India: God's own episodes

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Spiritual airwaves flood the Indian sky.
Aarti Shah, 48, would like to attend satsangs. But work, as proprietor of Cyberstation, a Web designing company in Mumbai, leaves her with little time for religious pursuits. So she turns to the plethora of religious channels on her TV to offer her "the daily dose of wisdom".
"What could be more convenient than gaining knowledge from watching television?" asks Aarti. "The swamis talk about the scriptures and their application in daily life so it doesn't even sound remote. I especially like watching the yoga show where a live audience practises pranayama. They are bringing yoga right into your living room." Aastha, Sanskar, Maharishi, Om Shanti, Maa TV, GOD, Quran TV, Sadhna, Jagran... the list of religious channels beamed from all over the country and abroad is long and growing. With a sizeable number of people like Aarti actually watching them, and hopefully, benefiting, these channels are here to stay, despite racy soaps and limited advertisements.

Most religious channels count on revenue from advertisements but also make sure that they are not in contradiction with the profile of a socio-spiritual channel.

Says Kirit Mehta, managing director of Mumbai-based Aastha TV, which was launched four years ago, "Aastha, positioned as The Faith Channel, has garnered loyal viewership, which is above 35 years of age." It airs discussions, meditation techniques, documentaries and dramas, music, talk shows and festival coverage, besides astrology. The popular time slots are early morning and late evening, featuring Jaya Row and Sukhbodhanandji.

Targeting a common audience couldn't have been more challenging for these channels, what with most of them having to invite the same spiritual leaders. "There are some 10 big preachers whom no channel can do without," says Anil Anand, channel head of Zee TV's Jagran. The most popular faces on Aastha, Sanskar, Sadhna and Jagran, targeting the Hindus, are Sant Morari Bapu, Guru Maa, Sukhbodhanandji, Sudhanshu Maharaj and Asaram Bapu.

Despite the apparent competition among 'Hindu' channels, each claims a distinct identity. "We do not consider others competitors since they are also trying to do some good work," says Mehta. "Sanskar is more focused on bhakti (devotion) and less on adhyatma (spiritua-lism) while Sadhna has a mix of both. Aastha focuses on the universal values of life, cutting across caste, creed and age. We are socio-spiritual and apolitical; movies and poli-ticians are never there on our channel."

Sadhna, on the other hand, covers current affairs and entertainment as well. "We have a responsibility towards the present generation, to introduce them to the customs and values of India," says Barkha Arora, vice-president of Sadhna. "Besides devotional music, discourses, astrology, spiritual tourism and festi-val celebrations, we also feature artistes and NGOs. These interactive shows, while helping to raise funds for their projects, also allow viewers to contribute by raising new social issues."

Jagran, which was launched early this year, is the latest and the 19th from the Zee stable. "Jagran was primarily positioned as a religious entertainment channel as opposed to a generic religious channel," says Anand. "We broadened the base from a conventional target audience [55 years and above] to rope in the 30-plus segment as well as children. Apart from our regular prime time discourses we have a mix of mythological movies, religious programmes on organic living, and interactive astro-solutions in English and Hindi. We have select gurus like Satya Sai Baba, Guru Ma, Sudhanshuji Maharaj, Morari Bapu and Brahmakumari."

Jagran's USP is religious entertainment. "It is difficult for people to watch discourse after discourse without break," says Anand. "That's why we have Ramayana, Mahabharata and Jai Santoshi Maa. Moreover, religion and comedy, have a very high repeat value." The other reason for the model, he says, was obviously to woo advertisers.

Religion as entertainment

While Jagran's religious entertainment model may have notched a sizeable 1.2 TRP, Yatra, a religious show on Star TV, scales to a whopping 3.5. "In this pilgrimage-based show, we feature old and historic temples, churches, gurdwaras and masjids," says Deepti Bhatnagar, who hosts Yatra. "The show is almost two years old now, and from one show every week, we have grown to 18 shows in a month. Such shows give viewers a break from pure entertainment."

While TRPs alone may not indicate the popularity of a show, advertisers certainly do. Says Anand of Jagran, "Right now, we have half a dozen advertisers like MDH, Night Queen and Ashok Masalas coming in but soon we will have more clients in the fast moving commercial goods category. Telecom players and makers of specialised health products and gem stones are also interested in advertising."

Most religious channels count on advertising revenue but also make sure the ads are in tune with the image of the channel. "The channel runs on the revenue from the slots booked by the spiritual leaders," says Mehta of Aastha. "We are open to ads but they should not be in contradiction with the profile of a socio-spiritual channel." Anand is more specific. "Anything that is to do with paan and gutkhas is not welcome," he says. "We have no problem as long as there is no sex or violence in the ads."

Spiritual and the mundane: Sadhna offers religion, current affairs and entertainment

However, GOD TV, the Jerusalem-based Christian channel that set up office in Chennai two years ago, does not consider advertisements and TRPs as the benchmark of their popularity. "We gauge our popularity from the increasing number of viewer responses from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad, and the northeast," says Christellda Jennifer, special pro-gramme coordinator of GOD TV India. "Most of our revenue is generated through donations and airtime. We do not encourage commercial advertisements but prefer events, charity and educational ads. Our channels are promoted through churches. In today's world which is full of pain, GOD channel brings hope by encouraging the viewers to pray and await the best from God." Bringing the message are speakers like Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes and Kay Arthur, and Indians like Dr D.G.S. Dhinakaran and Dr Paul Dhinakaran of Jesus Calls Ministries, Dr K.P. Yohanan, Mohan C. Lazarus and Sam P. Chelladurai.

Viewers, at least some of them, seem to be drawing comfort from the discourses. "For the elderly who watch it regularly, it means a lot," says Sharon D'souza, 32, who is a social worker in Mumbai. "When you're feeling low, it can prove quite uplifting. I would not consider their religious teachings a substitute for a mass but it can enhance one's spiritual life."

However, there are nonconformists like Abu, a 24-year-old Mumbaikar, who does not care about watching religion on TV. "I was appalled at the kind of stuff the clerics speak on Quran TV," says Abu. "With due respect, I hate to say that religious leaders are using these channels to voice their narrow perspectives on religion to misguide the youth and increase their ranks." Rifat, 22, is a devout Muslim but does not feel the need to watch religious channels for spiritual growth.

Jayshree Brahmachari of Mumbai is not so devout. But she swears by the power of these programmes to facilitate positive thinking. "I like watching some programmes on Aastha," says Jayshree, 57, who retired as analyst in a pharma company and is now a volunteer at the Home for the Aged in the city. "I prefer those programmes that can be related to the realities of modern life." There is no denying that religion sells.

By Kinjal Dagli
27 June 2004, The Week (India)