Netflix, Hotstar in Talks With Indian Government to Establish Self-Regulation Code for Content

Saif Ali Khan Netflix 'Sacred Games' - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

While theatrical film and television are heavily regulated in India, the country currently does not have any official guidelines for the streaming space.

Leading platforms such as Netflix, Disney's Hotstar, SonyLiv and Indian player Zee5, among others, have been holding discussions with the Indian government to hammer out a self-regulation code for streaming content.

While theatrical film and television are heavily regulated in India, the country currently does not have any official guidelines for the streaming space. Last year, Netflix was hit with a lawsuit, still ongoing, over its first Indian original Sacred Games. One of India's political parties alleged the hit crime thriller disrespected the country's late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with an unflattering depiction.

In January, leading platforms had come together to sign and follow an industry code of conduct and self-regulation for online content. That marked the first time Netflix signed on to this kind of code in a single country. It previously adopted a similar code for the Southeast Asia region.

At the Film Bazaar event in Goa, a session titled "The New Matrix of OTT Business," which included reps from Netflix, Zee5 and a senior government official, gave further insights on how the self-regulation code is now being discussed with the government before it is finalized. The session was moderated by the National Film Development Corporation's head of OTT platform Cinemas of India, Deepti Chawla.

"We have had consultations with platforms like Netflix and Zee5 on this issue and the common consensus is that it [streaming] is an emerging area which is taking place on the Internet and hence the old frameworks for print, film and TV should not be applied here and that there should be a different treatment," said Ministry of Information and Broadcasting additional secretary Atul Tiwari.

But he also pointed out that "there is a need for some amount of regulation. Ultimately, it is about self-restraint which is going to be very important, and there is also talk of who will [implement] that, whether all OTT platforms should come together, so that there is some form of enforcement and respect for these guidelines and some deterrent action for those who violate the guidelines."

When asked by The Hollywood Reporter to elaborate on how self-regulation could be implemented, Netflix India's director of original film Aashish Singh said, "Principally, we want to give the freedom to the creative producers to create the kind of content that they want to create and at the same time, give freedom to people to consume that content. There should be freedom on both sides."

As to whether the video giant would consider adopting separate guidelines for its international content versus its Indian offerings, Singh explained, "I don't have a clear-cut answer yet because the code is still being evolved between all the platforms. But currently, the stand is that we will continue to support the creative producers so that they have the choice and freedom to make what they want and give consumers the option to choose what they want to see."

Zee5 program head Aparna Acharekar added that talks with the government "have been very encouraging and unlike what we feared how they would be...they don't want to be regressive at all." She said that the government "just want us to respect the law of the land, which all of us as OTT platforms are happy about. We have had a lot of sessions and hopefully, something positive will come out for the industry."

In his opening remarks, Tiwari also addressed the challenges of implementing the code, explaining that "it is not possible for anybody to monitor the regulations on a continuous basis. If you control that, then you control so many other things which you may not like to control." He also cautioned that controlling content should not stifle creative freedom "because India is poised to be a big center for content creation. These are the factors which should keep the government and OTT platforms on the same wavelength and the ethos on which to formulate the regulations."

When asked by an audience member about Netflix's policy for content that could be considered politically sensitive or discriminatory, Singh said that "if it is political, we stay out of it for sure. And if it upsets any religious sentiment, we stay out of that too, and that is our clear mandate. In terms of discrimination, it is very subjective so it depends on how the story is told by the talent as there are always two sides to a story."

When the OTT platforms first proposed their self-regulation code in January, among its various guidelines, it prohibited content that "represents a child engaged in real or simulated sexual activities, or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes" or that "deliberately and maliciously disrespects the national emblem or national flag." Signatories also promise to avoid content that "deliberately and maliciously intends to outrage religious sentiments of any class, section or community" or programming that "deliberately and maliciously promotes or encourages terrorism and other forms of violence against the state (of India) or its institutions."

The government and the platforms are expected to have more rounds of discussions before a final code is outlined.

The wide-ranging session at Film Bazaar also touched upon opportunities for content creators and the strategies adopted by the competing platforms to understand consumer behavior.

Among Netflix's recent local offerings, the streamer premiered Bollywood film Drive from Dharma Productions, with whom it also has a content production deal via the banner's affiliate Dharmatic Productions. Starring Sushant Singh Rajput and Jacqueline Fernandez, the heist drama was originally intended for theatrical release, but went straight to Netflix. The film received harsh reviews and unflattering social media chatter.

When asked by an audience member as to why Netflix chose to stream the film, Singh said, "We are creating content for all moods. We are still discovering, trying to reach out to a wide audience.... We totally understand everybody may not like a certain type of content and we also learn with each title that we launch."

The five-day Film Bazaar, organized by the government's National Film Development Corporation and which marked its 13th edition, concluded Sunday.