India’s information ministry reaches adolescence
The introduction of a de facto broadcast watershed may signal progress a more mature attitude, says Leo Mirani
04 Jan 11

The introduction of a de facto broadcast watershed may signal progress a more mature attitude, says Leo Mirani

In November, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered the television shows Bigg Boss (the Indian version of Big Brother) and Rakhi ka Insaaf (Rakhi’s Justice; a low-rent Judge Judy) to move from primetime to slots anywhere between 11pm and 5am. Both the shows, the ministry found, were in violation of the Cable Television Network Rules 1994, which proscribes shows that are obscene, unsuitable for public unrestricted public exhibition or denigrate women. Bigg Boss challenged the Ministry in court, which ruled last week that it could stay at its present 9pm slot so long as there is no “no obscene language and visuals, including beeps”. The channel may be celebrating but this is a victory for the Ministry — and for common sense.

Bigg Boss had already been in the news for content that was increasingly unpalatable at primetime — swearing, occasionally risqué scenes and fights — in what is still a largely conservative country. Rakhi ka Insaaf, a show in which former dancer (and one time Bigg Boss contestant) Rakhi Sawant helps people with their personal quarrels, made headlines when one of her guests supposedly committed suicide after she called him impotent on national television. The channel maintains he was suffering from tuberculosis. In view of growing public anger, the Ministry ordered the shows to move to late night slots and also prohibited news channels from showing clips from these programmes during the day.

Predictably, media types were outraged. Showing a worrying lack of both logic and awareness of normal bedtimes, a talk show host commented “there’s nothing that kids watch at 9pm that they can’t watch at 11pm”. Conflating social and private media consumption, the head of a major entertainment firm asked, “with [the] internet making every possible channel accessible to everyone how can we stop people from watching what they want to?” And proving once and for all that people who appear on Big Brother are not playing with a full deck, a former participant argued that adult content is okay because “we regularly see bloodshed, violence and sex on news channels.”

Outrage is quite the standard response to most things the I&B Ministry does, and often rightly so. Just a few months ago, the Ministry imposed a ten-day ban on Fashion TV for showing (shock, horror) “women with nude upper body” while broadcasting an Alexander McQueen show. The same channel had been banned for two months in 2007 for broadcasting images of what the Times of India delicately called “skimpily-clad women” . The Ministry has previously banned a news channel, an action entertainment channel and even underwear adverts, presumably for using underwear as a means to sell underwear. The idea of banning smoking in Bollywood movies has been publicly discussed for many years now.

However, by insisting that these two shows air only after 11pm, the Ministry is doing what most advanced media systems have done for years. A watershed is a sensible way to protect children from content that is best suited for adults without infringing on the right of the public to watch whatever they want to, whether it is a disturbing documentary or trashy reality TV. In the last two decades, Indian television has gone from two channels to hundreds, but a 2006 bill that would have introduced a regulator and watershed was indefinitely postponed because it went too far in its powers. In the absence of a regulatory body and considering the extremely vocal nature of the new middle class, the I&B Ministry may finally be beginning to grow up. By creating the 11pm-5am timeslot, the Ministry has shown unusual restraint and created a de facto watershed for adult content rather than going the usual nanny state route of banning what New Delhi boffins think is unsuitable to air.

But there is a worrying side to this optimistic argument. On the same day that the I&B Ministry directed to Rakhi ka Insaaf and Bigg Boss to change slots, it issued a second, less reported-upon order. Another channel, SS Music, has been banned for seven days for “obscene and vulgar” content. A small, Telugu-language, regional channel, SS Music enjoys neither the national influence nor viewership of the channels on which the two programmes are broadcast. As a result, the news of its ban went largely unreported in the mainstream press. So while the Ministry’s backdoor watershed may herald a new maturity in its dealings with the media, the double standards indicate that it is handling this whole growing up business the same way a lot of us did: with reluctance, ambivalence and ill-humour.