Would the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll fueled TV show Californication be worth watching without the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll? What about serial killer series Dexter without the gore?
In an effort to attract younger viewers without offending the older ones, Indian TV is now showing some of the US’ edgiest shows — but cutting out the edge.
As India urbanizes and its middle class grows, a delicate dilemma has hit a media culture long dominated by local TV shows aimed at rural audiences, such as the soap opera Baalika Vadhu or Child Bride, about a girl married off at age 10. While the young and hip audiences that attract advertising dollars want foreign imports, no broadcaster wants to upset conservative viewers or attract government ire.
“This is a very sensitive time for the media in India,” TV critic Shailaja Bajpai said. “Many stations are afraid of government banning orders,” but at the same time, “output needs refreshing to bring in audiences.”
So TV channels resort to inconsistent and clumsy self-censorship, snipping scenes that are central to a show’s plot with abandon. While they bleep out profanities, they will also cut a reference to the drug “crack” from one part of a show, while letting it slide a few minutes later.
Even more absurd are the imports that have English subtitles to assist those with a shaky grasp of the language. Censors often let the spoken word slide through, but change it or strike it completely from the subtitles. So while a character on The Big Bang Theory is allowed to say the word “intimate,” the subtitles only showed “int ------.”
One incident turned an episode of Friends into a legend of unwatchable TV. The show hinged on the gag that two pages in a cookbook got stuck together and the character Rachel mistakenly made a fruit pastry with beef. The station bleeped out the word “beef,” a show of sensitivity for Hindus’ reverence for cows, leaving viewers to guess why her diners were so disgusted.
It’s just as perplexing for the suddenly chaste vampires of HBO’s lusty True Blood and for the serial killer star of Dexter, who is constantly changing blood-splattered clothes for no apparent reason on Indian TV. Or for David Duchovny’s Californication lech Hank Moody, who disappears into a bedroom with a beautiful woman and then suddenly appears in a disjointed scene from later in the episode.
Nevertheless, young Indians, who have embraced Levis, McDonalds and MTV, are hungering for Western television.
“I no longer want to watch the stupid shows I watched with my family growing up, I want entertainment and there is very little on Hindi-language television,” said Abhinav Mohan, a 22-year-old mass-communication student, who watches the disjointed imports instead. “Though heavily censored, I can still follow them.”
Broadcasting the shows, while editing them into confusion, underscores the fine line entertainment companies like the News Corp-owned Star and FX are trying to walk to attract urban youth while not angering their more traditional parents.
“Indian-produced movies and TV are very formulaic, you always know what you are going to get,” said Rahul Gupta, a media company owner in New Delhi. “Today’s youth are more likely to get what they want from Hollywood than Bollywood and TV companies are starting to realize it and hope to cash in.”