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Watershed hour beckons Indian television

New Delhi, Nov. 21: TV watching is poised for its “watershed” moment in India with “adult” programmes set to make their official debut, although they may start later in the night compared with developed countries.

The recent government order restricting Bigg Boss 4 and Rakhi ka Insaaf to an 11pm-5am window was a precursor to legitimising adult content by introducing what is known as “watershed” in global television industry parlance, officials said.

“The orders to these two channels (Colors and Imagine) are definitely the first tentative steps towards introducing watershed TV hours in India,” a senior information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry official told The Telegraph.

Watershed or “safe harbor” (its US equivalent) refers to the period of day during which channels are allowed to telecast programmes with adult content, that is, to show a certain degree of violence or skin, drug use, or explicit or strong language.

The watershed period varies from country to country but generally starts after dinnertime when the children are presumably safely tucked in bed. In most western countries it kicks off between 9pm and 10pm and lasts till 5.30am or 6am. (See chart)

I&B ministry officials did not hazard a guess about what the Indian timings may be but if the orders about Bigg Boss 4 and Rakhi ka Insaaf are any indication, Indians will have to wait till 11pm. An official suggested that Indians, both children and adults, tend to go to bed later than westerners.

Till now, India has lacked a definition of, or a clear policy on, adult content but the government has a couple of times issued curbs on a foreign channel over content that it deemed objectionable.

Senior bureaucrats now say the I&B ministry does not want to pre-censor TV programming in future, and that it does not even want to issue the kind of orders it did on Bigg Boss 4 and Rakhi ka Insaaf.

The ministry wants the Indian TV industry to exercise self-regulation. Any complaints from citizens about particular shows will be heard and acted on by a soon-to-be-formed committee of eminent professionals from within the industry.

The ministry is putting in place such an “independent broadcast regulator” and has prepared a draft “self-regulation guidelines for the broadcasting sector” after consulting stakeholders.

Officials acknowledge that once the watershed is introduced, Indian channels will be encouraged to make programmes with more adult content. Referring to the developed world, one official said: “It is clean universal programming before watershed; but all hell breaks loose afterwards.”

However, in many countries, TV channels themselves rate the content of each of their programmes (except sports and news) and issue viewer advisories. Complaints are addressed by an independent industry body, and citizens can approach the courts if dissatisfied with its decisions.

There is no pre-censorship — the regulatory bodies come into play only if a viewer lodges a complaint. In most countries, broadcasters are prohibited from airing excessive violence, frontal nudity or excessively offensive language at any time of day, including the watershed.

I&B ministry sources said it was a committee of senior bureaucrats from several ministries that had issued the recent orders to Imagine and Colors. The committee’s decision was based on complaints from the National Commission for Women, MPs and citizens’ groups, the order had said.

The sources cited how Britain’s independent TV regulator had banned a commercial starring Beyonce Knowles from being telecast before 7.30pm on the ground that it was too explicit for children.

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