By Nishtha Shukla
In the last few years, religion and spirituality-oriented channels have mushroomed in India. Their rising viewership figures and revenues make one wonder—how hot is religion on the Indian screen?
Religious channels might not seem as glamorous as their purely entertainment-based counterparts, yet they have unique advantages in their kitty. The recent spurt in interest in spirituality in urban India has ensured that devotional channel surfing is not limited to Sunday mornings. It has led to a rising demand for TV channels wholly devoted to religion and spirituality, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Sanskar, Aastha, Sadhna, Jeevan and God are some popular channels being beamed across the country today. There are others, like Maharishi Veda Vision, MiracleNet, Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) and Ahimsaa, while Amritha is on the cards. Some may wonder: aren’t there already enough mythological serials and astrology shows on regular channels? Why this need for spiritual channels?
A lot of the excitement has to do with the channels’ informal projection that a much younger generation of people is taking to spirituality. Dinesh Kabra, Managing Director of Sanskar TV with its headquarters in Mumbai, says: “Times have changed. Young people are more stressed, and they find their answers in spiritual discourses. Today, our audience profile consists of 25-year-olds, a drastic drop in age from the 35-plus audiences we had when we started three years ago. Now people get into spirituality at 25 and by the time they are 30-something, they are deeply into it.”
Media commentator Shailaja Bajpai calls such channels ‘television psychiatrists’. Says she: “The young are highly stressed these days. And the fare on most TV channels consists of violence and confusion. In comparison, you find someone nice, calm and soothing who says things beyond all this on spiritual channels.” She mentions that sometimes the discourses are so interesting that she also ends up watching them.
A parallel development in spiritual channels has been a change from sermonising lectures by spiritual masters that attracted the 50-plus crowd, to popular, youth-friendly programmes like Art of Living, yoga, feng shui and vastu. Rakesh Gupta, CMD of Sadhna channel, which started six months ago, says that to attract ‘young, corporate people’ they are planning to feature motivational speakers like Deepak Chopra, Shiv Khera, and upcoming Delhi author Anil Kumar. They are already telecasting talks by cool guru Vikas Malkani whose simple and informal English is attractive to the young.
Advertising is the mainstay of free-to-air channels. Talking of advertising on spiritual channels, Shailaja says: “If the younger audience is growing, then it has to grow rapidly and significantly. Only then will ad revenue improve, because even if the older audience grows, most advertisers are not targeting them.”
It is believed that those who watch spiritual programmes don’t switch channels as often as those watching entertainment or news programmes. This might have to do with the response that religion commands in India. From the phenomenon that TV epics Mahabharata and Ramayana were, to the way religion and festivals are being marketed by practically every TV channel (including news channels), religion has always had its share of time on Indian television.
Recently, live telecast of festivals like Kumbha Mela, Ganesh Chaturthi and Navratri has proven that religion will always be a huge hit with Indians. Live telecast has, in fact, given a fresh fillip to spiritual TV. During the Kumbh Mela, Television Audience Measurement Media Research (Tam India) recorded the following figures: in July 2003 Sanskar recorded 6.9 million viewers, Aastha had 5.7 million, Sadhna 0.8 million, and God channel had 0.6 million viewers.
Both Gupta and Kabra agree that live telecast boosts their TRPs. While Sadhna was screening live garba dances during Navratri, according to Kabra, Sanskar TV somewhat deviated: “Our Navratri telecast wasn’t real-time live, but we coupled it with bhajans. My audience wants devotion. We covered Ganesh Chaturthi, but again combined the live coverage with other aspects of the festival.”
Is selling religion really becoming that lucrative? There has definitely been a spurt in ad revenues for these channels, with brands like MDH, Samsung and Dr Morepen coming in. Some channels even rent out airtime to speakers for discourses, all for a good price. But Sadhna channel’s Gupta affirms: “We support ourselves through advertising. We don’t charge from saints as long as they are good speakers, have a good personality, and a good background in Hindu philosophy. They really support us emotionally and so we don’t charge them.” Kabra claims: “From day one we decided to look for sponsors and that we would survive on advertisements.” The range of advertisements they attract includes popular TV ads, indigenous ads for diabetes tea, weight loss tea, acupuncture ad programmes, and long tele-shopping ads (one even has film actor Jackie Shroff selling gemstones).
But is it easy to compete with the family dramas and sensational soaps that have hijacked India TV time like never before? Those in the business claim that the idea for religious channels is moral, social and spiritual, rather than monetary. Contends Rakesh Gupta of Sadhna: “Sadhna is a socio-spiritual channel. Since religion is not the only base, one can work towards building a society where one sheds personal profit for larger benefit.”
Aastha’s aim, according to its website, is to “vividly portray this strong heritage of India, for the upliftment of human life in all its spheres… Aastha aims at exposing and reminding people all over the world and more particularly the new generation of our strong roots to reinforce our mettle.” Santosh Kumar Jain, director of Aastha, recently launched Ahimsaa TV with programming on environmental and women’s issues.
Spiritual channels have sometimes come under scrutiny for being messengers of a particular religion, a disturbing thought in an environment clouded by religious bigotry. Says Shailaja: “Most of these channels are basically Hindu. And if you tie this up with the environment we are living in (be it Ayodhya or Gujarat), the influence of these channels could be significant. They might not be propagating fanaticism, but if they keep reaffirming Hinduism, they reinforce what people think, whether it is on purpose or not.” But Sadhna’s Gupta, though inspired by RSS ideology, does contend that they are open to programming from other religions as well.
In different ways, each channel is trying to diversify into shows that will get them more viewers. About the leading channel Sanskar, which started with staff mostly comprising family members, Kabra says: “We need to keep changing ourselves. Now is the real test. We have to reach new heights to avoid monotony. We are doing a lot of good programmes, but the challenge is to get the same viewers more interested.”
Sadhna, which has plans for diversification, will now begin telecasting mythological serials like Tirupati Balaji and Ganesh Mahima. An interesting show on the anvil deals with inmates of Tihar jail and their lives, and focuses on the circumstances and behavioural changes they have undergone in jail.
Not just an Indian trend, religious channels have struck a chord with people around the world. The popularity of God TV broadcast in Africa, Asia, Europe, America and UK, and EWTN that claims to reach 70 million TV homes across the globe, are examples.
In news these days in the US is Bridges TV, to be launched some time in 2004 by New York-based Bridges Network Inc., which will target the eight million Muslims living in the US. It will be the first North American English language channel to represent the American Muslim experience. Apart from Muslim-centred news and entertainment shows, shows for children will include Muslim cartoons, Quran lessons, animated Quran stories and fables. There would be prayer broadcast five times a day from 1,500 mosques in North America, as well as live coverage of Friday prayers, and talk shows on Islam related issues.
Back in India, another new channel, Amritha TV, was inaugurated by Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Ravi Shankar Prasad to commemorate Mata Amritanandamayi’s 50th birthday. The channel is to provide “wholesome programming with strong emphasis on values and culture”. A Malayalam channel initially, they gradually plan to include programmes in other languages. Noted Malayalam filmmaker Shyamaprasad, of the Kerala-based station, said that the effort would be to develop self-confidence in people. Spiritual and educational programmes would form part of the channel, which would also air entertainment programmes.
Since religion is not the only base, one can work towards building a society where one sheds personal profit for larger benefit.
—Rakesh Gupta, CMD, Sadhna TV
Even mainstream entertainment channels like Zee TV, Star Plus and Sony are riding the wave with slots for spirituality being allocated generously. When Zee TV was in need of a revival in 2001, they launched mythological serials like Jai Santoshi Maa and the expensive Mahabharat (produced by Sanjay Khan). Sony also has early morning spiritual shows like Dil Ka Dwar Khol, Amrit Varsha and Sant Asaram Wani, and the mythological Om Namay Shivay.
Star Plus, from Rupert Murdoch’s Star stable, shows Jai Mata Ki and Yatra every Sunday morning. Yatra brings pilgrimage spots to your drawing room by including visits to holy places, accompanied by appropriate pujas and rituals. During the Navratri week, the show covered eight places associated with goddesses, including Kangra, Vindhyachal, Mahalaxmi temple of Kolhapur, Ambaji temple in Gujarat, temple Ma Shaarda, Jwaladevi in Himachal, and the famous Vaishno Devi shrine.
Jai Mata Ki, starring Hema Malini, is a rerun of the show that was earlier broadcast on Doordarshan and represents various forms of Mata Bhubaneshwari. The serial has been shot at the Bhavan of Mata Vaishno Devi in Jammu. A Star official says that people are at home on Sunday mornings and they like to watch these serials. Star recently concluded a series titled Gurukul, which explored ancient Indian culture.
ETC’s live telecast of Gurbani from the Golden Temple in Amritsar (also relayed in the UK and US) has given the channel a tremendous boost. Even DD Sahyadri’s show Hello Sakhi that was dedicated to Ganpati during the Chaturthi days, garnered ample interest. ETV Marathi’s Ashtavinayak Darshan and their performing of abhishek in the names of viewers who had offered to participate, added an interactive dimension to spiritual programmes.
Much like the news-channel boom we witnessed earlier this year, religious channels might be the latest competition on Indian telly. Let’s see how God works out for these devotees.
A mixed bag
Sanskar: Traditional discourses and bhajans
Aastha: Faith and religion
Sadhna: Bhajans, pravachans, astrology and live shows
Jeevan: Morality in society
God: Christian prayers and preaching
EWTN: Global Catholic Network
Ahimsaa: Religious and social issues.
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