Cashing in on piety

Commercial break en route to nirvana?

It may sound a mite odd, but for religious channels, which are picking up advertising slowly but steadily in the country, it is the sure route to fiscal salvation. Aparna Joshi gets the spiritual lowdown on it all. Aastha and Sanskar, the two channels that are running neck to neck in a race to get the devout eyeballs, have been attracting ads steadily for a few months now. While the bigger media planners are yet to sit up and notice these niche channels, viewership figures have been silently on the rise. Blame it on the global recession and the consequent surge in interest in matters philosophical, but spirituality on the tube is increasing in its appeal.

For one, the target group itself is shifting. "We are no longer perceived as the channel for the 40 plus," says Aastha COO Mathew Scaria. "With the introduction of yoga shows and programmes based on the Art of Living courses, our audience profile is now that of the C&S 4+ category," he says. The lengthy discourses, which Aastha started off with nearly 18 months ago, have given way to more locally relevant content, Scaria says.

Sudhanshu Maharaj - benefiting from TV spiritualism

Advertisers, sensing the change in viewer mood, have moved in for the kill. Brands like MDH spices, Kayam Churna, Videocon and varied jewelry stores appear regularly on the channel, which claims to have a reach of 18 million households in India.

Sanskar, the other spiritual channel that debuted two years ago in the country with a dedicated 24 hour programming, is more realistic when it comes to commercial survival. "We believe in operating on commercial principles, and giving advertisers value for money," says marketing director Dinesh Kabra. While Kabra is cagey about revealing viewership figures (while maintaining that 95 per cent of Mumbai is covered), he says his channel offers more viewer loyalty. "Our viewer is patient. You won't find him surfing channels even during the ad break," he says.

The channel is currently inundated with brands like Smyle, Videocon, Emami, Lux and Khaitan, lured by a low tariff of Rs 850 per 10 seconds. "Though we are not a highly packaged channel, we are slowly changing our profile to suit viewer tastes," he avers. The musical format of its shows makes it more palatable than heavy discourses, Kabra believes, leading to increased advertiser interest.

The trend of using TV to air spiritual discourses however, was started by pubcaster Doordarshan in the mid 1990s to fill up its vacant early morning slots. Private channels, who saw a TRP potential in the show, followed suit. Zee started with an hour of discourses in the morning, followed by Sony, etc, Sahara, ETV and Lashkara who all realised a winner in spiritual programming. Aastha and Sanskar entered the fray soon after. Each 30-minute programme has 18 (10 seconds each) FCT ad spots, with devotee sponsors lining up even to pay Rs 375,000 per month as fixed time booking. Celebrity speakers like Sudhanshu Maharaj command a reported viewership of nearly one billion, receiving fan mail from all corners of the globe. Advertisers are sure to smell a popular programme when they see one.

Initiative Media associate V-P Partha Ghosh however begs to differ. An Aastha or a Sanskar cannot match the reach a Zee or a Sony can offer, he believes. Apart from the opportunity of frequency that an advertiser looks for, the channel's image and content are major factors that decide advertiser interest. Advertising on niche spiritual channels is feasible only if it is part of a bouquet of channels, believes Ghosh. Sanskar is a stand alone channel and is not part of any bouquet. Aastha is marketed with sister music channel CMM and is able to cash in on the fact. Zee, which had contemplated starting its own spiritual channel Chakra in mid 2001, scrapped the concept midway.

Kabra rues the fact that Sanskar does not have a platform to enable it to market itself in a big way. Ghosh endorses the view. "To survive in the long run, these channels will need to tie up with a platform," he says.

Some of these channels have been trying other survival tactics as well.

Advertisers realise the potential of spiritual channels

Maharishi Veda Vision, which debuted in 1998, is beamed down from a network of eight satellites that service India and 26 other countries. MVV does not need to seek ads as it is backed by a huge network of organisations, products and services like ayurvedic products, arts and crafts, a housing finance corporation, publications and software. Aastha tries a similar track on a smaller scale, with an Aastha Trust having a paid membership.

Ghosh however, feels that spiritual channels have a target group of 22 to 45-year-olds, and although they may do well at certain times at certain places, they are unlikely to attract the larger brands. "They will definitely blip, but once in a while," he says. Kabra on the other hand is keen to ensure that the channel starts delivering returns by the fourth of fifth year of operations. Novel programming like recaps of all ads shown on Sanskar on 31 December 2001 has drawn enthusiastic response from viewers and advertisers alike, he says.

Aastha, which runs ads on a ROS (run-of-schedule) basis, also believes that acceptability levels are increasing among varied classes of viewers. A minimum of eight hours of original programming daily, interspersed with live telecasts of devotional events and a 60,000 hour strong software library are all being used to lure the viewer into watching more.

All set to join the plethora of religion-driven channels is Golden Age Television launching 14 April. The channel is promoted by a Chennai based religious group Human Upliftment Organisation (HUO). The channel claims to be the only completely non-denominational channel on air today. While Zee's ambitious plans to launch Chakra, a spiritual channel, were aborted in 2001, the Syro Malabar Church promoted Jeevan TV, another channel dedicated to 'protecting morality in society', has also made its appearance recently.

On Indian television, the crusades are just beginning. 

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