Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Sitcoms or Sexcoms?

India’s ministry of information and broadcasting regularly pulls up, and even bans, television channels for showing “offensive” content.

In May this year, the central (federal) ministry banned Comedy Central for a few days for violating Programming Code 1 (Offends against good taste or decency) in two shows telecast last year. The channel apparently telecast a show in which a man reportedly performed standup comedy with “suggestive gestures” which, according to the ministry, offended good taste or decency, was obscene, and denigrated women.

The ministry, in its order, maintained that the channel apologised for “inadvertently airing the aforesaid episode” due to “unintentional genuine error” and promised not to repeat it. I think the channel was let off with a stern warning for I don’t remember it going off the air.

But, talk about bureaucratic verbosity.

The I&B ministry takes its job seriously; in fact, so seriously that English channels are forced to blot out certain words that could offend Indian sensibility. Words like “sex,” “crap,” “shit,” and “penis" are taboo. So even before Joey, Raymond, Jerry, Frank, Chandler, Alan, Charlie or Sheldon are about to utter dirty words, their mouths are washed with soap and water. The words are either blanked out or substituted by less offending words, often with hilarious result.

Of the two censor weapons, I find blanking out words more annoying. You'd think the actor has had facial paralysis in mid-sentence. In a Friends episode, for instance, when Joey finds out that Chandler and Monica (now then let’s play it safe) are sleeping together, he bursts out: “You two were having sex!” Instead, what we hear is “You two were having ______” and you mouth the missing word silently. There isn’t an Indian viewer who didn’t score well in ‘Fill in the Blanks’ in school.

If I were to give the I&B ministry the remotest benefit of the doubt, it would be on account of the excessive use of cuss words, however banal, in most sitcoms and dramas, be it Two And A Half Men or Grey’s Anatomy where the word “sex” is par for the course because everybody is sleeping with somebody.

10 comments:

  1. Good training for fill in the blank tests perhaps? :)

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    1. Charles, it is good training, especially since nearly a dozen English channels have their fingers on the "mute" button 24x7. I have been watching uncensored episodes of FRIENDS on a pen drive and it sounds so much better.

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  2. This is very interesting and surprising. I don't like the idea of cutting scenes or sanitizing shows, but actually just blanking out a word or two? It seems that the viewer would imagine worse words.

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    1. Tracy, not really surprising for folks out here. Moral policing is getting weirder by the day. I don't think (young) viewers would imagine anything at all since they already have free access to all kinds of shows and programmes in the palm of their hands, in their smartphones. Blanking out words is infuriating.

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  3. Network content governed by the FCC here is prescreened for language. Movies on the networks are censored in the way you describe, though much less severely apparently. Cable has no such restrictions, so anything goes there. It's kind of a novelty to watch Turner Classic Movies, where you see older ones that had to pass the Hollywood Production Code; they are actually very watchable, I guess because screenwriters and directors were so good a suggesting mature material without being explicit.

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    1. Ron, most television channels across languages follow the programming codes strictly including the local cable guy who, until a few years ago, used to show adult content after midnight. These cable operators had monopoly in specific areas till the government corporatised cable television. Now they too must register subscribers through set boxes and dish antennas and are governed by all the rules though they still show non-branded channels. We have cable TV from a big corporate house.

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  4. How frustrating Prashant. When I lived in Singapore it was exactly the same and some films literally made no sense at all. Is home video handled the same way or is there a rating system? It used to be the same in the UK until fairly recently so it's probably a question of culturally catching up (if that's the right way of putting it, which i am not at all sure it is).

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    1. Sergio, it definitely is frustrating. Even sub-titles are not spared but that I can understand. I don't think home videos are affected by the programming codes as the films are uncensored and there is no rating system. Only cable TV has them. Indian cultural ethos and traditions don't permit a lot of things that are okay in the West. For instance, kissing in public is still banned, I think, which in any case Indians don't. College kids have only just started hugging one another, no doubt influenced by English shows and the fact that the next generation is bolder than the previous one.

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  5. It will be interesting to see if in 5 years time the situation still persists or if the authorities realise they probably have more pressing issues to worry about.

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    1. Col, I doubt it. The Indian political class, and even its citizenry, has a penchant for raking up inane issues and focusing on those when there are so many areas that require serious attention and action. I think Indian television is going to be sanitised for a long time.

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