Year 2005 can be called the year of news channels. Nearly all the channels of repute we know today – and those which failed to withstand the world economic crisis – were floated or seeded that year. But the actual surprise of that year was the rise of channels like Aastha, GOD, Zee Jagran and Sanskar, the religious channels which continue to grow even in the aftermath of rising inflation and slowdown.
Though religious channels don’t claim to have any trappings of glamour, their mass connect and the all-round interest in spirituality in urban India ensure that devotional or religious channels are not just another part of the Sunday morning programming. In fact, demand has fuelled a rise in the number of such channels which talk only of religion and spirituality, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
So what’s it that make these channels run? Are their earnings straight from viewers or from advertisers? Do the advertisers find these spiritual/religious channels good enough to advertise in them? What makes these channels sustainable? Who do they cater to? Sudha Sudhaiyer says on www.
speakingtree.in: “If so many channels are mushrooming, there must be money in it. Interestingly, the main revenue model for these channels is the god men themselves. For in Shining India, most big gurus are akin to corporate houses. They have slick websites, media managers, personal assistants and all the other paraphernalia you would associate with an industry honcho. Eager to tap the spiritual market, they pay the channels for being beamed into your home. A few industry insiders admit to this, though most hem and haw.”
The writer goes on to quote an unnamed distribution and marketing manager of a channel, who says that his channel charges almost everyone, but the rates depend on popularity, topic and the kind of viewership expected. He says candidly that his channel gets about 80% of its revenue from such sources: “The ads account only for 20%. A 20-minute slot goes anywhere between Rs 1.5-2.5 lakh per month.”
A freelance director of religious programmes puts the tag higher, at Rs 3 lakh. And the procedure is pretty simple. A close devotee or the media manager of a guru approaches the channels. The money to pay the channel may come from the guru’s organization itself or from an ardent devotee, “most often the latter”. To twist a little, opium pays the hookah, and the masses are hooked. “He who has money is a sant today,” Sudhaiyer quotes ‘some leading persons’.
The success of religion on screen is gauged from the fact that even mainstream entertainment channels like Zee TV, Star Plus and Sony have devoted generous slots to give viewers the spiritual experience. According to Nishtha Shukla of LifePositive, when Zee TV was in need of a revival in 2001, they launched
mythological serials like Jai Santoshi Maa and the expensive Mahabharat.
Even channels like Star Plus, Sony and ETC have experimented with spiritualism. If Star shows Jai Mata Ki and Yatra, Sony has had the distinction of showing Dil Ka Dwar Khol, Amrit Varsha, Sant Asaram Wani, and the mythological Om Namah Shivaya.
For ETC, the live telecast of Gurbani from the Golden Temple in Amritsar – it is also relayed in the UK and US -- has been a tremendous boost to the channel. Even the state-sponsored Doordarshan’s DD Sahyadri has had religious programmes like Hello Sakhi, dedicated to Ganpati during the Ganesh Chaturthi days.
And religious channels do not only cater to those in the sunset of their lives – they address the very fabric of a stressful life in a consumer-centric world. Apart from spiritual masters giving sermons for senior citizens, there are popular, youth-friendly programmes such as Art of Living, Vaastu, yoga, Ayurveda, Unani, Feng Shui and Reiki. Then there are also motivational speakers such as Deepak Chopra, Shiv Khera, Anil Kumar and Vikas Malkani, who attract ‘young, corporate individuals’.
Media commentator Shailaja Bajpai has gone on record, calling such channels ‘television psychiatrists’. “The young are highly stressed these days. And the fare on most TV channels consist of violence and confusion. In comparison, you find someone nice, calm and soothing who says things beyond all this on spiritual channels,” she says.
But there’s an ominous side too. According to reports, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) last year “red-flagged” 24 channels, some of them masquerading as religious channels, while preaching anti-national and seditious activities, detrimental to the security of the country. According to Mail Today, “Most hate channels focus on news or religious affairs. Pakistani TV channels identified as being stridently anti-India include QTV, Madani TV, ARY TV, the official broadcaster PTV, PTV Home, PTV World, Geo TV, Dawn, Express, Waqat, Noor TV, Hadi TV, Aaj, Filmax and STV.” They are available in Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab, while other TV channels that are illegally down-linked into India and are known to spew malicious content include Peace TV (Dubai), Saudi TV, TV Maldives, NTV (Bangladesh), XYZ TV, Nepal TV, Kantipur (Nepal), Ahmedia Channel (UKbased) and Bhutan Broadcasting Service.
India is a nation of believers and its secular fabric has room for as many religions that the rest of the world can have. Further, given that its spiritual connect is thousands of years old and continues to attract not only the population at home but also abroad, channels catering to these needs will continue working.
Times have also changed, as many from the younger generation – burdened with the stress of daily life -- are taking to spirituality. As Dinesh Kabra of Mumbaibased Sanskar TV says, “Today, our audience profile consists of 25-year-olds, a drastic drop in age from the 35-plus audiences we had when we started... Now, people get into spirituality at 25 and by the time they are 30-something, they are deeply into it.”