New Delhi: When an advertisement for a non-stick frying pan showed a gooey egg yolk splattered on the pan, Aastha TV’s indignant audience flooded the channel with calls, emails and letters protesting the promotion of non-vegetarian food on a spiritual network.
With such a critical and devoted viewership, it’s no wonder that Aastha marketing director Arvind Joshi is nervous as he embarks next month on a complete overhaul in programming and the introduction of commercial breaks.
Aastha TV, which commands 54% of the religious television market in terms of audiences, is now trying to cater to the changing demographic of its viewers. With more than half of its audience below the age of 50, Aastha executives plan to target younger tastes with shows that are less preachy, more discussion-oriented and, sometimes, admittedly gimmicky.
Starting 1 July, the new shows will also be liberally sprinkled with “aaiye dekhte hain break ke baad.” Or, coming up right after the break.
Earlier, advertisements tended to be inserted as a running scroll during shows or in between programmes.
“This is a first-ever time on Aastha,” says Joshi, adding, “we have never had commercial breaks before, but we are now revising our rate cards to have three breaks in a half-hour show.”
Industry watchers say that most religious channels haven’t fully realized the potential of smart programming and the effect it can have on revenue. They say the channels have been run like mom-and-pop enterprises, perhaps the pet project of a business leader, who happened to be religious. Thus, sponsorships have languished and not been formalized.
Currently, only 20% of Aastha’s revenue comes from advertisements. The rest of its Rs97 million in sales are generated by selling hour-long slots to religious groups.
With a better-packaged product, Joshi hopes viewership will increase from its current 20 million and anticipates a 30% jump in ad revenue.
Advertising on Aastha already carries a hefty price tag. Joshi said Aastha charges between Rs750 and Rs2,000 for 10 seconds of airtime. He said rates are being revised, but refused to disclose details. Closest competitor Sanskar charges Rs350 for the same.
“We are a family-run channel and we have already figured out our niche. We do bhajans and bhakti,” said Kishore Mohta, chief executive of Sanskar TV.
Still, over the last two years, the advertisements on these channels reflect the shift in who is watching. Recent trends reveal a young audience that is deeply religious, very health- conscious and interested in music, nature and travel, said Sudha Natrajan, the president of interactions at Lintas Media Group.
Advertisements for digestives for the elderly have all but disappeared on religious channels, for example. Products such as religious DVDs and VCDs perceived as “younger” did not exist as a category until 2005. By the next year, they grew to 28% ad revenue for these channels.
Aastha’s programming changes will also delve into uncharted territory. It plans to take on controversial subjects as the Manusmriti, the text of Manu, famous for its support of the caste system and treatment of widows in Hinduism that requires shaving heads and wearing white.
In a talk show on the Manusmriti, Joshi says he will bring in experts to discuss and explain what the text really says. “People do wonder, what is this book really about?”
Aastha also plans a daily “do-it-yourself-along-with-us” havan, where viewers can tune into the channel every day to perform one. The rite, designed to fit busy schedules will be led by a priest, helping those who “don’t have time for elaborate rituals any more,” Joshi said.
Viewers such as Varsha Narsana, a homemaker in Mumbai, said the channels keep Indian traditions and culture alive. It can bring together the entire family to remember the divine, she said.
Not everyone agrees. Some feel that rituals are sacred and must be performed precisely as prescribed. “When people want to pray to God, they want a real person, not some TV channel,” scoffed Anand Patil, a priest who performs havans at people’s offices and homes for a fee.
But television allows viewers to more easily deal with their day-to-day stress, Natrajan said, adding that it simply reflects the times.
“The way we practise religion is definitely changing. It used to be an intimidating experience before where people were scared into submission,” she said. “These channels are trying to rationalize things we do, delve into spirituality, where being a good human being is important.”