A chariot race for TRPs

BY RAKHI GHOSH| IN Regional Media | 03/07/2014
When the Jagannath Yatra is on, almost nothing else figures on Odisha's main channels.
RAKHI GHOSH explains how and why the Yatra became a grand TV extravaganza. PIX: Focus TV~s promo

It is hard to imagine it now, but when Doordarshan Kendra, Cuttack, decided to telecast the world-famous Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath live in the early 1990s, there was an uproar. Why show God on TV, asked intellectuals. Who will come for the Yatra, asked the sevayats (temple servitors) in Puri, if everybody can watch it in their living rooms. Two decades on, the scene has changed dramatically. On certain days in June and July, the only event or programme available to viewers on the main Oriya-language channels is the Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath. Not just that, regional channels in other states, for example Gujarat and West Bengal, also want their piece of the Yatra. They buy and relay live feed from the Oriya channels.

Showing god on TV is no doubt big business. Ratikant Satpathy, Vice President of Odisha Television Network (OTN), the leading TV company in the state, with four channels, will not specify how much money his company makes from its lavish live telecast of the Yatra. However, he says it more than recovers the Rs 75 lakh it spends. The Yatra is shown live, on five days, scattered across June and July, on OTN’s news and current affairs channel, OTV, and its devotional channel, Prarthana. OTV, which splashes out on celebrity anchors, and a battery of cameras to cover the Yatra from every possible angle, has been doing this for seven years now.  Even though there is now a scramble to cover the entire Yatra among other Oriya channels, Satpathy says his channels have the edge. “Every year (Oriya) viewership is increasing, so the pie is getting bigger. And being the leader in the market, we get the lion’s share.”

However, Satpathy is keen to emphasise that this is not just about money. “Profit and TRPs are important, but what is even more important is the connection this gives us with our viewers,” he maintains. “Nearly 15 lakh people rush to Puri every year to witness this event, but those who cannot want to experience the festive mood and the ambience. We show them every aspect of the event because we do not want to lose their trust.” He points out that his channels spare no effort to relay those parts of the Yatra that take place in the small hours of the morning, even though they do not attract as much advertising as day-time events.

OTV and eight other channels show the major events of the Rath Yatra, each occurring on a different day, in copious detail; the Snana Purnima (a ritual in which the main deities, Lord Jagannath and his siblings, are ceremonially bathed and decorated), the Gundicha yatra (in which Jagannath comes out of his abode with his brother and sister to go to his aunt’s place on a chariot), the Bahuda yatra (the return of the chariots), and Suna Besha (in which the gods wear heavy gold ornaments). Finally, there is Niladri Bije,  in which Lord Jagannath enters his heavenly abode Srimandir, even as Goddess Laxmi fights with him and does not let him enter, but relents when he offers her sweets. While the Gundicha Yatra and Bahuda Yatra are shown live for 8 to 10 hours from morning to evening, Suna Besha starts in the evening at 5pm and ends at 11pm, and Niladri Bije starts at 10pm and only ends at 3am the next morning.

This grand TV feast started out as a modest meal. Akshya Mohanty, who as a producer at Doordarshan Kendra Cuttack was given the job of launching the live telecast in early 90s, recalls that from the late 70s, Orissa Doordarshan covered a few highlights of the yatra, which it sent to Delhi Doordarshan for national viewing. In 1992, when the idea of the live telecast was mooted, there was “huge opposition”, he says, but thanks to the backing of the then Information and Broadcasting Minister, K.P. Singh Deo, who is from Orissa, live telecasts did begin, and were a big success. “There was national live telecast of this event in 1993 and in 1994, and it even went across the globe, to around 108 countries,” recalls Mohanty.  DD continues to show four days of the Yatra live, on several of its channels.  But says Mohanty ruefully, “It was (then) purely religious sentiment attached to Lord Jagannath, but today these private channels have made it all very commercial”. 

In 2002, Eenadu TV became the first private channel to sense opportunity and enter this Doordarshan dominated space, to be later joined by OTV and the other channels. Surprisingly, from 2009 to 2011, most Oriya channels covered the Yatra with their own cameras, but some later switched to buying feed from the major Oriya channels. This year, apart from the usual players, Doordarshan, OTV and ETV a new channel, Focus Odisha, which launched just a month ago, is also conducting its own live telecast of the Yatra. Its editor, DN Singh, points out that his channel is doing this because the Yatra gives it a chance to establish its identity with viewers. However, there is a business opportunity here too: it will probably spend only about half of what OTV spends on its telecast, and is selling its feed to smaller channels.

When it’s Yatra-time, the channels take no note of anything else happening in the state. Their editors say that viewers in Orissa care about little else at this time. This may not be true of all viewers, for example younger ones, but it is certainly the dominant sentiment. For example, senior journalist Pratap Mohanty feels that unless there is a major mishap or emergency, it is perfectly okay to keep the focus on the Yatra. “Oriyas have a sentimental link with the Lord,” he says, “and they want to see every detail.”

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