Caution: Content under surveillance

By Raushni Bhagia , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | September 19, 2013
While the BCCC gears up, pulling out shows for violation and imposing fines, how well are the programming honchos of the Indian television space taking it?

It's up there for all to see - the occasional scroll on a channel that flashes an apology for a past programme, or the regular scroll that asks viewers to send complaints regarding objectionable content. The Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) has got a new set of teeth. Along with the power to impose fines on channels, the self regulatory body has recently sent out a clear message that it means business, with several decisions that have forced channels to either apologise for offensive content, or even pull out episodes that violate the content code. The increasing awareness among viewers is also noticeable, with an increasing number of complaints flowing into the BCCC with hopes for redressal.

Comedy Circus

Fear Files

Gajab Desh Ki Ajab Kahania

Bigg Boss

It started when the BCCC, chaired by Justice AP Shah, was set up by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) in June, 2011. The council aimed to implement IBF's self-regulatory content guidelines for non-news television channels. However, it is only recently that the council has issued strict orders for compliance, and even levied fines on two English entertainment channels under the Big CBS banner for improper content.

It has also played a significant part in increasing viewer awareness. The council runs a scroll at the bottom of the screen on every channel, every half an hour. The scroll requests viewers to write in for unsuitable content, giving viewers a readily approachable authority body to lodge complaints.

Till about two years ago, BCCC could take either of two steps in case of improper content; first, it could ask the channel not to repeat the said content, as it did in the cases of Crime Patrol on Sony and Dil se di dua - Saubhagyawati Bhav, a show around domestic violence on Life OK (episodes on December, 18 and 21). Second, it could ask the channels to edit the content before a repeat telecast.

In 2012, the council also asked some channels to shift the contentious programme out of prime time, as in the case of Supernatural (for disturbing visuals) on STAR World, Muddu Bidda (for acid attack scenes) on Zee Telugu, Gallileo Extreme on Big BCS Prime and Roadies X on MTV. In a different kind of order, the council asked Colors to restrain Sunny Leone (a contestant in the reality show, Bigg Boss 5) from promoting her porn website on the show.

In 2013, there were stricter steps from the content regulator. Many channels were asked to run apology scrolls for content violation, and also stop running the offensive programmes in some cases.

Between June 20, 2011 and June, 20, 2013, the council received 1,263 specific content-related complaints (against 259 shows). However, during June 21 to July, 20 this year, the corresponding figure is 144 complaints. The council admits that though the number of complaints varies from month to month, there is an overall increase, most likely due to greater viewer awareness. The maximum complaints have been filed against Comedy Circus (82 complaints) on Sony TV, followed by Fear Files (Zee TV) with 79 complaints and Gajab Desh Ki Ajab Kahania (Imagine TV) with 58 complaints. Bigg Boss on Colors attracted 42 complaints.

One for all

International shows have bolder content. Also, most English channels are uplinked from other countries and the Indian offices don't have direct control over the content. Would the telecast of such shows attract BCCC's wrath? The council suggests that it makes no distinction between international and other content. "Any action depends on the specific nature of the valid complaint received by the council. And, a transparent due process has to be followed while taking any decision. This may include seeking clarifications from channels and asking them to appear before the council," it adds.

Kevin Vaz

Ajay Bhalwankar

Sunjoy Waddhwa

Kevin Vaz, business head, English channels, STAR India suggests that one must abide by the law of the land. "It is true that the shows which are being made for the American or British audiences need editing when it comes to the Indian telecast and we always make it a point to do that. There is an extra effort to go back to the original production house (studio) and intimate them about the edits required in the show," he adds.

While most upheld complaints are against reality and non-fiction shows, it seems that fiction shows too need to be cautious, as the BCCC recently picked two fiction shows on Zee TV for content violation. These include Jodha Akbar on August, 1 (the complaint was later dismissed following a court order) and Qubool Hai on August, 14. So, how are the channel programming heads and producers preparing to avoid the council's attention?

Ajay Bhalwankar, head, programming, Zee TV, agrees that the particular episode of Qubool Hai (a fiction show) could have been toned down. The show was warned for showing the use of acid in mehendi as a part of the conspiracy in the storyline. Bhalwankar adds, "We could have toned it down. We ran the scrolls for some days."

He admits that producers and script writers will have to be more cautious about the plot and the twists in the story. He adds, "At Zee, we have always followed a content code. We have never done the dirty drama that one sees on other channels."

Addressing social issues like domestic violence and sexual abuse is important but where does one draw the line?

Sunjoy Waddhwa, founder, promoter and producer of Sphereorigins (the production house behind Balika Vadhu) suggests that the understanding of 'how much is enough' is very important. Citing the example of a woman being tortured on screen, he explains, "It depends on how it's shown and what's the context. Addressing domestic violence is very important but it's also important whether you want to show the morbid part. I don't think anyone is asking you to stop addressing the issue; it is just about how you project it and how much visually disturbing it can become."

He admits that unlike film and online viewing, which are to some extent targeted, TV viewing is more universal and it is impossible to demarcate a particular programme for a specific segment of the audience. So, anything that is being telecast should be appropriate for viewing by the youngest member of the family. He adds that if the social issues are not addressed by the media through fiction and non-fiction, the responsibility of media remains incomplete.

BCCC, on its part, recommends that producers and programming departments go through the "rule book", a fairly exhaustive document available on its website ( to ensure that the programmes adhere to the guidelines.

Who's to blame?

Is there a blame game between the channel and the production house when a specific content is pulled up for violation? No, says, Waddhwa. In fact, broadcasters do own up to their responsibility when they agree to chop-off a part. In simple issues like, say, wearing a seat-belt, sometimes a scene is re-shot when an actor forgets to wear the seat belt, to ensure that the content does not send out wrong messages.

Bhalwankar praises the working of the council and notes that the channels get a fair hearing whenever there is a complaint. "We get to explain our point of view on the particular piece of content, which is very motivating," he explains.

He adds that the council, being a self regulatory body of the broadcast fraternity, only reflects the sentiments of the industry. "Anything that the council says is not a binding for us, we have been working on it ourselves. We obviously co-operate with the council and follow its orders."

In fact, self regulation has been practiced by the bigger networks for quite some time, add the programming heads. For the record, Zee has a 'Response Department' that takes care of direct complaints from viewers. Similarly, the Standards and Practices Department in STAR India is very stringent about the content that goes on air, says Vaz.

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