One of the most popular draws on Indian television today is Baba Ramdev. The guru believes yoga is a cure for most ailments, physical and mental, and his yoga camps, conducted across North India, attract huge crowds. He hosts a morning show on Aastha, a channel that caters to the spiritually inclined. The show, Divya Yog, which airs at 5am, boasted a television rating of 9.1 in 2006, according to channel representatives (television ratings are calculated in television rating points or TRPs).
Digvijay Phukan, a 23 year old who works at a knowledge processing firm in Gurgaon, wakes up to the sound of Ramdev’s show echoing through his Delhi neighbourhood. He has practised yoga since he turned to it at the age of 19. “I had respiratory tract problems, allergies, a blocked nose. I was on antibiotics. My life was horrible.” Ramdev’s asans worked for him.
S. Arvind Joshi, head (distribution and marketing), Aastha, claims 76% of the viewers of the channel are below the age of 50.
Until June 2000, religion on television was a rarity. That month, Aastha and Sanskar launched with in two weeks of each other. Since then, other companies have launched niche channels focused on religion and spirituality. And mornings have acquired a new meaning for advertisers with more people tuning in to religious channels and creating an unlikely primetime.
Today, 13 such channels compete for a share of viewers’ souls and advertisers’ wallets. More may be in the offing with the buzz in broadcast industry being that Bennett Coleman and Company Limited, which owns the channels Times Now and Zoom, is considering offerings in the space.
Despite the early morning ratings commanded by the programmes on some such channels, the euphoria around religious channels does not appear to make business sense. The viewership share of channels focused on religion and spirituality is a mere 0.8%; comparative figures for general entertainment and Hindi movie channels are 28.1% and 13.7%, respectively. Simple math lies behind this paradox—of companies scrambling to launch religious channels when they don’t make too much money. The math: such channels get a significant number of viewers; and the content comes cheap and, in many cases, free.
For most mainstream channels that are in the general entertainment or news genre, the cost of content, production, acquisition, or a combination of the two, have increased in recent times.
In December 2006, ESPN-Star Sports paid $1.15 billion (Rs5,090 crore) for the rights to all cricket tournaments organized by the International Cricket Council (ICC) until 2015, up from the $208 million Sony Entertainment Television (SET) paid in 2000. A typical nightly Hindi soap costs Rs10 lakh to produce, a cost recovered in 100 seconds of advertising. “Costs matter,” says Kunal Dasgupta, the CEO of SET India, “because the moment you are spending but not generating TRPs, you can’t afford things.”
Channels such as Aastha and Sanskar don’t have to pay for content. Their programmes are free publicity for gurus of varied hues who may otherwise pay to advertise on other channels.
In some cases, the channels ask the content providers to pay for carriage. Aastha is the market leader in the genre, with a viewership share in excess of 35%. Joshi admits that it is not unusual for ministers to produce documentaries on the temples they have built in their constituency and have Aastha broadcast them, for a fee.
With content costs down, to zero in some cases, channels focused on religion and spirituality can turn profitable if they can translate their audience base into advertising revenue. In 2006, the channels boasted a viewership share of 0.8%-higher than English news, business channels, and English entertainment channels.
The channel charges advertisers up to Rs2,000 for 10 seconds during this slot, and has managed to attract companies such as Dabur, Zandu, Emami and Colgate Palmolive. Other channels charge even less. Sanskar, another such channel charges between Rs250 and Rs450 for a 10-second spot. Kishore Mohatta, the managing director of the channel, insists that he deliberately chose to charge low rates because “you cannot commercialise something about God”. Mohatta claims that Videocon and HLL are both advertisers on his channel which, he adds, broke even in its eighth month of operation, and earned a net profit of Rs1.5 crore in 2005-06.
Sunil Tandon, Videocon’s vice-president of marketing, says his company runs oneadvertising spot every hour on Sanskar because of the low costs and high level of involvement. “The money we spend on religious channels is negligible. It’s not even 0.1% of our advertising budget,” Tandon says.
In comparison, a 10 second spot on Aaj Tak, a prominent Hindi news channel, costs between Rs2,500 and Rs18,500, and that on Star Plus, it goes up to Rs1.8 lakh.
Not everyone is convinced that advertising on religious channels is a good idea. Lynn de Souza, director, Lintas Media Services, believes that advertising and religious channels are not a comfortable fit. “Have you ever seen ads in a temple?” she asks. “You can’t commercialise these channels.”
That, however, has not stopped her company, Lintas, from trying to do that—It advertises its brands of Aashirwaad and Mangaldeep on religious channels.
The fact that they make money, though, hasn’t stopped channels focused on religion and spirituality from lobbying for tax concessions from the government. Aastha’s Joshi wants the service tax his channel pays to be waived. “We bring spirituality and divinity to people of all ages,” he says.