OTT tobacco warnings: industry mulls resistance to surprise move

Viewers may soon have to start encountering intrusive anti-smoking messages on screen during smoking scenes on OTT platforms, even as evidence linking streaming and tobacco use remains unclear

June 08, 2023 06:19 pm | Updated 07:44 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Pop-up warnings may show up during every single shot of a tobacco product being featured in a series or film.

Pop-up warnings may show up during every single shot of a tobacco product being featured in a series or film. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Within three months, Indian streaming subscribers may start seeing something that no other online media customer in the world is required to — intrusive pop-up warnings during every single shot of a tobacco product being featured in a series or film, regardless of where or when that content was made; and in the beginning and middle of every film and TV show episode, a video warning to that effect. The streaming industry has been divided on how to push back on these sudden requirements, according to documents reviewed by The Hindu, and industry executives.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has termed this move as turning India into a “global leader” in tobacco control measures. The streaming industry, for its part, was alarmed. They were not consulted by the Health Ministry, two sources with knowledge of the situation said. In fact, even the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, which administers India’s streaming regulation apparatus, did not know that the move was being notified, an industry executive said.

Streaming services have chosen not to comment on the matter publicly as they discuss next steps, which, according to sources, may include a legal challenge. Internally, though, a split has emerged, the executive said. Some streaming services — both domestic and foreign — are in favour of a legal challenge, but another camp is more amenable to pleading with the Health Ministry to soften the requirements. A Supreme Court case also remains pending on the inclusion of such messages on streaming platforms.

In one draft industry representation viewed by The Hindu, the industry argued that the requirement to display a warning on every shot of tobacco would be intrusive to users’ viewing experience, particularly on small devices and when subtitles are turned on. The move could discourage international production houses from making their content available in India, the representation further argued. Most of all, the representation said, based on a survey conducted between March and April this year, there was no established link between tobacco depiction on streaming platforms and their uptake by young people.

`Butchered’ cut

Viewers may not currently realise the scale of what awaits them next when streaming content. “This is insane,” fumed Suchin Mehrotra, a streaming critic and host of The Streaming Show podcast, after hearing about the Health Ministry’s notification. Mr. Mehrotra had just finished watching what he described as a “butchered” cut of a romantic comedy after paying a rental fee online, on a platform which ran the censored theatrical version of the film with smoking warnings on each shot where tobacco was featured.

“There are so many different levels of dumb[ness] to this,” Mr. Mehrotra complained. “Okay, you’re enforcing it [the anti-smoking message] at the start of each episode — it’s frustrating, but we’re used to it every time we watch a movie; fair enough.” And then, the same message appears again in the middle of a TV show episode or a film, “which is absolutely insane”, Mr. Mehrotra said. “Plus, you show a message every time there is tobacco on screen. It just sounds like three different tiers of trying to make it a difficult experience” to watch content online, he said.

Mr. Mehrotra further argued that the requirements would particularly impact advertising-supported streaming platforms, as viewers will have to wait not just for the end of an advertisement to watch the content they have selected, but also for the first anti-tobacco video warning, and that such intrusions might encourage piracy of international content that is available elsewhere without these warnings.

It is not clear if the pro-litigation camp among the streaming services will proceed with the challenge. When it came to the IT Rules, 2021, after which the large streaming services largely stopped commissioning political, religious and sexually explicit content, the industry largely complied with the requirements, even though the Rules were stayed in multiple High Courts, and are currently pending in the Supreme Court.

A middle path, one executive said, would be to agree to pre-content smoking warnings, but oppose the shot-wise warnings.

“Okay, you’re enforcing it [the anti-smoking message] at the start of each episode— it’s frustrating, but we’re used to it every time we watch a movie; fair enough”Suchin MehrotraStreaming critic and host of The Streaming Show podcast

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