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Sex, violence and cable TV

In a multi-cultural society, the ability to choose alone can put a stop to avoidable litigation on media content.

25 December 2005

Pratibha Naithani does not like children growing up on TV porn. She is right. I want to watch American Beauty on TV. I am right too. So how do we co-exist in a multi-cultural society, with its differing interpretations of morality and public decency?

To put the matter in perspective, the Bombay High Court recently ruled that films with A and U/A certification should not be shown on television. This followed a petition by Bombay lecturer Pratibha Naithani to prevent unchecked telecast of adult themed movies. Initially, it was supposed that the TV channels will bear the brunt of the anti-adult campaign. However, the court put the onus on restricting content on the local cable operator. The court has directed the police to seize the equipment of erring cable operators and impose fines. Operators say they will appeal the decision. 

The operators argue that they have no infrastructure to check the signal beamed down from satellites. All that a responsible cable operator can do is to check the program schedule of every channel every day and find if any of them have A or U/A movies in the list. If they have, he can choose to (he will have to) black out the program at its scheduled time. They claim that this is practically impossible since hundreds of channels rain down every day, and it is not possible to monitor them on a minute-by-minute basis.

Now, I do not believe for a moment that all the content dished out on cable TV, or even Doordarshan for that matter, is always appropriate for a family audience. There are programs and movies that make you flinch, whether you are an adult or not. I do not think that excessive exposure to images of violence and sex will help a child in his formative years. Yet, there is something missing in the order which makes me wonder whether it is a solution or just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

One, movies are not the sole adult content on TV. There are music videos, there are telecasts of live stage shows and there are news channels surviving on an overdose on sex, violence and sensationalism. Last year, India TV aired videos of some politicians in their bedroom antics. Surely, they did not get an Adult certificate before airing them. During the Godhra riots, NDTV showed visuals of rioters on rooftops throwing bombs at rival gangs. News channels zoom in like vultures whenever there is a natural disaster and film dismembered torsos, pools of blood and rotten dead bodies tossed into graves. Who checks news channels who admittedly don't check with the program code every time they go on air? Interestingly, on the day of the court order, news channels reported the story, peppered with raunchy clips from those same movies which the court disapproved on public television.

Two, asking the last-mile guy - the cable operator - to check the malaise can have unanticipated results. In effect, you put the cable guy, mostly a local businessman who never went to college, in the censor's role. An overzealous operator will quite naturally take the scissors to snip out what he does not like to see on TV. This can have disastrous consequences if he is affiliated to a political party. A PMK-affiliated cable operator will cook up reasons not to show Khushboo movies ("She attempted to destroy our culture!") and a VHP-affiliated operator may find reasons to snip out channels from the land of Arabia. Local cable operators never studied broadcast guidelines and are liable to interpret the court judgement in their own individual ways. The result will be the creation of another ill-educated moral police.

Three, technological advancements render attempts to block content futile. Direct-to-Home broadcasting, the growing trend in Indian broadcast scene, side-steps cable operators. Currently, there are many DTH operators in the country like Dish TV and Space TV, and there are more aspirants. DTH guarantees portability, besides freedom from the cable operator's clutches. How does one check adult content on DTH? Is it not unfair to the local cable operator if his subscribers slowly migrate to DTH because he cannot show them the stuff  which DTH can?

Four, how ridiculous would it be to black out chunks of airtime in a 24-hour channel? If a cable  operator blocks Schindler's List  (it won seven Oscars) because it has adult content, will the channel appear blank on TV for those three hours? What about advertisers and sponsors who paid for airtime but find the channel off air during movie time? An advertiser on HBO, for example, pays for the ad to be shown on HBO, regardless of whether it will be shown on DTH or over satellite & cable. It will lead to a logistical nightmare to fix the rates for advertising when the channel itself cannot say for sure how many people will watch them. Who will take care of these third-party interests? 

Five, is it correct to place a bar ONLY on cable TV, when adult content is freely available on the Internet, MMS and adult periodicals? Content of many of our reputed newspapers and magazines surely make it to the 'A' grade, but few of them are ever caught and punished. Why only TV? If children have to be guarded, why not go the whole hog and hold mobile operators responsible for sleazy MMS circulation, ISPs for Net pornography and publishers for sex and violence in print?

Six, it should be neither the court nor the censor board who decides what people should watch. Their role should be limited to setting ratings for news and entertainment content. Everyone admits that norms of decency and public morality change over time. These norms change over the vast geographic territory of our own country too. What is seen as acceptable and normal in rich metros may be viewed as obscene and blasphemous in rural, conservative parts of this country. What may be seen as okay in a Hindu-majority locality may not be the same for a Christian-majority place. What may be acceptable for film actors in Bandra may be rejected by people in Palamau and Jalgaon. It won't be possible for any censor board in a country as diverse as India to set uniform rules for a heterogenous audience without inviting rebuke and ridicule. Mahesh Bhatt was right when he said that people cannot be expected to watch Cartoon Network all the time. He was right. Similarly, people in Kalahandi are also right if they find his movies like Jism and Murder similar to pornography which should be guarded against. So who guards morality in a changing society, which is heterogenous at any given moment?

This brings us to the next point, six, as possibly a resolution. How do we avoid a scenario, were quality movies and news content are blacked out of TV because they wont be palatable to a section of the audience? How to simultaneously ensure that my children won't grow up on a diet of sex and violence?

The remote control should be in the hands of the subscriber, who will decide what he and his family will watch. If people like myself and Pratibha Naithani are more concerned than the State about the nature of broadcast content around us, naturally we should be deciding what to watch, right? We take greater care than the government and courts to see that our children are guarded from harm of all sorts, and not just that emanating from TV.

Conditional Access System (CAS) was a right step in this direction. After making some progress during the NDA regime, it was sent to the cold storage. Under CAS, you decide what you watch. If you think sex and violence are fine with you and your children, you pay for it and watch. If you do not want adult content on TV, you won't get it. No one will force you. 

In the society I live in, HBO and Star Movies are fine, as are FTV and MiracleNet. I do not think that they will harm me or my family or negatively influence them in any way. My children are grown up and decent gentlemen. Under CAS, I pay up for these channels, subscribe and watch them. Fair enough? Any problems?

Many people I know are not comfortable with seeing sex and violence on TV. I completely understand them. My friend's son once asked him to explain why the girl on a magazine cover had no clothes. He would surely not like to subscribe to adult-themed channels and publications. Under CAS, he stays away from these channels. By refusing to buy newspapers and magazines with overtly-prurient content, he keeps his child away from harm's way. I think he is as right as I am.

In some foreign countries, there are options on pay TV where you pay only for the programs you watch, and not for the entire channel. Such systems are not in India yet, and will take long to come. Then, I can decide to watch only Kaun Banega Krorepati and nothing else on Star. I can choose to watch only three news programs on BBC a day plus Hard Talk and pay only for them. For my children, I can set Cartoon Network, Pogo and Hungama TV for round-the-clock entertainment.

It will only be a matter of time till such advancements become affordable and popular. Till then, we will have to settle for a system which lets us subscribers decide what channels to watch and pay only for them. Then, it won't be Pratibha Naithani, Mahesh Bhatt or the censor board who will decide what we should watch. We will be the arbiters, and we will be the ones responsible for our actions too.


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