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Owned by Corporates, Run by Babas – the Economics Behind India’s Devotional Television

IndianMascot

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The billionaire yogi has always had a strong bond with media. His tryst with television goes back to 2002 when he was spotted by Aastha TV’s founding editor Madhav Kant Mishra, who met him at one of his small yoga shivirs in Haridwar in early 2002.

“My first impression about Ramdev was that he can make it big. I found two of his traits sellable: firstly, he was a ‘sanyasi’, and secondly, he was able to do ‘nauli kriya’, churning his stomach. The moment I saw him doing it, I knew he would be a big hit. However, the top management was not convinced and we lost Ramdev to our rival channel – Sanskar TV,” Mishra says.

Back then, it was a gamble for Sanskar to bet on an unknown yoga guru from Haridwar. But the show was a huge hit, and the channel’s TRPs were going through the roof.

Stunned by his sudden rise in popularity, Aastha TV realised its mistake and poached him for the same slot within a year. It was through these two channels that Ramdev found his mass following.

Cut to 2019. Ramdev has owned both Sanskar and Aastha TV for some time and has aggressively expanded the ambit of his media business since these two acquisitions. He has a controlling stake in and operates ten Hindu devotional channels.

Ramdev’s media empire

Ramdev currently operates his media businesses through three entities – Vedic Broadcasting Ltd, Aastha Broadcasting Network Ltd. and Sanskar Info TV Private Ltd.

Similar to Patanjali Ayurved, Ramdev doesn’t own any stake in these companies and majority of the shares are owned by Acharya Balkrishna and companies controlled by him.




Apart from these, Sanskar Info TV has recently acquired another devotional TV channel – Shubh TV, according to multiple industry sources.

Shubh TV was owned by Pittie Group, the entity which had earlier sold Sanskar Info TV to Ramdev few years ago. When contacted, Patanjali did not confirm the development and declined to participate in the story.

How does the money work?

The basic economics behind a devotional TV channel is unique. It differs in two crucial ways, when compared to the rest of the broadcasting industry.

Firstly, content is free for all devotional TV channels. Any other channel either produces its own content or pay for the content. For instance, a sports channel usually purchases the broadcasting rights for any sporting event. A general entertainment channel buys the television rights for a movie or invests its own money to commission and produce a TV show.

Secondly, devotional TV channels are not dependant on advertising revenues. They sell advertising slots but it usually has a modest share in the company’s total revenues.

While content is therefore free for these channels, one major area of expense for them is distribution cost, which they have to pay to DTH players and cable operators to distribute their channel, and teleporting fees for uplinking and downlinking their content on satellites.

“Even for market leaders such as Aastha TV, Sanskar TV or Sadhna TV, advertisements form only 10-20% of their topline. New and smaller channels hardly earn anything through advertisements,” an industry veteran, who declined to be identified, told The Wire.

A 20-minute slot for a month on bigger players costs around Rs 4.5-5 lakhs and as we go down the order, the rates are as low as Rs 30,000-50,000 for a similar slot on new and smaller players in this space.

A similar discrepancy can be seen in the advertising rates as well. A ten second advertisement once each day for a month costs approximately Rs. 80,000 on Aastha TV and approximately Rs. 1,15,000 on Sanskar TV.

An advertisement slot on Sadhna TV and Bhakthi TV will cost around Rs. 50,000 while the same slot on Disha TV is available at half of the price, according to data sourced from media buying agency The Media Ant.

The bulk of the money that devotional TV channels get, therefore, comes from ‘slot sales’.

“The main revenue model for these channels is the babas themselves. Can you imagine an IPL organiser coming to a sports channel and is willing to pay for getting its matches on air? That becomes a reality in case of a devotional TV channel,” the senior industry insider added.

On the more popular channels, not even one second of a time slot is run for free.

It is invariably a paid slot that is purchased by a spiritual guru or an advertisement slot bought by any brand to promote its product to the audience. Technically-speaking, everything on a devotional channel is branded content. Spiritual gurus, in particular, are eager to pay the channels for promoting their brand.

“There was a time when there used to be an unofficial auction for a slot on Aastha and Sanskar TV. Spiritual gurus and babas used to aggressively quote rates higher than their so-called rivals to get a slot ahead of them. A slot on these channels became a gold standard for spiritual gurus,” said Madhav Kant Mishra, Aastha TV’s founding editor who has also worked with other devotional TV channels such as Sadhna, Katyani and Disha TV in his three decade-long career.

Soon, other entrepreneurs saw an opportunity and there was a flurry of new devotional TV channels. Their initial business plan was centred around selling slots to those who failed to get one on Aastha or Sanskar TV.

Currently, the Indian devotional TV industry has three types of owners. The first is a yogi or guru who is interested in starting his own TV channel. The second is a businessman who already has existing media interest and wants to add a religious channel as an additional offering.

The third type of owner is a businessman who usually runs a totally different type of business but happens to be an ardent follower of a spiritual guru, and hence, starts a religious channels to show his gratitude towards his guru.

The Wire