OTT regulation: Justified concern or exaggerated fear?

Experts weigh in on the decree to bring OTT content under MIB’s ambit – some alleging censorship while others supporting government oversight

e4m by Javed Farooqui
Published: Dec 22, 2020 8:16 AM  | 10 min read
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Ever since the government brought over the top (OTT) content under the purview of the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB), there have been concerns in the streaming industry that the ministry will introduce curbs on OTT content through its own set of regulations.

Currently, OTT content is unregulated, unlike the TV broadcasters who have to comply with the programming code under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. TV broadcasting is also a licensed activity, unlike OTT platforms.

Compared to TV channels, OTT platforms have much more creative freedom due to the absence of any regulation. The OTT players, particularly the content creators, are worried that any move to regulate OTT content will impact the growth of the industry.

What also compounded the industry’s fear is the fact that the MIB has rejected a self-regulation code formulated by OTT players under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). With the code rejected, an IAMAI committee is planning to come out with another one called the 'implementation code'.

OTT sector has been growing at a breakneck speed with the entry of new players and backed by content investments running into millions of dollars led by the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar, ZEE5, Voot, ALTBalaji, and SonyLIV among others.

According to a PwC report, India is the fastest-growing OTT video market growing at 28.6% CAGR and is expected to become the sixth-largest OTT market with revenue of $2.9 billion by 2024.

In recent times, there has been a surge in the launch of regional OTT platforms to cater to audiences who want to consume digital content in their own language.

The fears of the OTT industry were articulated by Siddharth Roy Kapur, the Co-Chairman CII National Committee on Media & Entertainment and President, Producers Guild of India and Managing Director Roy Kapur Films, during the recently-concluded CII Big Picture Summit 2020.

Roy urged that India needs to have a light touch regulation to make sure that creators and audiences are given the very best of content.

“Today, at the click of a button, you can access all kinds of content from around the world on the internet. So, I think our regulatory regime should really be able to reflect that and make sure that we give the industry a massive push,” he said.

In the same event, top ministry officials allayed the fears of the industry by stating that the government has no intention to thrust more regulation on the M&E sector.

MIB secretary Amit Khare noted that the decision to bring OTT content under MIB was to bring "semblance to the online and offline media content".

"The idea behind the change, which was done in the month of November, was to bring the online and offline content in one place. In the past summits and in various media circles, particularly in the print circles, there used to be a discussion that online and offline content should not be treated differently. It was done in order to bring some sort of not parity, not uniformity, but some semblance," he averred.

He further clarified that the government seeks to play the role of a facilitator to help the industry grow. "The role of government in this sector is mostly as a facilitator."

MIB Joint Secretary Vikram Sahay in a special address at a session titled ‘Under Scrutiny: Will OTT be Able to Get Over It?’ said that the OTT players should have a ‘credible mechanism’ of self-regulation to protect consumers, particularly children, from inappropriate content. He also said that not all OTT platforms follow specifications like age-classification and content descriptors.

“Government is a partner and will work with the industry to support the long-term growth of the sector. There have been several apprehensions expressed regarding the Centre’s move to amend the allocation of business and give the ministry the mandate to look at matters related to content on OTT platforms and digital media. This should not in any way lead to any sense of scepticism,” Sahay said.

He also noted that the concerns that the ministry has are uniform across the world and has nothing to do with India. “Specifically, it is concerned with protecting children from content not suitable for them. And therefore, we have been in touch with the industry and we will continue in touch with the industry to work out a model that is acceptable to all of us.”

He also lauded the OTT platforms for providing a huge opportunity for young artists, directors, actors, singers, musicians, and technicians to come up and present their skills to a larger audience.

Experts, exchange4media spoke with, also stated that some of the fears of the OTT industry are unfounded. One expert noted that it is premature to speculate on content regulation when the ministry itself has not come out with any guidelines.

Media consulting firm Ormax Media's CEO Shailesh Kapoor noted that the ministry first needs to define what OTT content is rather than rushing into the issue. "First of all, they have to define OTT. They have not defined it properly. Video content available on Facebook and YouTube also qualifies as OTT. What will they do about that? The move is not well thought through. They have rushed into it without getting into the depth of the matter. They will now look at all aspects of the issue."

Kapoor also said that the ministry might not want to get fully involved in OTT content regulation since it is a vast area. OTT platforms host thousands of hours of on-demand content and it is nearly impossible to monitor each and every piece of content that is put out on the OTT platforms.

"It will take some time before they come up with guidelines. But contrary to popular perception, the guidelines might be much more liberal. They will not want to get into this because OTT content is vast and virtually impossible to regulate. In the past, they have asked TV channels to go off-air in case of content violations what will they do to OTT players? Ask them to closed down their service? So, OTT content regulation is not that easy to implement," he questioned.

Kapoor feels that the government might come out with broad guidelines for OTT to bring some order to the industry. "What they might do is ask OTT players to provide some sort of a disclaimer or some kind of a rating guide that this content is not suitable for so and so. They might come out with certain broad guidelines that everyone will have to follow."

He also stated that the OTT industry doesn't mean only Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. There are new platforms that are launching in the regional space. Therefore, there is a need to have content code that everyone complies with. While big OTT players have a fairly robust security policy in place there are many platforms that don’t pass the test.

"A lot of regional OTT platforms don't have the necessary checks and balances in place. Some platforms have content that might be deemed inappropriate or fall under soft pornography. There is unnecessary fear among OTT players because till now OTT content has been virtually unregulated."

Kapoor said that the OTT players should worry about price regulation that has crippled the broadcasting sector rather than the content regulation. "Rather than worrying about content regulation, OTT players should worry if the government comes out with price regulations like in the case of TV channels. That will prove to be a bigger challenge than content regulation."

Eros Now CEO Ali Hussein said that the OTT industry is going through an evolution. The regulations change as technology advances, he adds. He also said that the industry will have to follow whatever new regulation comes into force.

"Regulators who are working towards this are aware that this is OTT, it is on-demand and it is not exactly the same as TV. They will figure out what is the best regulation to promote the digital ecosystem. It will be too premature to speculate what those regulations will be. Whenever the implementation happens, all stakeholders will follow that," Hussein said.

He is also hopeful that the OTT industry will make some progress on the regulation front in the new year. "In 2021, there will be some semblance of what that regulation is looking like if there is a regulation that comes into play and that I feel will be very conducive to business objectives."

Hussein said that Eros as a company has decades of experience in entertaining audiences while taking care of public sensitivities. "We have been in the content business for the last 40 years. It doesn't bother us how people react but we need to be conscious ourselves of our customers in terms of what we put out as content on the platform keeping in mind the larger sensitivity. That has been our practice since we produced our first theatrical film. We understand our responsibility to our customer whether it is in the movie hall or digital.”

Digital strategy consultant and Kurate Digital Consulting senior partner Uday Sodhi feels that there is exaggerated fear among OTT players over government regulations. He noted that the OTT industry needs to create a safe viewing environment to win the next 400 million customers. Family-viewing of OTT platforms is the next big growth area for the OTT business, he feels.

"If we create a safe viewing environment on OTT then OTT will enter homes. The next 400 million customers are going to come from there. They are not going to be individual youngsters who are going to be watching OTT content on their phones. OTT content will be consumed by the family," he stated.

Sodhi, who is the former head of SonyLIV, also said that the OTT industry should welcome regulations as it is a sign of a mature industry. "Every industry as it matures has to have some government oversight over it. You cannot run away from it."

He also pointed out that most of the popular content on OTT has nothing to worry about regulation. "The minute you reach this kind of penetration and reach, government oversight is bound to happen. You have to take it maturely. OTT is a big industry and they have to manage the environment to be able to do what is good for the larger audience and be part of a larger ecosystem."

Sodhi noted that the OTT industry will need government oversight to be able to create a big ecosystem. Government, he said, will only create an environment that will ensure that the industry grows

"They will put in place systems, which will ensure that each one follows the same regulation. It will set standards to create a good environment and services for the consumer. You can't be running it in an unstructured and unregulated format. The government is not proposing censorship of any sort. Even in TV, there is no censorship there is regulation. They are not saying you have to look like TV. There are different rules for different mediums," Sodhi elucidated.

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