Big Fat Indian Wedding Gets Fatter

The growing excesses of the Indian wedding industry, which have been chronicled in newspaper and television reports across the globe and spawned a multi-million dollar industry, have now resulted in a round-the-clock television channel, Shagun TV.

"Marriage is indeed one of the biggest celebrations in an Indian's life," said Anuranjan Jha, Shagun TV's managing director, and the brains behind the channel. "The channel carries the same flavor. It is for this reason that the largest F&B, apparel, jewelry, consumer durables and furniture players want a piece of this pie. With Shagun TV, we want to ensure that we set the pace for the changing face of the Indian broadcast industry."

The country's new wedding entertainment channel hopes to cash in on the Indian wedding market, which is valued at an estimated US$38 billion a year and is growing 25 to 30 percent annually, according to analysts.

In fact India has gone wild over weddings, partly because of the wildly popular television series My Big Fat Indian Wedding. Weddings and the preparation that go into them are all about ostentation and wild excess, from matrimonial columns in Indian dailies to online matchmaking portals, exotic honeymoon packages peddled by travel agents to caterers laying out lavish feasts for thousands of guests and wedding planners who recreate Bollywood-style sets for couples to say "I do."

The free-to-air channel, currently available in 15 cities, has both fiction and non-fiction programming including shows on wedding planning, astrology, relationships, shopping, make-up and honeymoon destinations. There is also a bridal makeover show, and one on the often-fraught relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law. There's "Gold n' Beautiful," showcasing bridal jewelry and marriage-themed soap operas.

Astrology and matchmaking shows are integral parts of the production mix. Gradually, graver topics like dowry demands, divorces and inter-caste marriages will be introduced, say the channel's executives.

In one talk show, "So It's Final," engaged couples share details about how they met, the qualities they look for in their spouses, and their expectations of married life. The channel's research has shown that Hindi fiction shows manage to build greater traction and a spike in the ratings as soon as marriages are constructed and showcased.

A broadcast journalist for 15 years, Anuranjan Jha says the idea for launching a wedding channel struck him 12 years ago when he himself tied the knot through a matrimonial site. Since then, he says, he has been mulling creating content based on Indian marriages -- of which there are 10 million a year.

However, keeping in mind Indian culture, none of the channel's shows will feature sex or serious marital discord. "Our aim isn't to titillate viewers, but to offer advice on how a couple and their families can enrich their lives," Jha said.

Shagun's target audience are the millions of Indians: singles and newlyweds aged 22 to 32 which make up nearly 60 percent of the country's demographic, as well as family members closely involved in the extravagant marriage process.

Although media analysts say Shagun's model may not work amid the proliferation of channels and fragmentation of audiences, that hasn't discouraged advertisers. A slew of FMCG brands, jewelry stores, real estate companies and consumer durables brands have snapped up ad and sponsorship spots on the channel despite the fact that the country's television airwaves are crowded with 700 channels.

Another revenue stream is couples shelling out an average of US$11,000 to US$19,000 to flaunt their multi-day wedding festivities on the channel — with the price depending on how many nights of the celebration they want aired.

According to the channel's executives, Shagun's offerings will give viewers "a deeper and more fulfilling viewing experience" compared to existing channels.

Smita Jayakar, who regularly follows the channel's shows, says the programs have helped her decide where to shop for her wedding trousseau from for her upcoming December nuptials. "My mother and I get a lot of ideas about where to shop for to get the best deals." About 900 guests are expected for the Delhi-based chartered accountant's wedding, to be held at a five-star hotel.

Smita's mother believes the channel is a great idea as it provides a one-stop shop for parents scrunched for time and snowed under with the weight of elaborate preparations. "We've been able to identify the best shops for clothes, floral decorations and gifts from the channel," she said.

Despite the all-pervading economic gloom in the country -- GDP growth at a decade low of 4.4 percent while the value of the rupee has eroded by 20 percent since May -- Indian weddings are becoming louder and more extravagant. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, India's online matrimony market itself, in addition to the billions spent off-camera, is valued at at least US$500 million and is growing at a robust clip of 30 percent annually.

"Like in the West, cosmopolitan Indians are now quite keen to put their lives up for public consumption," said Dr. Prabha Khatri, a sociologist and marriage counselor. "Earlier, it was only the community which mattered. But as the communitarian aspect of society erodes, it has become increasingly important to announce how wealthy you are and that you've arrived through other means."