The hullabaloo over Udta Punjab is a reminder of the prevalence of movie censorship in India. Censorship doesn’t just affect the movies, but is a constant presence even on television, giving rise to a culture of rampant piracy that might not be challenged even by legal online streaming sites.
Television shows do not come under the purview of the Central Board of Film Certification like movies, documentaries and DVDs. However, viewers can complain against offensive content. As a result, television channels resort to self-censorship, often resultingin ridiculous situations. “Sex” gets replaced with “gender” when English movies are shown with subtitles on television, while words like “boobies” gets beeped out altogether. Some shows become downright unwatchable with censorship, such as Game of Thrones, whose explicit depictions of sex and violence are often cut out for telecast in India.
Apart from curbing the artist’s right to expression, censorship affects the economic rights of viewers. The money that you pay for your cable connection does not get you copyright over a show. Instead, you get viewing rights. You expect to watch the full show as the creators intended it to be. Censorship prevents that. Indeed, equity would dictate that when Game of Thrones is cut down to 50% of the original, viewers should have the right to pay only 50% of the cost. An incomplete product merits a refund or at least a discount. Why shouldn’t it be the same with TV shows?
Many Indians get around censorship by illegally downloading files off torrent sites, but it’s not as though they are unwilling to spend on content. Adult citizens really shouldn’t have to jump through hoops and risk viruses in their computers to watch shows that should have been made available to them in the first place. Netflix, Amazon’s Kindle store and Airtel’s Wynkapp have shown that people will spend on content if they are delivered in a complete and convenient manner.
Could specific packs that cater to adult audiences be a solution?
Let’s take an interesting scenario where a person has a subscription to the TV channel that broadcasts a particular show. Is piracy then justified? If viewers are ready to put in some more effort to watch the complete shows, then surely there is not much cause for complaint? The TV channel certainly shouldn’t mind as it is getting the money it’s due for the broadcast.
Except there are two problems with this idea: advertisers and paid streaming.
Viewers don’t foot the entire bill for TV content – at least, not explicitly in terms of their direct-to-home subscriber fees. Advertisers too pick up the tab for on-air shows. Torrents, of course, don’t usually carry advertisements and if a show is torrented more than it’s watched, then advertisers will pull their money. This loss of advertising revenue will eventually end up hurting the channel.
Then there is the supposed silver bullet to end piracy: legal streaming sites. The biggest players in India are Netflix and Hotstar. And they do seem to be working. Both have accumulated large user bases and are working to ensure that more and more shows find their way to Indian audiences. They do come with the downside of huge internet bills, but they take away any justification that the torrent downloader might give. If you have enough bandwidth to download a torrent, you have enough bandwidth to legally stream the show too. There is the problem of fragmentation that is seen in foreign markets, wherein multiple streaming sites hold the rights to different shows, thus forcing the subscribers to shell out a lot of money to watch their favourite content.
Regardless of these problems, the prevalence of online streaming sites is evidence that the government is agreeable to the idea of viewers watching uncensored content if it can ensure that children are kept away. This opens the door for certain solutions, such as DTH providers providing specific packs that cater to adult audiences. One would also hope that parents could take up the responsibility of monitoring what their children watch instead of the State.
If online streaming sites continue their relentless march, it will definitely hasten the death of scheduled television. On-demand content is in demand, and it does seem that pretty soon, you would be better off cancelling your DTH connectionand instead buying a faster internet plan with a higher download limit.