Television

''The attempt to reach the top is our target but without being emotional about the numbers game" : Subhash Chandra - Zee Telefilms CMD

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A few years ago an Indian business newspaper had profiled Subhash Chandra as the Entrepreneur of the Year soon after he bought out Rupert Murdoch in three joint ventures, the story was titled 'From chawal (rice) to channel,' which summed up the essence of the man who has built a multi-billion dollar business empire having started exporting rice to the erstwhile USSR. At another time, a Time Warner magazine, which did a cover story on Chandra, described him as Asia’s Murdoch. The Indian media loves him --- clamouring for sound bytes and interviews, which are few and far between.

There is no doubt that there is a certain charisma about Chandra that even keeps retail and institutional investors happy and optimistic of the fact that one day their investment would turn into pots of gold; if they haven’t already. But side by side of such adulation, also goes controversies. When Zee Telefilms share price was on a roller-coaster in the early 2000s post unearthing of stock market manipulation by a clutch of stock brokers, it made a domestic financial institution head quip: Why cannot the two Cs (Chandra and controversy) stop dating each other? Told about this, a beedi-smoking Chandra laughed it off, saying in business one has to take certain risks and one should not get emotional about ups and downs.

Today as Chandra sits at the head of Essel group - the parent entity for Zee Telefilms, India's largest vertically integrated media company with presence in films, TV broadcasting, music and education and a combined turnover of over Rs 35 billion, his moves show that neither age nor circumstance have slowed down his reflexes.

At indiantelevision.com, we had no option, but to honour him with the No. 1 spot in our Executive Suite: Television's Top 20 2004.

Indiantelevision.com’s Anjan Mitra caught up with Chandra for a rare interview, even as he traversed the length and breadth of the country attending engagement parties of an NRI businessman, doing social work with tribals and minding the affairs of his various companies.

Excerpts:

How do you view the year 2004 for the whole Essel group and Zee Telefilms?

It was a good year for both as we went in for consolidation, preparing the path ahead for the year 2005.

What have been the major milestones or drawbacks for Zee Telefilms in 2004, according to you?

As I said, last year was a phase of consolidation for Zee Telefilms compared to the previous two years. The years 2002 and 2003 were volatile years for the company (the aftershocks of a stock market scam triggered off by big bull Ketan Parekh was still reverberating and Zee as a company had been under the government scanner). There were lot of intrigues surrounding the company, which stabilised to a great extent during 2004.

As a policy, we also decided to bring down the average age of the employees by two to three years and concentrate on content that I still think, despite sounding cliched, is the central point of this kind of business. The stabilising factor is proving good for the company.

What was the reason for hiring comparatively younger people in the company?

It dawned on us that media and entertainment business in India is very young and is still going through the evolutionary phase. Keeping that in mind, we thought it’s best to hire people at the ground level, groom them so that they can learn the tricks of the trade along the way and also come up with ideas that would be contemporary.

Which are the areas that you feel need to be spruced up in the new year as far as Zee Tele is concerned?

We need to be technology-ready. By that, I don’t mean we use outdated technology today, but look ahead and anticipate newer technologies coming in. Technologies that would affect the way media and entertainment business are carried out here. In that context, we need to prepare our content in such a way that could be made available to multiple distribution platforms whether it be cable or DTH or broadband or on mobile phones.

Zee Telefilms has decided to spend money and manpower on technology.

What are the initiatives being undertaken to be a tech driven company?

For starters, we are in the process of digitising Zee’s entire library. The attempt is to follow the digital format even for films for TV and normal theatres that Zee is producing or co-producing. This would enable us to be ready for content delivery on any type of platform - that is already present in India or a platform that is on the verge of entering the country.

"I have received some proposals from Sony's (Indian) investors. I haven’t yet responded to them"

But despite all these attempts, rivals have managed to hold sway throughout 2004 also, especially Star. What is your take on the competition that has pushed Zee Network to a distant No. 3 spot?

In any market, as in any other business, the fight is always between the number one, two and three players. Our attempt is to regain our lost glory and position, but it comes with a rider. The attempt to reach the top spot should always be the target - as it is with us - but without being emotional about the whole affair, especially the numbers game.

I don’t think it’s desirable to waste too much of precious time and get emotional mulling over the fact whether we could have been No. 1 or No. 2. What’s more important is that Zee is a key player in this sector and that we yearn to be the best.

Don’t you feel that bidding $ 308 million for Indian cricket telecast rights was audacious and that it could make recoveries that much more difficult?

We did some calculations and we think we have got our numbers correct. Despite Indian cricket team’s (indifferent) performance, we would still want to take that property.

You are interested in re-bidding for the cricket-telecast rights ?

Where does the question of re-bidding come into all this? The Supreme Court is hearing the matter at the moment and we are confident that we would get the cricket rights for $ 260 million. We are quite confident of this fact. This also means that I’m trying to say we would win the case.

(In the last quarter of 2004, ESPN Star Sports moved the court appealing against a decision of the Indian cricket board to award telecast rights of Indian cricket up to 2007 to Zee Telefilms, which had upped its bid to a humongous $ 308 million compared to a lesser price quoted by ESS. The petitioner has contended, amongst other things, that on technical grounds Zee cannot be awarded the rights and that the petitioner is technically the highest bidder. As others like BCCI and pubcaster Prasar Bharati joined the issue, the apex court has reserved its judgement on the case, even while partial paving the way for daily cricket-related work to continue.)

In private, BCCI officials have admitted to their reluctance to award Zee the telecast rights out of fears of default. They cite past instances like FM radio bidding when Zee bid high and then withdrew and when an affiliate failed to honour cricket-related marketing commitments to Prasar Bharati some years back. There is another instance of your company defaulting in a lottery case in Maharashtra. What are your comments?

If some Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) officials think that way, then why aren’t they putting things on record?

As far as past experience go, which you have cited, then I would say that in multiple businesses, certain things sometimes work, while others do not. These sort of things can, and do, happen with any corporate house. But that should not impact the present or future business activities.

Similarly, Zee or any of its affiliates' past should not be the criteria for awarding Zee Telefilms the cricket rights. After all, we are putting up money on the block. That’s certainly not a way to do business.

What are your expectations of Pradeep Guha who was plucked from the 'Times of India' group to be appointed as the Zee group CEO?

He is said to be good at sales, marketing, PR and packaging, etc. We are looking at using his multiple skills to good use, the same way as Times did.

It is also being said that you have offered to buy out the Indian/NRI shareholders who hold a minority stake in Sony Entertainment TV India, which manages Sony channels here. Any particular reason for making such an offer?

I have made no such offer. Rather, I have received some proposals from the Indian investors in Sony. Obviously, I cannot discuss the details, but I haven’t yet responded to them.

Why is it that despite a good headstart, Dish TV’s DTH service has managed only 150,000 subscribers? It is the case with Siti Cable too, which is being displaced as the No. 1 MSO in the country.

I don’t think Dish TV is doing badly. It has over 200,000 subscribers at the moment and the programming line up is constantly being improved. We are on the verge of formally launching the DTH service in the urban markets, which had been left untapped till now as we were focussing on the rural market.

As far as Siti Cable is concerned, we are in the process of putting some vitality back into the operation. For obvious reasons, the details cannot be spelt out at this juncture.

It seems that some sort of realignment is happening in the overall Essel/Zee entity. Is that why Yogesh Radhakrishnan has now been based in Dubai?

We have based Yogesh in Dubai as he is an experienced person and the Middle East is an important and big market for us. We would like to have sizable ground presence in the area.

What is your vision for 2005?

Vison 2005 is that we’ll have to do well. And we will do well. I am confident of that. We would have to further the narrow the gap between No. 1 and be ready for content delivery on multiple platforms.

As far as the industry goes, I think delivery of content will be a crucial issue.

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