Evil man. Okay. Evil woman. Not okay?

The debate about programming content and oversight by regulators will get more fierce as network television expands in India

December 18, 2015 12:53 am | Updated March 24, 2016 07:26 pm IST

There is this particularly stunning woman, long locks, in the garb of a do-gooder-rent-a-saint out to wreak havoc on a deeply devout family. Make that a large Indian family of countless cousins who worship together and have chosen to put their collective faith in this woman to act as the medium between them and the powerful goddess they worship. The serial is called Sasural Simar Ka (the home of Simar’s in-laws) and, from all accounts, drawing eyeballs at prime time — including viewers possibly troubled by what they get to see. Sasural Simar Ka is one of five serials whose depiction of women has had the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) sit up and take notice.

Anuradha Raman

Of course, transgressions are not tolerated and carry the threat of penalties, but they look paltry compared to the advertising revenues raked in by the broadcasters; the maximum fine of up to Rs. 30 lakh has seldom been imposed anyhow, such is the power wielded by the Council.

Complaints beget advisories The Council has thus far come out with two status reports on content aired on general entertainment channels and complaints received, which show just how many people write in or mail their concerns with content: of the 4,545 specific complaints received by it over a period of one year, 39 per cent had to with portrayal of women and the way gods were represented in serials.

So far, 13 advisories have gone out in the four years since the Council was established, and serve as checks on broadcasters. Repeat offenders are referred to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which deals with them according to the gravity and scale of the transgression.

Quite predictably, the latest advisory sent on December 10 banishing women as witches and sorceresses from prime-time television has been hailed in several quarters, including by the IBF itself and the National Union of Journalists. But a closer reading raises troubling questions for which there are no easy answers. For instance, is it only a particular kind of portrayal that prompts the regulator to step in after complaints have been scrutinised — that of a strong, tough-as-nails woman who has no shades of grey and no shot at redemption as episodes unravel?

What’s wrong with that, one may ask? After all, these are works of fiction. More specifically, does such portrayal require an advisory telling the broadcaster to tread cautiously on the negative portrayal of women on television? How does this portrayal affect viewers? Officials in the BCCC say the content on TV has undergone a change from the times when fictionalised rape trials were aired on television only to be withdrawn after viewers complained.

How do regulators elsewhere read the rule book for the conduct of programmes? The BCCC resembles the Canadian regulatory authority, CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), which is not a statutory body either but whose guidelines are binding. The CRTC’s guidelines on gender portrayal make for interesting reading. Titled “Gender Portrayal Guidelines” (for commercials and programmes), the regulator lays down the rules for what makes for good programming. The guidelines state that neither sex should be portrayed as exerting domination over the other by means of overt or implied threats, or actual force. Advertising should portray both women and men in the full spectrum of diversity and as equally competent in a wide range of activities both inside and outside the home. Broadcasters must portray women and men equally as decision-makers, including in the financial sphere.

The BCCC also invites comparisons with Ofcom, the communications regulator in the U.K., and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S. Both have powers to penalise and both have also attracted criticism over their functioning; the former is a statutory body while the latter is an independent government body answerable to the Congress. The codes lay emphasis on protecting children.

Interestingly, the Ofcom code says programmes dealing with occult or paranormal should not be aired during regular hours and should be reserved for the “watershed hours”, that is, after 11 p.m. The same prescription is obtained in the FCC code. The BCCC in its advisory says the same.

When the Council can echo its British and American counterparts on the apt time slots for a certain kind of programming, why are its overall guidelines so tame, going only so far as to ask broadcasters not to portray women in a negative light? What does that mean anyway? That it is not okay for women to be evil but okay for men?

A vague template For this, to understand how the BCCC came into existence would be instructive. Around 2010 end, when over 200 complaints by viewers to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry made the whole process of a measured response burdensome, a suggestion came from the broadcasters themselves to establish a self-regulatory body to look into the specific complaints. The programming code that the BCCC drew on is the one framed by the Ministry under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, which merely states the following: no programme should be aired which encourages superstition or blind belief or denigrates women through the depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman, her form or body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to women, or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals. It is the vagueness of the language that often poses a problem.

Its office-bearers insist that they step in only when the complaints come in, and that they engage with the judiciary, the executive and even Parliament on these matters on a regular basis, but between upholding free speech and observing its mandate to regulate, the BCCC perhaps errs on the side of caution when it comes to content control. As the media sector grows and as channels proliferate, content and oversight by regulators will continue to be locked in a fierce debate that is unlikely to be settled by answering a simple question: why can’t the viewer simply reach for the remote?


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