While the young audiences that attract advertising want imports, no broadcaster wants to upset conservative viewers or attract government ire.
Cutting-edge or cut it out? India's TV quandary
NEW DELHI // In a bid to attract younger viewers without offending the older ones, Indian TV is showing some of America's edgiest shows - but cutting out the edge.
As the country's cities attract more and more of the population, a delicate dilemma has hit a media culture dominated by shows aimed at rural audiences, such as the soap opera Baalika Vadhu, about a girl married off at the age of 10.
While the young audiences that attract advertising want imports, no broadcaster wants to upset conservative viewers or attract government ire. "This is a very sensitive time for the media in India," said a television critic, Shailaja Bajpai. "Many stations are afraid of government banning orders but at the same time, output needs refreshing to bring in audiences."
So channels resort to 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 crack cocaine from one part of a show, while letting it be broadcast a few minutes later.
Even more absurd are the imports that have English subtitles to assist those with a poor grasp of the language. Censors often let the spoken word through but change or omit 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 television. The show hinged on the joke that 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" in a show of sensitivity for Hindus' reverence for cows, leaving viewers to guess why her diners were so disgusted.
It was just as perplexing watching the suddenly chaste vampires of HBO's True Blood and the serial killer star of Dexter, who is constantly changing blood-splattered clothes for no apparent reason on Indian television.
Or take David Duchovny's Californication womaniser Hank Moody, who disappears into a bedroom with a beautiful women then suddenly appears in a disjointed scene from later in the episode.
Nevertheless, young Indians 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, 22, a mass communication student who watches the disjointed imports instead. "Though heavily censored, I can still follow them."
Broadcasting the programmes, while editing out central plot themes, underscores the fine line entertainment companies such as the NewsCorp-owned Star and FX are trying to walk to attract urban youth while not angering their more traditional parents.
Bollywood actors only began kissing on screen in the past decade.
"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 realise it and hope to cash in."
In an effort to head off government interference, the industry created its own regulatory body in June.
Now, in addition to the odd censoring, viewers must also suffer a banner that repeatedly scrolls across the screen, advising viewers how to complain to the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council. More than 3,000 have.