When the Central Board of Film Certification decides to restrict the screening of movies to protect the sensitivities of the public, there is much hue and cry about the restriction on free speech.
But today, every channel on TV has a ticker zipping past on screen with a serious tone, urging viewers to report any programme that they may find objectionable. This ominous black and white ticker, which has been on air since June, is courtesy the Broadcast Content Complaints Council, the BCCC, an independent regulatory body. It gives viewers the freedom to voice their opinions directly to those in control of television content.
With guidelines asking you to report any serial that shows violence and crime, gambling, horror, drugs, smoking and other things you may find offensive, it is no surprise that complaints have been pouring in, especially against episodes and re-runs of Hollywood sitcoms.
As if this regulation were not enough, broadcast networks have put themselves under the scanner with the self-regulation guidelines of the Indian Broadcast Foundation, IBF, the regulatory body consisting of the heads of all major Indian TV networks.
The most censored content so far has been the sitcoms and dramas on general entertainment channels such as Star World, FX and Zee Café. For example, on an episode of the popular sitcom, Friends, the word 'beef' is censored -- not bleeped but removed from the dialogue -- because it was in the context of cooking.
Would the multitude of activists go up in arms because Rachel added beef sautéed with peas and onions to an English trifle? Most viewers won't agree. Even the word 'condom' was removed from an episode.
"Self-regulation would be better applied to us, not TV channels. If I know a show's rating, I'll choose if I want to watch it. What gives the network the right to choose for me?" asks Aman Bhagat, 22, a law student from Amity University. Such self-censorship is "unhealthy" says Santosh Desai, a social commentator.
However, the IBF feels it is necessary. Naresh Chahal, director of finance at IBF, says, "It is working well for both the broadcasters and the government since it (the government) no longer needs to intervene and interfere with media content."
With the BCCC giving the average daily viewer a say in television censorship, there could be a "perceived sensitivity to many issues", feels Desai, which he adds could mean that the content gets even more regulated than necessary.
The BCCC said 90% of the complaints in the first month bordered on the frivolous. They included arbitrary complaints about bringing TV characters back to life or requests to reduce the number of advertisements.
Networks also receive complaints from viewers directly. "We do respond directly to the viewer who, if not satisfied, can still go to the BCCC," says Deepak Jacob, general counsel at Star India. "The threshold for TV is much more stringent than for movies. We get a lot of feedback from viewers who are upset about the edits we have made in the programme, but we have to explain it to them that we have to please millions of viewers and 80% homes in India have a single TV, with the whole family watching," he says. Ironically, even movies that passed the Central Board of Film Certification's censors for cinemas are virtually mutilated for television. The new age comedy, Superbad (2007), which has a total runtime of an hour and 53 minutes, was cut down to a measly hour and 20, with a jumpy story, thanks to more than a dozen scenes getting censored.
When the 2008 Oscar-nominated film, The Dark Knight, was shown on one movie channel, the character, Harvey Dent, also known as Two-Face, would have been better off being called Half-A-Face because the screen was partially blacked out to hide the gruesome disfigurement that earned him his name. Even during the airing of a Lord of The Rings movie, the word 'pork' was cut.
What seems like shoddy direction and abrupt cutaways are in fact entire sequences being given a big thumbs down by the CBFC. "Most movies are bound to have some degree of violence or sexual references. Smoking and alcohol are also common. When these scenes get cut out, they not only destroy the flow of the plot but at times are downright confusing," says Bhavuk Channan, 22, a student of Delhi University.
"When you have 130 million viewers watching your channel, you have so many people having different points of views. There are many times people have been offended. One man's sugar can be another man's poison," says Jacob, who explains that the head of the channel's standards and practices department, who acts as the content auditor, takes a call on whether the complaints are "genuine" or are from a "rabid moralistic person, making an issue out of nothing."Some viewers may get annoyed with such interference, but others feel it does protect the public from possibly offensive content.
"It is necessary to educate the masses about evolving media content, particularly that from the West," says Leela Samson, chairperson of the CBFC. She adds that although widely assumed, the Indian public is actually not easily outraged. "They are made to overreact by political forces and other influences."
Although channels may be subjective about their self-regulation guidelines, Desai feels that broadcast networks have perhaps gone overboard with precautions to avoid the possibility of offending anyone. "In this exercise of subjectivity, they are treating the audience like infants," he says.
(with inputs from Sharon Fernandes)