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Guest Article: Freedom to express on the idiot box

Guest Article: Freedom to express on the idiot box

Author | Geetanjali Mehlwal | Thursday, Oct 22,2009 8:47 AM

Guest Article: Freedom to express on the idiot box

An interesting question that comes to mind is if film censoring today is accepted as a way of life for theatre-goers the world over, why are we seeing such ferocious opposition to television censoring?

Watching programmes on television can be argued to be much less deliberated upon than the process of choosing a movie, going to a theatre, buying a ticket and then watching the movie. So, parents also feel assured that some amount of filtering has already been done when their children go to watch movies, which go through the aforesaid process as well as through censoring by the relevant State authority. Then, why do people still seem more reluctant towards regulation of programmes on television, especially when such content may be more easily accessible to children?

There is State control on the freedom of the common man with regard to even things such as the sale of alcohol or cigarettes, where only a certain segment of the public (that is, only above a certain age) may be sold such items. Similarly, entry to night clubs is restricted to people above the age of 18 years. When access to such sources of entertainment outside our homes is acceptable, why are we keen on altering the rules in case of entertainment on the idiot box, which is part of our homes?

Censoring in India (of films at present) is carried out by a board of members, including those from the film fraternity (the ‘Censor Board’/ ‘Board’), and cannot, therefore, be argued to be carried out in total oblivion. Some of the factors taken into consideration by the Board include the depiction of a work (of which the scene/ portion desired to be censored is a part of) as a whole, the period depicted in the film, the contemporary standards of the country and the people to which the film relates, provided the film does not deprave the morality of the audience to which it is displayed.

When determining cases pertaining to the challenge of films censored by regulatory authorities, courts look at the content using the common man test, which, as the term suggests, is analysis from the perception of a common man. As regards the offering of content on television, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 (the ‘Cable TV Act’) lays down that the Government of India may ‘regulate or prohibit the transmission or re-transmission of a channel or a programme’ for the sake of ‘public order, decency, or morality’. Although, vis-à-vis film censoring, television censoring may require a different set of criteria and application, but the need would broadly remain the same.

Today, India acts by default as the world’s largest democracy. But does this necessarily imply that we adopt democracy in its most liberalist form and seek to do away with every form of regulation of a medium such as television, which is the most emphatic means of influencing the world’s largest population of the youth? Even today, watching television in India is a family activity, which is indulged in by most households as a dinner-time ritual. The strongest and most obvious argument against Government regulation of television programs is that we, the viewers, always have the option of using our remotes and changing the channel in case we find any channel/ programme as offensive.

While this may be a legitimate point, it cannot be denied that the remote may not really act as a shield against the exposure of impressionable minds to objectionable television content. This is especially so when a majority of households in India are nuclear families, with parents being away from home for a greater part of the day. The remote during such hours is totally at the disposal of children, whose sense of judgement may well be dominated more by curiosity than a sense of self restraint of content unsuitable for their age.

The converse argument is that objectionable as it may seem, adult content exists, because there is an audience for it. So, the answer may not lie in an absolute obliteration of such content, but may lie in, perhaps, restricting it to a more specifically acceptable level. One of the more practical tools of segregation can be to allow the telecast of ‘(allegedly) objectionable content’ only through certain specially subscribed to channels and only after a certain hour of the day (such as when most children are expected to be sleeping). This may help control the offering of such content to a great extent.

TRPing on reality TV

An important aspect of opposition to television regulation may be the commercial reasons underlying the creation and distribution of such content. So, while censoring may be strongly advocated for socio-ethical reasons, not everyone may be that happy with television regulation. For instance, broadcasters who buy and telecast content, pay programme producers huge sums of money for the creation of content, which would enhance the Television Rating Points (TRP) of the broadcaster’s channel. Similarly, there are sponsor companies, whose advertisements are telecast during a show, or telecom companies, who offer SMS-linked services (for voting, etc.) during the shows. Such persons would suffer huge losses if the Government steps in to stop or curtail the airing of their shows.

While a lot of people may be beginning to suspect that reality TV shows may actually be unreal and scripted, the audience size for such shows has not necessarily depleted. Even today, there is a reality show on almost every channel. People continue to wait and tune in to shows like ‘Sach ka Saamna’ (the Indianised version of Fox Broadcasting Company’s American show, ‘The Moment of Truth’, or its Colombian predecessor called ‘Nada más que la verdad’), where contestants are rewarded for answering personal and many a times embarrassing questions. The aforesaid show, like all other reality programmes, has enough drama, illusory emotions and brawls. But do producers or channels really need to care? After all, these shows are still running because audiences are/ are not exercising their choice to channels. The channel airing ‘Sach ka Saamna’ received a notice from the Information & Broadcasting Ministry as it allegedly violated Clause 6 (1) of the Programme Code, on grounds of offending good taste and good decency.

With all the fuss and public debating over these programmes, the concerned channels are receiving desired TRPs and incredulous revenue; and everyone (including the actors) is gathering enormous public attention. Accordingly, entertainer Rakhi Sawant’s show, ‘Rakhi ka Swayamwar’ made its broadcasters, NDTV Imagine, smile all the way, with the show earning an average TRP of 2.5.

What the Indian regulators are now mooting for, it appears, is essentially an impetus to the censoring of television content through a system of certification, similar to that of films. The Programme Code already imposes an obligation on cable operators to ensure that no programme should be carried through their cable service, which may be unsuitable for ‘unrestricted public exhibition’.

At the end of the day, there needs to be clear demarcations between the free flow of content, the public’s right to exercise choice of entertainment and a valid censorship of content that may negatively impact young India’s impressionable minds.

(Geetanjali Mehlwal holds an LL.M. in Media Licensing, Commerce & Intellectual Property Rights from the US. She is a partner at the legal consultancy firm MediaBizIp. Mehlwal has a professional experience of over seven years with India’s most reputed law firms.)

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