Content creators fear self-censorship as OTT platforms go mainstream

New Delhi: The year 2022 will see OTT (over-the-top) streaming platforms take over big budget projects, many of which will feature popular and mainstream faces. But content creators are wary of increased control by government and various fringe groups, as seen this year. This has led services to seek to play it safe and to self-censor more than is often necessary.

While the use of legal advice on scripts and even filmed material has been the big trend this year, creators are hopeful that certain niche and risky topics will continue to be tempted to preserve the essence of digital media.

Last February, the Indian government officially tightened its oversight over digital and OTT platforms, introducing a three-tier mechanism it called a “soft regulatory architecture”. While the first two levels set up a system of self-regulation by the platform itself and by the self-regulatory bodies of content publishers, the crucial third calls for a mechanism of control by the central government. Disagreements over the extent of creative freedom to be granted to content creators have divided the video streaming industry into two self-regulatory bodies.

While applications run by broadcasters such as Disney + Hotstar, Sony LIV, and Voot have preferred to play it safe under the aegis of the Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF), companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have formed a self-regulatory body under the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) because they want to keep the possibility of working on topics at the cutting edge of technology. These measures come in the wake of the crackdown on shows like Tandav on Amazon Prime Video, FIRs were filed against the creators of whom for hurting religious feelings in January. Other titles like Mirzapur, Ashram and Bombay Begumes have also been embroiled in controversy.

“The mandates (of the platforms) are definitely changing, but that’s also part of the natural evolution cycle as OTT moves from a new, unrecognized medium to a big business that needs to reach an audience beyond young people. Such a social construction will need governance and you cannot do without it, ”said Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice president, films and television, Saregama India, which owns boutique studio Yoodlee Films, calling it a sign of legitimacy. However, Kumar said platforms play safer than they should and self-censorship can be dangerous.

Most of the major OTT platforms are already aware of the kind of content-related backlash India can face, said Keerat Grewal, partner at media consultancy Ormax. “Politics and religion are the two key areas where most platforms have self-imposed, to make sure they don’t disturb any segment. However, this restriction has not resulted in any change in the appeal of the medium, as there is a wide range of narratives that platforms explore, which do not need to enter controversial spaces, ”Grewal added.

A great result of the increased scrutiny can however be seen with OTT platforms stepping up their legal departments and companies reporting problematic parts on scripts or on shooting hardware. At the same time, the drive to gain more acceptance in the mass market has led platforms to launch big budget shows featuring mainstream names, with the ability for families to come together to watch web content. , often on large television screens. Applause Entertainment does Rudra-Edge of Darkness for Disney + Hotstar with Ajay Devgn, while Amazon Prime Video has shows lined up with Akshay Kumar and Shahid Kapoor. Netflix has lined up projects with Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Zoya Akhtar, and Vishal Bhardwaj.

“As a production house, we like to tell stories in a way that is relevant to parents, youth, grandparents, children one-sidedly – so we know we’ve forged a bond with the audience. “said Amita Madhvani, partner at Ram Madhvani Films who made Aarya for Disney + Hotstar and Dhamaka for Netflix. Madhvani added that he helps collaborate with the platform on legal entries at the level of the script itself.

Grewal pointed out that unlike TV, which is shared by family, OTT in India is still primarily a mobile screen experience, allowing manufacturers to cater to multiple audience segments. “The Indian OTT universe of 353.2 million, however, is biased in favor of the male gender with a share of 59%. This figure rises to 66%, among the 96 million active paid subscriptions in India. In keeping with this reality, some of the top performing shows on OTT fall into the male crime, thriller, and action genres. Making these shows inclusive in terms of age and gender only helps them reach a wider audience, whether or not they are suitable for family viewing, ”said Grewal.

However, several platforms stress that they would like to keep their risky essence in order to stand out. “There are big platforms that are becoming more mainstream and trying to reach a Pan-Indian audience through their choice of stories and actors, but it would be incorrect to generalize. There are stories you can’t tell on linear media that we welcome as storytellers, ”said Sai Abhishek, Original Content Manager, Southeast Asia, Discovery Inc, adding that the idea is to balance to see what works and what doesn’t.

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