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Om Economics

note: over the past ten or so years, india has seen religious tv channels mushroom. this article, written in 2003 during the businessworld years, took a walk through the business underpinnings of india’s religious television.

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Sadar Bazaar. One of the older markets in Delhi. Look around and you see buildings worn and tired with age. On the streets below, the traffic is indescribably chaotic. Tongas jostle with battered LCVs for space. Autorickshaws keenly watch this struggle, craftily biding their time. As well-preserved slices of history go, there is not much to recommend this part of delhi. But if you are trying to understand how religious television works, you could do a lot worse than start here.

And so, while waiting for Manohar Lal Kumar to finish praying, I think about the reason that brings me to Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar. Over the past three years, religious channels have boomed in this country. Three hindu channels are already on air – another three are expected to go live soon. It seems like an indictment of our middle class existence. We erect castles to stave off an increasingly unfamiliar world. And, living like that, we wonder if these walls are strong enough, what the future holds for us, and if we can lead a happier, more contented life.

Every morning, millions of Indian households looking for answers to such questions follow a simple ritual. They rise, switch on their television sets and tune into Aastha, Sanskar or Sadhna. Chances are you, or someone you know, avidly watches these channels. And it’s just as likely that you are atleast noddingly familiar with some of the gurus who preach on these channels – Asaram Bapu, Sudhanshuji, Prashantbhai Ojha, Murari Bapu…

The next time you are flitting from channel to channel, pause before these channels for a while. They have an interesting story to tell — not about fond right-wing hopes of a Hindu revival, or about the sages themselves. Instead, they are a reminder that, like God, the rules of economics are all pervasive. Watch them for a while and then, ask yourself: how do they make money?

Is it advertising?

Do they sell tapes of these discourses?

Or are they just run by wealthy Hindus eager to do their bit for Hinduism?

No. They don’t. And, they aren’t. In September, Businessworld spent over two weeks tracing the cash flows that sustain this flickering neon universe of picture tube religion. It’s not an easy story to unearth. It’s considered bad form to link religion and business. Gurus refused to meet us. The channels clammed up as well. To understand the business, BW had to meet a number of people who have plugged into this business ecosystem – people who produce these programmes, the administrators of ashrams, people who sell audio and video recordings of the pravachans, channel executives willing to speak off the record, and the people who organize pravachans – people like Kumar.

A tall man in his sixties, a member of the RSS and the VHP, Kumar is the chairman of the Shri Sanatan Dharam Pratinidhi Sabha, Delhi, and the Akhil Bharatiya Shri Sanatan Dharma Maharishi Valmiki Mahasabha. On the day BW met him, a pravachan he had organized was underway in north-west delhi. Guru Ma, a regular on the religious channels, was conducting a 5 day discourse. It’s, by the way, these pravachans, which are recorded, snipped into 20-minute segments, and telecast on these channels.

The next day, we went to Kirti Nagar where the pravachan had entered its penultimate day. The pandal was packed. 10,000 people had turned up. Cars and two-wheelers lined the road for a kilometer on either side of the venue. For conducting this 5 day pravachan, Guru Ma was paid about Rs 10 lakh. If Kumar had opted for a lesser-known guru, he wouldn’t have paid as much – maybe Rs 50,000, perhaps lesser still. But, the turnout would have been much lower as well. Even so, Guru Ma is a mid-range guru. The preachers at the top are Asaram Bapu, Sudhanshuji, Murari Bapu, and Prashantbhai Ojha. For a single pravachan, which could range between 7 to 9 days, they can be paid as much as Rs 30-50 lakh. For their pravachans, they can pull in more than one lakh people. They have such clout today that they organize their own pravachans.

In the management speaking circuit, most business gurus would gladly cut off their right hand to reach the stature of a Peter Drucker or a Michael Porter. Extend that simile to this world, and you will perhaps find that the closest approximation to Drucker is Asaram Bapu.

Visit his ashram on Delhi’s Vande Mataram Road, and it is easy to understand why. The ashram itself is brilliantly located. Nestling among the dry acacia forests of the ridge, the ashram makes one feel as if Delhi is a long distance away. Step inside, and you might even see a peacock or two strutting about inside. And yet, the ashram is right in the heart of the city. Connaught Place is just a 15 minute ride away.

On this Saturday evening, the ashram was moderately crowded. About fifty men and women were quietly sitting on large tarpaulins before a TV playing the discourses of the Bapu. Others were devoutly walking around a peepul tree. A plaque had been placed before it, said in chaste hindi: “The Bapu has blessed this tree with divine powers. Walk around it seven or more times, in good faith, and your wishes will come true.” A large photograph of the Bapu hung from the tree’s muscular trunk. Devotees would genuflect before the photograph and then walk around the tree. Elsewhere, there were shops – little more than asbestos roofing and bamboo scaffolding – selling everything from incense sticks to prayer books, from herbal oil to toothpaste to soaps. All manufactured by the ashram.

That week, Asaram Bapu was preaching somewhere in Gujarat. Ajay Shah, who runs all the ashrams of Asaram Bapu joined me. (Bapu’s) speaking calendar is booked solid, he told me. “He is now speaking almost through the month. There are no slots available for the next three years.” Indeed, a week later, Bapu was in Rajasthan. The response is overwhelming, said Shah, “All our pravachans are now conducted on the outskirts of a city. At the latest one, at Palanpur in Gujarat, over 2 lakh people turned up.”

It wasn’t always like this. Bapu began traveling from village to village, town to town, giving discourses in the late 70s. In those days, said Shah, “He didn’t have much of a following. People had heard of him only in parts of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.” His fame began to build in 1992 – the year of the Mahakumbh at Ujjain. Only then did people from all over India hear him speak. And then, when they went back home, they told others about Bapu. Around the same time, he got a morning slot on Sony Entertainment Television, and he began becoming a household name.

In a sense, Asaram Bapu has lived through a transition. For millennia, a guru could build up a following only by traveling extensively, painstaking knitting a following together. Things began to change only in the early nineties, when channels like Sony and Zee began airing such discourses in the mornings. But the genre got a big push three years ago when Aastha, the first channel devoted to religion, was launched. Since then, new channels have steadily entered the market. Sanskar followed Aastha. Six months ago, a third channel, Sadhna, came in. Today, three new channels – Ahimsa, Sanskriti and Sudarshan – are about to be launched.

I suspect you see what I am leading up to. The smaller gurus eke out a marginal existence. Some don’t make enough money to support their team – the people who play the musical instruments. Some of them even speak for free, agreeing for a cut of the donations. In the past, the only way to assemble a following was to go from village to village, town to town. Now, religious TV is offering another way to maximize reach. Nods Rakesh Gupta, who has started Sadhna, the third religious channel in India, “By coming on TV, the gurus can build a following. That is how they can command greater fees when they address a discourse. The organisers will willingly pay more as they too will make more money — greater turnout, more donations.”

The bottomline? Unlike the rest of the television business where the channels chase content, it’s the other way round in the bazaars of religious TV. The gurus pay to get their pravachans on air.

The industry is coy about this. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the head of the north Indian operations at one of these channels said: “No one will ever admit that they take money. They want others to think they are doing good religious work.” Indeed, when contacted, both Kamal Bakhtani (the marketing head of Aastha) and Dinesh Kabra (his counterpart at Sanskar) flatly rejected the suggestion. As for Sadhna, Gupta said he launched the channel because the other two were too commercialized, taking money for airtime. Only his channel, he said, is run as a non-profit organization. Nonetheless, they all do. On weekdays, a 20 minute slot on primetime, defined as between 7 to 9, morning and evening, costs anywhere between Rs 1.2 lakh to 2 lakh on Aastha and Sanskar. At other times, they fall to about Rs 75,000. On the weekends, rates are higher still, climbing to Rs 12,000-15,000 for a single 20 minute slot. At Sadhna, which is still building up its viewership, the rates are lower.

It is a profitable business to be in. Take Aastha. It was started with a very small investment – “Less than Rs 3 crore,” says a senior executive at the channel. It was, however, helped by the fact that its parent, CMM, already ran a music channel, so it also rode on that infrastructure. Also, being the first off the block, it didn’t have to spend much on publicity. Sanskar and Sadhna, says a former senior executive at Aastha, had to spend more. Even so, he estimates, very easy to launch such a channel within a budget of Rs 10 cr. When asked, Sadhna’s Gupta concurred with that number.

The running costs are low as well. Aastha pays about Rs 6-7 lakh every month as satellite rentals. It spends another Rs 5-6 lakh running a transmitting station in Singapore. Factor in the costs for manpower, offices and the studios, says the executive, and that will come to another Rs 15-20 lakh. in all, every month, the channel spends Rs 30-35 lakh.

In contrast, it makes Rs 50 lakh every month from the gurus alone. “If anything, we have a backlog. We have more requests for time than we have slots available,” a manager in its Delhi office told us. The gurus account for 60-70% of the channel’s revenues. Only 20% of the revenues come from advertising. And the rest comes from charging for album (bhajans, etc) promotions, covering religious events and profiling religious trusts.

Why is the share of advertising so low? In India, 65% of TV ad spends go to the mass entertainment channels – hindi and vernacular. All other channels — movies, sports, news… — have to split the remaining 35%. And here, the religious channels run into some peculiar problems. One, their viewership numbers are low – TRPs might climb to 2, but mostly hover around one. The channels ascribe that to the fact that, while a lot of their viewership hails from the hinterland, this is not tracked by the audience measurement systems. Also, says LV Krishnan, the head of TAM, “Companies are not comfortable aligning with a particular religion or sect.” Finally, the target audience is usually the elderly.

But even so, despite the lack of advertising, the channels run a tight operation. They are slimly staffed. Content costs are negligible. But having said that, this is also a very unorganised business. Nods the manager at Aastha, “There is no rule that a small guru should pay more than a large guru.” It’s logical to assume that a large guru might pay less as he brings in eyeballs. But, the amount even a small guru pays depends also on how powerful his contacts are, on whether he knows the channel management, and so on.

Thinking about operational efficiency brings us to a surprising conclusion. The organizers operate on a small scale anyway. The best organized people in this bunch are the gurus. Especially, the ones on top of the speaking circuit.

The guru struggling to break into the big league will want to come on the telly. You already know that. What you don’t know is why Asaram Bapu and his ilk are willing to pay (or get his disciples to pay for him) for airtime. It’s not only because they want to stay top of mind. There is another reason.

With every 20 minute slot, a guru gets three extra minutes. He can either sell this time to an advertiser, thus getting the money to pay for the slot, or, he can promote his own products – Asaram Bapu’s ashram, you will recall, sells oil, assorted herbal medicines, toothpastes, incense sticks, soaps et al. A whopping 80% of all commercial time, said the north Indian head, are used by the ashrams to promote their own products. They have also found a new way to get the slot to pay for itself. At the end of every 20 minute segment, they have a section which says “This programme is brought to you courtesy ‘X'”. They tell their devotees that if they pay Rs 2,000 or 5,000 for this, their names and photographs will be aired. As an additional lolly, they also tell the disciples that the name of their company or product can also be mentioned – advertising.

While I was talking to him, he got a call asking when a guru’s pravachan was being aired. Was it a representative of the guru, I ask. No, said the manager, “That was the guru himself. They do all their negotiations in person.” Most of the gurus come on all three channels, and they keep careful tabs to ensure that their programmes don’t ever run at the same time on two channels. In fact, even during the live pravachans, said the manager at Aastha, mindful that they are being taped, the gurus have started summing up their message every 19 minutes or so. That simplifies the editing process.

Also, reaching out to the audience is just the first part of the process. Every listener doesn’t become an acolyte. How do the gurus ensure that the viewership translates into following? For a while now, a young account planner at McCann Erickson, Samit Mehrotra, has been trying to answer that. The gurus are master communicators, he says. To drive a message home, they make deft use of metaphors. To simplify an abstract notion like the atma, they will say, “Just as a ceiling fan cannot work without electricity. Similarly, the human body is nothing without the atma.” It’s a mix of technology, religion and entertainment. Even so, one thing surprises Mehrotra. For all the fanfare, the gurus offer surprisingly little in terms of concrete suggestions. They might suggest Hari Bhajan as a ways of controlling rage, but nothing more than that.

Simple. Says Shiv Visvanathan, a sociologist at Delhi’s Centre for Studying Developing Societies, the middle class leads a discontented life. And yet, it is unable to make any bold changes. That is the angst-ridden niche which the gurus fill. “You will not find uncomfortable suggestions from them,” says Visvanathan, “They will not tell you to renounce everything and lead frugal lives.” Instead, they offer techniques for coping with life, and reassurance that at heart, we are all good chaps. It is a more market-friendly approach. You can see this in the ashrams which are located in the heart of a city, not in far-flung towns or unattainable mountaintops. That is also where the products come in –good luck charms, ayurvedic FMCGs — anything that might lessen anxieties.

CK Prahalad famously described a family as a value-maximizing entity. The gurus are thinking along similar lines. The way to a happy existence, going by what they practice, is return on capital employed. In their world, sustained by flickering neon emissions, everything is calibrated to maximize ROCE – from the medium to the message.