The longstanding debate surrounding content and its regulation has been reignited with the release of draft recommendations for a Broadcasting Services Bill. While experts anticipate increased content regulation, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) has a different point of view. For it, self-regulation remains the way forward while the introduction of a content evaluation committee will just act as an additional self-check layer.
In an interview with Storyboard18, MIB Secretary Apurva Chandra delves into discussions about the growth of linear TV co-existing with OTT platforms, regulatory considerations and strategic plans for the AVGC sector (Animation, Visual Effects, Gaming, and Comics), among others.
With the television industry showing signs of recovery and financial stability, some even surpassing pre-Covid numbers, how do you assess this progress and the role of policy measures adopted by the Ministry in achieving these results?
It's truly heartening to witness the resurgence of viewership on linear TV. A few years back, predictions swirled about the demise of linear TV with the dominance of OTT platforms. However, the narrative has shifted, and linear TV has not only survived but thrived. The increased programming and content offerings have contributed to this revival. We've been actively engaging with stakeholders, addressing concerns such as TRP ratings. To enhance transparency, we have now made raw-level data available, alleviating earlier concerns about data quality. The past year has seen significant developments, dispelling notions of stagnation in the television industry.
The broadcasting industry has been facing some growth issues but experts believe both linear broadcasting and OTT can grow together as in a huge, diverse country, TV has still room to grow. What’s your view?
India currently has around 18 crore TV households, with the overall number of households nearing 30 crore, indicating considerable potential for the expansion of TV households. Prasar Bharati has undertaken a program in remote areas, securing government financing to distribute eight lakh set-top boxes for free dishes to be received directly. This initiative aims to extend television access to areas previously underserved. It's worth highlighting that both linear TV and OTT platforms can co-exist, and the landscape is evolving with many linear TV channels also branching into the OTT space, offering viewers a diverse range of content options.
The television broadcasting sector has witnessed significant changes in consumer behaviour and content consumption patterns. How is the Ministry adopting policies to align with these evolving trends and ensure a dynamic and responsive regulatory framework?
The Ministry refrains from delving into content specifics because that is up to the channels. Our involvement is centred around the programme code and advertising, ensuring content is non-offensive, and avoids disputes, violence, obscenity, or immorality. We maintain a soft touch approach, avoiding unnecessary intervention. It is not like censorship in the traditional sense where we would want to look at each and every content. That being said, we do address complaints and issues, issue warnings and take action when necessary.
Encouraging industry self-regulation remains our preference for a balanced and responsible content ecosystem.
There is no credible data available on the number of TV households and multi-TV households, etc. Will the Ministry use the upcoming National Census to include some questions in the census questionnaire so the government has credible data on the broadcasting sector as it will help both MIB and TRAI to formulate policies governing the sector?
It's indeed a good idea to incorporate these types of questions. In the past questions like whether a household had a radio or not were asked but considering the evolving landscape, it may be beneficial to ask more about TV setups—whether it's a satellite connection, direct-to-home (DTH) connection, or a free dish connection. This is a valuable suggestion.
Moving on to the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), the body has been under scrutiny, especially regarding raw-level data issues. What steps is the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting taking to address and rectify these concerns, ensuring transparency and reliability in television audience measurement?
BARC functions as an industry body involving advertisers, broadcasters, and agencies, with the government providing guidelines on data measurement methods. We've urged BARC to expand the number of households in their measurement, considering India's diverse regions. They have agreed to do that over time. While the entertainment segment receives minimal complaints, the news segment, particularly English news, faces challenges due to a smaller sample size. To address concerns, we suggested one-month rolling data for news channels. Now, for the sake of transparency, we've advised BARC to provide raw-level data so that news channels can themselves see and arrive at their own conclusion based on it.
Experts believe the time has come for the government to deregulate the broadcasting sector so it gives competition to the emerging OTT sector, as this measure will help India to become a content hub of the world as per the vision of the Prime Minister as well as provide freedom to the consumer to exercise their choice to opt for whatever platform on which they want to watch content?
In the cable TV industry, we are actively working on streamlining regulations. Our goal is to centralise operations through a Broadcast Seva Portal, eliminating the need for Local Cable Operators (LCOs) to register at post offices. This portal simplifies compliance for Multiple System Operators (MSOs) as well, making the entire process more efficient. Regarding content competition, the cable and DTH players industries are also vying for customer attention. In this landscape, the rise of OTT platforms adds another dimension to consumer choices. As a government, we remain impartial, supporting all three entities and letting technology advancements and customer preferences dictate the trajectory rather than regulations.
Some experts are questioning if it is fair to include OTT in the Broadcasting Services (Recommendation) Bill. What do you have to say?
We have released the Broadcast Services Bill, for public comments, inviting a healthy and informative debate. We are open to incorporating valuable feedback into the final version. The existing regulatory landscape for media is spread across various Acts like the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, and the IT Act for OTT. The new bill consolidates these regulations into different chapters, recognising the unique aspects of each domain. Notably, the regulation for OTT platforms is a light touch regulation and not the same as the others.
On the growth prospect of the OTT vertical, you and the Minister have been consistently assuring the sector that the government does not want prescriptive regulations like that of linear broadcasting. However, as there are some concerns in the investor community, what's the message that you want to send to the stakeholders?
If you look at the draft recommendations of the bill, the content evaluation committee is a crucial aspect of it. This committee extends its oversight not only to OTT platforms but also to broadcasters, entertainment channels, and radio programs. We believe its significance lies in addressing the current scenario where self-regulation is predominant. While platforms and channels are self-regulating, there's a need for a content regulation committee to ensure appropriateness for different age groups, be it a nine-year-old, a seven-year-old, a 16-year-old, or a general audience.
This committee acts as a checkpoint, evaluating the content before it reaches the public. Despite ongoing self-regulation efforts, complaints do arise, especially concerning content quality. The second tier, (of the existing three-tier grievance mechanism) will now be empowered by legal status, gaining the authority to impose fines and request the removal of content. These provisions hopefully will contribute to a more robust system than the current one and lead to an improvement in the overall quality of programming.
On the content regulation on OTT we understand the three-tier grievance redressal mechanism implemented under the IT Rules 2021 has been efficient enough to handle complaints and only a handful of complaints reached the third tier in the past few months. However, there have been advisories on obscene content still available on some OTT platforms. What do you think is the way forward to strengthen the self-regulatory model for the OTT industry?
The programme code and advertising code serve as guidelines for proper programming, and it's important not to exceed those boundaries. Prescriptive measures should be avoided. However, advisory recommendations become crucial in specific situations, such as instances of violence like the Manpur incident. In such cases, it is essential to refrain from displaying explicit content that could incite further violence, like scenes of dead bodies or killings.
Certain content, especially involving violence against children or women, should be avoided. It may lead to higher TRP ratings but is not suitable for ethical broadcasting. This is why we are advocating for content evaluation committees, as they can act as a self-check mechanism.
In the proposed bill, we suggest the establishment of a Broadcast Advisory Council at the Ministry level as well. This council would consist of external members, ensuring a more comprehensive perspective. We acknowledge previous criticisms that the ministry-level decision-making involves joint secretaries. Although they represent outsiders, the proposed council would be more inclusive and broad-based.
There are ongoing debates on the fair share of revenue between the Big Techs and the digital news publishers here in India. What is MIB doing to ensure fair sharing of revenue which will enable the growth of the industry in the long term?
We have engaged in discussions with news publishers and intermediaries regarding the prevailing issue. Solutions implemented in countries like Australia, the EU, and Canada have been considered, and similar discussions are underway in our context. Currently, there are ongoing cases and investigations, particularly under the Competition Commission. There are two ways to go about it, we can either wait for the Competition Commission to formulate regulations or develop our own act independently. These deliberations are ongoing.
What would be the three top focus areas for the Ministry for the rest of the fiscal?
We are actively engaged in several initiatives, including the development of the broadcasting bill and revising FM guidelines. We want to conduct the next round of auctions for FM after making some changes. TRAI has come up with some recommendations for DTH, we are working on that as well. Additionally, we are progressing with the AVGC (Animation, Visual Effects, Gaming, and Comics) policy, which is currently undergoing inter-ministerial consultation. The National Center for Excellence of EVGC is in an advanced stage of development. We are committed to enhancing incentives to support industry growth. These changes are carefully designed to be industry-friendly and aligned with our goal of fostering a conducive environment for sustainable growth.