In millions of homes across India, as dusk falls, the television picture tube flickers to life. For those confined to small towns and villages, except by the power of their dreams, the TV is more than entertainment — it is a gateway to the world beyond.
The real market for television programming lies in those mofussil towns and dusty hamlets.
It is a reality that media companies in India are slowly waking up to. Years after television came to the country in the early eighties. Years after the dull monopoly of state-run television crumbled in the early nineties.
The TV Today Network Ltd, part of the media conglomerate, the Living Media group, has now launched a 24-hours news satellite channel to be up-linked from India. Aaj Tak, which started out as a 30-minute current affairs programme on Doordarshan, will be the backed up by a 300-strong news gathering and marketing team.
In the last quarter of the year 2000, CNN started programs exclusively for South Asia, and is reportedly looking at a vernacular channel. The BBC already has Hindi programmes. "The whole idea of Hindi as downmarket is a creation of the English educated elite. If television is to succeed as a mass medium, it must speak the language of the masses," says G. Krishnan, executive director, TV Today. Analysts say that the foray of major houses into the vernacular medium is an indication of a slow shift away from the elite urban-English speaking metropolitan cities to rural India, where it is estimated that TV penetration is growing at 3 to 4 million households every year.
Repeated Indian Media & Market Studies surveys, conducted by market research agency ORG-Marg and the Media Research Users Council, have revealed that the growth in Indian cable & satellite (C&S) TV penetration is coming from small towns with less than 100,000 people. It is estimated that there are more than 22 million sets in rural India, and more than 122 million Indians in rural areas watch television. And they are hungry for more. "Despite the recent proliferation of TV channels, there is scope for another 15 to 25 satellite channels," says P.N. Vasanti, an analyst with the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a Delhi-based organisation that focuses on media issues.
Though television is ruled by the entertainment channels, which command astronomical figures for advertising, TV Today is hoping to cash in on the tendency of news channels to have a fairly consistent viewership throughout the day, unlike entertainment channels that reach peak viewership only at prime time.
And contrary to the perception that rural people are interested only in films and slapstick, there is a huge appetite for news out there. A study by CMS in mid-2000 showed that, in rural areas, 80 per cent of cable TV operators offered their own video channels and these local channels saw an increase in viewership when they added local news. So popular was the local news slot that some operators gave two video channels, one for feature films and the other for folk music, local programmes and local news. Says Vasanti, "The regional channels being launched by various national channel operators are now facing competition from these local channels. In fact, some of these local players have their locally branded channels."
Another major advantage is that by moving aggressively into the Hindi programming market, advertisers can target the best of the rural areas. Surveys conducted in rural areas show that most TV owners in rural areas tend to have salaried jobs, own land, or were in business and trade. On the other hand, agricultural workers, who account for 50 per cent of the rural population owned only 15 per cent of rural TV sets. Ownership of television sets also was skewed to the better-off states. In richer states like Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh over 40 per cent of the rural populace have access to TV at home, while in the poorer eastern states like West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar, less than 15 per cent of rural households owned television sets. In states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Assam, ownership of television sets was between 18 and 25 per cent. And, with the exception of Kerala, most of the television sets were black and white.
Such rural predominance has seen major companies eye the market greedily. Companies like Hindustan Lever sell a majority of brands such as Lifebuoy in the rural areas, and have tailored their advertisements to appeal to rural India.
At the same time, as urban India is more of an aspiration for most rural Indians, advertising is unlikely to change radically to cater to the tastes of a rural audience. "Ironically, most advertising tends to be Delhi-centric or Bombay-centric, though most people who watch the ads are increasingly from the rural areas," comments Santosh Desai, executive vice president, McCann-Erickson.
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