Sousa, a patriot whose livelihood as a composer-conductor of ‘live’ military marches was threatened by the newfangled tech, added as a warning, ‘What of the national throat? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink? When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?’
At a congressional hearing the same year, he vociferously argued, ‘These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.’ From all reports, Americans continued to make decent music, one of them even earning a Nobel Prize in Literature for his songs in 2016.
In 2020 India, Sousa’s Bogey is not ‘canned music’ but over-the-top (OTT) streaming content. On October 12, the Supreme Court, responding to a PIL made by two advocates, Shashank Shekhar Jha and Apurva Arhatia, gave notice to GoI, the ministry of information and broadcasting, and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), to react to the petitioners’ demand that ‘a proper board/institution/association for the monitoring and management of content on different OTT/Streaming and digital media platform’ be set up.
Jha and Arhatia were deeply concerned about how the absence of censoring of OTTs allows ‘exploitation of creative liberty’, which ‘pushes the limits on depicting infringements of social mores, such as brutality, scenes and disgusting dialects’. They insisted on the need to ‘keep the value system intact’, adding, ‘That Hotstar is airing foreign series like Game of Thrones, Amazon airing movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, Netflix airing movies like 365 Days etc. in India which are having various scenes inappropriate for the households including nudity, sexy [sic], drugs, smoke, crime etc’.
Not to sound anti-international, they pointed out Indian series and films like Mirzapur, Paatal Lok, Sacred Games and Koffee with Karan being full of ‘unseemly content for ordinary families and isn’t exposed to any balance by any administration, which this way is destructive for society at large’.
Too Hotstar to Handle
A month later, GoI reacted by issuing a gazette notification bringing digital audio-visual content — without distinguishing films and web shows on OTT streaming platforms from news and current affairs on online platforms — under the I&B ministry from the earlier nuts-and-bolts ambit of the ministry of electronics and information technology.
On the face of it, the move is unsurprising, considering a Nanny State has been the ‘old normal’ for the film industry. OTT streaming services like Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime, etc, allowed a ‘room for grown-ups’, not only in terms of what could be viewed in people’s living or bedrooms, but also when and where. Instead of a level-playing ground pushing cinemas to screen films with scenes that grown-ups could watch without Bablis and Buntys being told to shut their eyes, OTTs have now been made to come under Cinema Chaachi’s purview.
Even before the GoI notification, the Akshay Kumar-starring horror-comedy film, Laxmii Bomb (renamed Laxmii, because that kind of ‘derogatory’ nomenclature has been culturally sanctioned only for the ‘Kali Patakha’), released on Hotstar — not released in theatres due to Covid-19 — received the ‘cinema hall’ reaction from the usual suspects, ‘Hindu sentiments outraged by making fun of Hindu beliefs (while showing Muslim superstitions in a beneficial light!)’. With no dearth of ‘outrageable film critics’ lined up, one can expect new Mirzapurs and Sacred Games to speak in chaste Hindi and show less flash and flesh being streamed.
The fact that OTT content — showing what can be achieved when no one is constantly peering over a ‘content creator’s’ shoulders — is eating into the old cable industry’s territory worldwide gives at least one lobby a ‘motive’ to cut this new channel for entertainment down to size. But, technologically, this is a losing game. Speaking about the ‘OTT vs network’ battle played out in the US five years ago, former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes stated what should have been (but isn’t) obvious to Indian authorities, ‘The basic cable networks didn’t have full video-on-demand. We were reliant on advertising. It’s not that the streamers had superior programming, they had superior technology.’
Today, ‘cord-cutting’ is no longer niche. From a high of 105 million in 2010, the number of pay-TV households in the US came down to about 86.5 million in August 2019 — this, before the surge in streaming post-Covid. This number is estimated to go down to at least 72.7 million in the next three years. Indian consumers do not inhabit a different planet.
WhatsApp With the Times?
But what is ‘strange’ is the conflation made here of ‘news and current affairs’ and ‘entertainment’. In the name of controlling ‘fake news’ that platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Google continue to pass the buck on, content like films and web series are also being brought under the scanner. It’s not as if OTT entertainment falls outside the purview of Indian laws.
Content considered to promote enmity, hatred and ill-will… ‘with deliberate and malicious intention’ falls under Sections 153(A) and 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code. Child pornography, extolling terrorism, etc, fall under the Information and Technology Act. In terms of tax laws, too, OTT services fall under Online Information Database Access and Retrieval (Oidar) in the goods and services tax (GST).
Perhaps the clue to OTT government chaperoning lies in (loss of) command and control concerns elsewhere. With media companies shifting their best — and most popular — content to existing, or their own new streaming, services, a burgeoning industry waits to be tapped by tappers and file-pushers. If, in the process, the ‘original’ job of sifting the wheat of information and broadcasting from the chaff of fake news, hate speech, etc, is outsourced to GoI, the likes of Facebook and Google may well be sitting prettiest in this latest victory for our latter-day, tech and innovation-phobic John Philip Sousas.
Views expressed are author’s own