In today’s Finshots, we talk about the buzz surrounding the new draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023.

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The Story

Every day, the small team at Finshots writes one story to simplify a big news event happening in India and the world. It could be about something brewing at a company. Or it could be about a government policy. And like us, hundreds and thousands of creators across India cover similar items and do a pretty good job at it.

But here’s the thing. It looks like a new bill might just force everyone to rethink how they publish content.

How? you ask.

Okay, hear us out.

Last month, the government introduced a new Draft Bill called the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023. It’s a new version of a nearly 30-year-old law called the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. Back then, the internet was just beginning to blossom. And OTT platforms definitely did not exist. So the rules formulated at the time only talked about what kind of content could be aired on TV. The overarching theme was that the content should reflect ‘Indian values’. And if there were 3 complaints against a channel’s content, the government’s committee could simply revoke the licence.

Naturally, private channels were worried. Especially since the ‘Indian’ values’ was a very abstract idea. So they said, “Look, we’ll first self-regulate. We’ll ensure we don’t cross the line. Viewers can voice their grievances to us first. And if they’re not satisfied, they can take it up with the government committee.”

It was a tiered system which worked for the most part.

But in the past decade or so, the landscape changed dramatically. OTT platforms and video streaming options like YouTube and Vimeo emerged. Anyone could create a movie or documentary and air it on these platforms. You didn’t need a certificate from the censor board. Limited-episode shows got a free pass too. No one oversaw the content. For many, this was a boon. It led to more creative freedom and people could take up touchy subjects.

For instance, in 2010, filmmaker Asvin Kumar made a documentary about a young Kashmiri footballer who wanted to play in Brazil. It showed life under army rule in Kashmir as well. The censor board first cleared the documentary. But then, at the last moment, they halted its screening. So when Asvin made another documentary a couple of years later, he directly released it online. He didn’t need the censor board’s clearance this way.

But you can imagine that such situations might’ve got the government thinking, right?

Ergo the Broadcasting Bill to bring OTT platforms and and bunch of other channels under one regulatory umbrella.

How will this work?

Well, platforms might have to set up Content Evaluation Committees. These committees will have to include people from multiple social groups so there’s diversity of opinion. And they have to evaluate every show before it can be released. On top of this, there will be government-run councils keeping an eye on all the content too. Basically, it’s going to be more oversight.

But as with every draft bill, this one too seems to have ruffled a few feathers.

For starters, some folks have pointed out that you can’t paint OTT and TV content with the same regulatory brush. And that’s because people get to choose what they consume online. It’s on-demand or pulled by the viewer. But when it comes to TV broadcasts, it’s the operators who decide what show should air when. They push the data. So regulating both in the same way does not recognize this key difference of choice.

Another set of people are worried that there will be homogenisation of content across TV and OTT.

You see, OTT platforms often feature creative projects that might only appeal to a certain niche. It could be the storytelling style or even the topic of the story itself covering political, religious, or caste divides. It may not be mass market appeal. But this is only possible because OTT platforms can take creative liberties that TV broadcasters can't take considering they reach such a broad set of audience. However if OTT platforms were also asked to pander to a wide range of audience before publishing their content, then we'd see similar content going out everywhere. In fact, Netflix and Prime Video have already dropped completed projects that deal with niche sensitive matters.

And in the meanwhile Netflix and Jio are trying to lobby the government in delaying the Bill or tweaking it. They think the need for content committees will raise their costs. After all, these platforms have thousands of shows and movies. Many of them are from across the world. So setting up a committee to scrutinize every one of these videos could be onerous.

Alright. But how will all this affect news companies you ask?

Well, here’s something else from the Draft Bill.

Any person who broadcasts news and current affairs programs through an online paper, news portal, website, social media intermediary, or other similar medium but excluding publishers of newspapers and replica epapers of such newspapers, as part of a systematic business, professional, or commercial activity shall adhere to the Programme Code and Advertisement code referred to in Section 19.

And 'programmes' include writing. Now that could involve pretty much everyone creating content around current affairs, including Finshots. We run a website where we simplify the news. And we have an email newsletter. So legal experts think that Finshots could end up being subsumed under this regulation too.

It could even affect content creators on YouTube. The platform has become quite the go-to destination for people who want their news fix. Just look at the number of former TV journalists who have set up their own YouTube shows now — people like Faye D’Souza and Ravish Kumar. Their shows are newsy and watched by millions. And it looks like their channels will be clubbed into this and face more oversight now.

But here's the thing— digital publishers were already answerable under the Information Technology Rules of 2021 (which have been challenged in the court). So maybe they'll offer a grievance at being clubbed under a broadcasting bill too.

Anyway, the Draft Bill isn’t the final law yet. The government is soliciting feedback till the 15th of January (earlier deadline was 9th of December). And with the buzz around it and the biggies of the OTT space pushing back, you can be sure some tweaks are on the cards.

Until then…

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