take the “controversy” zing out of the content.

There will be a drop in viewership. Yet the need for the norms to keep society in order cannot be denied. It is a classic catch 22 situation; one that currently gives rise to more questions than answers. Can something be done to salvage the situation?

A relook at the current scenario with both sides acknowledging the need for the other might be in order.

Instead of OTT platforms blaming the Government for curbing their “Freedom of Speech” and the Government accusing the OTT content makers of taking too much liberty, they should come together and find a solution that is acceptable to all. Such an act will open up a golden era in digital entertainment and spearhead India’s meteoric rise in the global OTT marketplace.


OTT Big Debate: Freedom of Speech or Taking Too... September 21, 2021

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