2009: Top 10 Executives

2009. A year when most of the television industry gasped as the Indian economy slowed down and advertising and distribution revenues dried up even as costs went up. Executives burnt the midnight oil grappling with the downturn. Most of them deserve a salute for coping with the tough times. But there were some who came out triumphant and did wonders for the companies they lead. Indiantelevision.com takes a look at those who made the cut in our 2009‘s Top 10 Executives listing.

Our list is by no means comprehensive, but these gents and ladies clearly stood above the rest. The executives have not been listed in order of importance or achievement, and sure there are many more who made a difference. We raise a toast to them.

In the meanwhile take a dekko at our Top 10 Executives of 2009.

Rajesh Kamat & Ashvini Yardi

Rajesh Kamat did what was considered nigh impossible in 2009. Under his leadership, Colors, one of the late entrants in the general entertainment television sweepstakes, toppled both the leader Star Plus and the second placed Zee TV from their perches. He did not stop at that. With the help of clever engaging and disruptive programming from his programming head Ashvini Yardi, he maintained that top slot for the rest of the year.

And Kamat achieved that in just a matter of 13 months - a feat which could well enter the Guinness Book of World Records.

For long, rivals Sony and Zee had taken a shot at the top spot, but Star Plus appeared to be unshakeable. Kamat and his band of merry programmers however made it look fairly easy with a mix of differentiated, disruptive programming and distribution (Kamat‘s 3 Ds) on the back of savvy marketing. As the year was ending, he had actually got his company close to profitability with revenues of close to Rs 6.5 billion.

Kamat‘s success has to be juxtaposed against what happened to other players who dared to challenge the leader: new entrants 9X (launched by former Star CEO Peter Mukerjea) and Real took a beating and almost wound up. The other player NDTV Imagine ended up at the No 5 spot, and finally found a new owner in Turner.

During his days at Star Kamat had seen the channel rise from obscurity to leader. And he had gained amazing consumer insights during his earlier stint at Coke. He brought all of that bear in his uphill battle against the leaders. He gambled with a young enthusiastic team and the gamble paid off.

Today, he is the most sought after TV executive in the country. And he was rewarded with additionally responsibility just as the year ended: he was given additional charge of strategy, legal distribution and finance of the Viacom 18 group bringing the channels MTV and Nickelodeon under his charge.

2009 also saw him take an extremely calculated risk. Nine months from launch, he took the channel pay putting it as part of the One Alliance bouquet, distributed by MSM Discovery. The timing would not have been better as IPL gave the channel a good mileage. Later he got Amitabh Bachchan to don the hat of Pop Philosopher for Bigg Boss and now Big B is taking the channel to US and UK as brand ambassador. Additionally, he got his son Abishekh to host Bingo, a popular international format. At the time of writing, Bingo has done it once again for Kamat: the show has generated higher ratings than other game shows.

A large part of that credit goes to Yardi who has been the creative driving force behind Colors. A woman with a vision to create a channel so unique and distinguished from anything ever viewed by India, she has always given priority to innovation and creativity. Her focus on fresher concepts and disruptive programming is what elevated Colors to its leadership position so quickly.

From the word go, Yardi stressed that the shows on her channels have to have "meaningful entertainment". The characters are not in black or white but have different shades. Yardi strongly believes that Colors offers ‘something for everyone‘ and ‘everything for some‘.

Known for incorporating audience insights in her search for the perfect television shows, be it fiction, reality, game show or any other format, Ashvini has been responsible for making entertainment bigger than ever and effectively changed the way Indians viewed television.

2009 saw shows with hard hitting messages such as Na Aana Is Des Laado and Uttaran climbing to the top positions on the charts while the Colors flagship show, Balika Vadhu, continued to reign over peoples‘ hearts and minds. And as far as reality shows go, 2009 was the year for the biggest ever changes in the reality television scene. With Fear Factor getting a lot more exciting and the Big B Amitabh Bachchan himself hosting the third season of Bigg Boss, reality in India touched new heights in 2009.

Genius clearly does not go unnoticed, and in Ashvini‘s case, her talent has been recognized from time to time by peers and various industry institutions. She has been the recipient of many an honour, amongst them being the Media Personality of the Year title at India Today Woman‘s Summit, apart from being hailed as one of the top 50 powerful people of 2009 in India by Business Week.

Perhaps defining Ashvini in one word may not be easy, but trendsetter comes rather close. And now, she is at it again, conquering newer peaks, bringing in fresher ideas and ready to set some new trends in 2010.

Uday Shankar

While most media observers and trade writers in India tend to think that Star India CEO Uday Shankar missed the mark in 2009 because of the toppling of Star Plus from its leadership perch, the word overseas and in corporate circles is that he did an excellent job and continues to do so; that the Murdochs are pleased as punch with him.

During the year, the former journalist continued the network‘s spread into regional language markets and even managed to get leadership status in one of them. He kept a sharp eye on profitability in difficult economic times, returning pleasing figures for the network.

Viewed from a different perspective he staved off an aggressive attempt from No 3 Zee TV to usurp his GEC flagship channel Star Plus from its No 2 spot, even though he conceded the leadership position to rival Colors. He gambled with risqué programming during the year, something which got him a rap on the knuckles from the government, but also got reams of media coverage and some praise for pushing the envelope with shows like Aap Ki Kacheri.

And as the year ended, he was gearing up to do battle and regain Star Plus‘ numero uno status: he had restructured the Hindi GEC, bringing in whiz kid Gaurav Banerjee to look after the channel. Star Plus GM Keertan Adhyanthya was moved out to head Star Movies and Star World. He had also put wunderkinder Sameer Rao in charge of Star Utsav and Star Gold.

With Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp restructuring its broadcast business in Asia, Uday Shankar got his pat on the back when he was delegated with many more tasks during 2009. He was handed over the responsibilities of managing the sales and distribution offices of Star in West Asia, Britain and the US, besides growing the Indian market and being under the direct mentoring of James Murdoch, the group‘s head of Asian and European operations.

Uday also gets to look at the movie business with Fox Star Studios India CEO Vijay Singh. The grandiose plans are to distribute 18 movies a year and be involved in production. Avatar has become the biggest Hollywood hit in India, grossing over Rs 1 billion.The biggest catch in the distribution net is Shah Rukh Khan‘s My Name is Khan, set for release in February.

His big win for 2009 was the runaway success of Star Jalsha in just its first year of existence as a Bengali general entertainment channel. It created waves in east India with its programming which gelled with audiences. Then he drove his team to come up with new programming at Vijay TV and Star Pravah - initiatives which are bound to start bearing fruit over the next few months.

If there was one area which looked a little worrisome for Uday Shankar during 2009 it was the loss of the leadership position of Star Plus, its flagship channel in the Hindi entertainment space. Star Plus conceded it near nine-year monopoly to newbie Colors mid way through 2009. But that did not deter him as he continued to focus on re-jigging the programming and on the bottomline. The network also courted controversy thanks to its dare bare all on TV show Sach Ka Samna adapted from The Moment of Truth.

Meanwhile, keeping pace with rival MTV, Shankar also saw Channel [V] re-furbish its content with a host of new shows under his leadership as the channel shifted gears to 60 per cent music and 40 per cent reality show content.

He has his work cut out for him in 2010, but knowing Shankar he well might deliver. Yet once again.

Sameer Manchanda

He could well be labeled the cable cowboy of India. He has aspirations - like his esteemed US counterpart John Malone who agglomerated cable systems all over the US into one national network - to transform the fragmented Indian cable industry and create a giant Indian cable TV network.

And to that end he took his company DEN Networks public this year raising Rs 3.64 billion through an initial public offering. The market cap of DEN today is Rs 24.72 billion.

It looked tough seeing it through, but he finally cobbled together investors who helped in the oversubscription of the issue.

The man being referred to is Sameer Manchanda, chairman and promoter of DEN Networks Ltd and the joint managing director of IBN18 Broadcast Limited.

Manchanda is a feisty fighter. He spent many years with NDTV when he broke away to set up IBN18 Broadcast, along with Rajdeep Sardesai and Raghav Bahl in 2005. Channels such as CNN-IBN, IBN7, and IBN Lokmat, followed. All three channels have become a news force to reckon with and Manchanda was appointed as the president of the News Broadcasters‘ Association.

A fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, he has always been credited with stitching lucrative deals for the company. He founded DEN in 2007 and he was quick to seize the opportunity in cable TV. He prepared the base for expansion by getting distrib veterans Anuj Gandhi and SN Sharma on board and then went about building the network in the North.

He first expended DEN in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, the two lucrative carriage revenue markets for cable networks from broadcasters. DEN also gobbled up Amogh Broadband Services, a leading MSO promoted by former Karnataka chief minister D Kumaraswamy‘s family. It is also a major force in Haryana and Rajasthan.

In 2009 DEN paced up in Gujarat and made a breakthrough in Mumbai by entering into a joint venture with Ravi Singh‘s cable network in Ghatkopar, a suburb in central Mumbai.

Manchanda can be credited with the success of DEN‘s IPO in 2009, but the challenges are lying ahead. The biggest of them all: to spread digitisation across the network, launch broadband services, and make market corrections.

Punit Goenka

"I would not like to be in his shoes as expectations of him are very high because he is my son, but he has shaped up well," these are the words Subhash Chandra spoke about Punit Goenka recently. The son has now come of age and all indications are that he is likely to take over the reins of the entertainment conglomerate his father, the chairman of Zee TV, built.

According to insiders, Punit‘s management initiatives and style have impressed Chandra greatly and he is looking at hanging up his corporate boots in a couple of years and focus on his social responsibilities.

Punit was hoicked into the MD‘s role at Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (Zeel), giving him total operational responsibility for the Zee Network which includes a Top 3 Hindi GEC, Zee TV, and a clutch of popular channels including Zee Cinema. And he did leave his stamp. First, he yanked the six regional general entertainment channels (R-GECs) from ZNL into the Zeel fold. Then he merged the ETC Networks channels (ETC Music and ETC Punjabi) into the company he heads. He hived off the education business, and started playing an active role in the news business by becoming a non-executive director of Zee News Ltd.

The year also saw him buying out Ten Sports from Taj Television after some hard nosed negotiation, even as his father‘s loss making T-20 format - the Indian Cricket League - ran out of steam following a backlash from the Indian cricket board and IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi.

His major successful play was on the Hindi GEC front. Zee TV was under attack from a hungry for leadership Colors and an extremely defensive leader Star Plus. Goenka took a decision not to splurge to buy GRPs. While the other two forked out top dollar on big movies and big ticket celebrity driven reality and formatted shows, he along with his team of Nitin Vaidya (COO -national channels and Zee TV business head) and programming head (Ajay Balwankar, now in Sony Entertainment television), focused on traditional soaps and low cost formats. Pavitra Rishta, Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo, Chhotti Bahu, Dance India Dance (an adaptation of Bangla dance reality show Dance bangle Dance) were his ripostes which helped the channel generate GRPs. So much so that it took up the No 1 spot in week 34 with 281 GRPs. Zee TV began the year with 190 GRPs.

Though No 2 or No 3 today in terms of GRPs, the channel today is No 1 in terms of monetizable GRPs, a statement with which even the top bosses at Star Plus and Colors will concur.

His staff acknowledges the fact that Punit is very easily accessible and always encourages new ideas. With that kind of zeal, it is no wonder that his father thinks Zeel is in good hands.

Kalanithi Maran

Kalanithi Maran proved yet again how he could cruise along in a year of global economic storm while the other media barons were scaling back their expansion plans. Far from groaning under financial woes, he searched for new growth.

And the architect of the Sun TV empire found them in the areas of DTH, TV broadcasting and FM radio.

Sun Direct is the fastest growing DTH company with a subscriber base of 5 million. Built on mass pricing, the business model is to grab market share while waiting for opportunities to lift ARPUs (average revenue per user) that stayed below Rs 100 in 2009.
Critics say Sun Direct is leaning heavily on subscribers from the four southern states and predatory pricing can‘t be sustainable. But certain facts stay formidable in Maran‘s favour. His DTH company has the lowest losses on a per subscriber ratio, possibly because of hard bargaining to stay away from minimum guarantee deals with broadcasters.

Also, Sun Direct has 80 per cent of its customers from the south, a rock-solid base that would provide him economies of scale as he starts scratching into the other markets where he doesn‘t have a distinct advantage.

In the TV broadcasting arena, as the industry reeled under an advertising slump, Maran posted a robust revenue growth of 35 per cent. He fortified his position and launched two kids and a comedy channel during the course of the year, blocking out possible gaps in the marketplace.

A master strategist, Maran believes that viewer tastes change every 3-4 years. He introduced a big-ticket weekend non-fiction programming based on the international format show Deal or No Deal that not only gave him viewership but also revenue spikes. The show ran across Maran‘s flagship general entertainment channels: Sun TV (Tamil), Gemini (Telugu), Surya (Malayalam) and Udaya (Kannada).

Sun has emerged as one of the leading FM radio broadcasters, setting up a pan India presence. In 2009, Sun brought its FM radio stations outside Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry under the Red FM umbrella, offering advertisers a wider listener base and an opportunity to capitalise on a unifying programme format across key cities.

Since the summer of 2009, Maran also corrected a single deficiency in his rapidly-growing media empire: He widened the talent pool, making a series of senior appointments including Ajay Vidyasagar as CEO and Ravi Menon as programming head.

So what does the roadmap look like for Sun in 2010? Maran is tapping subscription revenues more aggressively, has floated a UK subsidiary to accelerate international revenues, hiked advertising rates after a gap of two years, and is readying the release of the mega-budget movie Enthiran. Looks like another blockbuster year for the man who rules the southern media landscape.

Man Jit Singh

His is a radical turnaround story. When he took charge of Multi Screen Media Ltd (the company that runs Sony Entertainment Television), Man Jit Singh had several tasks to handle. CEO Kunal Dasgupta had left suddenly in the first quarter of 2009, his flagship channel Sony was doddering around in the doldrums with sinking ratings, morale was low and the organisation had few clues as to how they could deal with the rapidly changing dynamics of the GEC business. Newcomer NDTV Imagine had beaten it to the No 4 slot, a far cry from its heydays when Sony was scrapping for the No. 1 slot in the early part of this decade.

As interim CEO, Singh took the bit in his teeth, lopped off 50 staff, letting go off channel head Albert Almeida. He initially focused on seeing through a successful IPL as the network had invested for its channel Max while acquiring the rights for the cricket extravaganza. In the reworked deal, BCCI sold the nine-year rights for Rs 82 billion, parceling out the India

That out of the way, he began the hunt for someone who would take up the corner office as CEO, apart from launching a new prime time programming band along with COO NP Singh and programming head Gurdeep Bhangoo The search for a CEO proved futile as did the new lot of programmes. He aborted both - hoisting himself into the CEO‘s seat and started scouting for a channel head. He found one in Ajit Thakur

The programming was rejigged and a low cost idea plumped for: telecast reruns of its long running award-winning and successful thriller and horror fictional shows, CID and Aahat. In the meantime, a new programming head was appointed: Ajay Bhalwankar was brought in from Zee TV.

In no time at all, the ratings shot up and Sony had got back into the reckoning, toppling NDTV Imagine from the No 4 slot. From 70 gross rating points Sony was clocking 170-190 GRPs, ahead of Imagine and close enough to possibly play catch up with Zee TV and Star Plus which were generating between 240-270 GRPs. The channel garnered almost two and half times more ratings within six months of the revamp.

Along with his team, Singh sewed an exclusive content agreement with leading film production house YRF for a programming block which would help differentiate it from the regular fare. While the initiative generated a lot of hype, it did not generate the mass TRPs that were expected.

For Singh, 2010 will be a crucial year with IPL 3 on it way in the next two months. Also, a rejuvenated and cash loaded NDTV Imagine (following the Turner deal) is definitely going to make a serious and concerted effort to reclaim its fourth place in the Hind general entertainment space.

Steve Marcopoto

2009 was Turner‘s fifteenth anniversary of operating in India. And 2009 was the year when the network clearly signaled that it was no longer satisfied in having a minor league play in India. In the first part of the year, it announced that it was launching WB Channel expanding its presence in the English entertainment channel space. In the second half of the year, Turner announced that it was pitching its tent in the rough Hindi general entertainment channel space. And leading Turner‘s charge into the big stake game was Turner Broadcasting System APAC head Steve Marcopoto.

Marcopoto winged his way into the country on several occasions before he signed on the dotted line of a deal which resulted in Turner acquiring a 92 per cent stake in NDTV Imagine for $117 million. It took months of negotiation between the NDTV management and him and his team before a deal was hammered into shape. And it surely was a moment of triumph for him, making him one of the key media executives in India.

For years, Turner has operated in India through channels such as CNN, Cartoon Network, Pogo and through a distribution joint venture with Zee TV, labeled Zee Turner.

It has maintained its leadership position in the kids‘ segment with Cartoon Network and Pogo, currently ranked No. 1 and 2 respectively on an all-India basis. Growth has been steady and India revenues account for 25 per cent of its regional operations, making it Turner‘s largest and fastest growing market.

During the year, Marcopoto persisted with the Turner mission to further develop the Indian animation industry. Along with Pogo and Cartoon Network India head Monica Tata and creative director Vishnu Athreya, he made various acquisitions, co-creations and initiatives such as Snaptoons (Short New Asia Pacific Cartoons), bringing the pre-school series Sesame Street to India in a local avatar - Galli Galli Sim Sim and nurturing one of the most successful homegrown, animated heroes - Chhota Bheem, amongst others.

2010 will come with its set of challenges: he has to ensure a smooth transition of Imagine into the Turner fold, and work closely with CEO Sameer Nair to draw up strategies to make the investment pay off in the medium-to-long term. Marcopoto will also have to create compelling content and build the Turner brands across every possible platform, including TV, online, merchandising and mobile.

Lalit Modi

To say that Lalit Modi had an eventful year is an understatement. This year he showed his ability to turn a challenge into an opportunity while taking steps to make the IPL a global brand. He shrewdly renegotiated the IPL TV deal with Multi Screen Media in a fresh deal valued at Rs 82 billion ($1.6 billion).

The earlier ten-year contract, which Sony couldn‘t protect, was worth $918 million for telecast and $108 million for promotion of the tournament. Then the IPL was forced to relocate to South Africa due to the elections. Undaunted by the challenge, Modi and his team worked around the clock at short notice and pulled off a success, thus silencing naysayers. With this move, the IPL took its first steps towards becoming a global brand.

Modi‘s clout lies in bringing in the money while expanding the reach of the IPL. A deal was done for theatrical rights with Dar Capital and is worth Rs 3.3 billion. It is a known fact that cinema receipts suffer when the IPL is on. The message from Modi is clear - If you cannot beat us, join us.
In 2009 Modi also announced a base price of $225 million for the two new IPL franchises who will come in later this year. This is more than double what the highest franchise paid in 2008. This gives an idea of just how much the IPL has grown in value in a short space of time.

It is this ability of Modi to run a steady ship while raking in the moolah no matter what obstacles there are which made BCCI president Sharad Pawar throw his weight behind him when the IMG contract was cancelled by N Srinivasan. The contract was eventually re-negotiated.

While there is a faction within the BCCI that would like to see Modi out, the fact is that he will head the IPL till 2012. Even BCCI members who have issues with Modi admit that they need him. Modi is effecting changes that are rapidly changing the perception of the game by stakeholders.

Apart from the IPL, Modi also managed to get the Champions Twenty20 League off the ground. He formed a partnership with Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa for this. The TV deals done by ESPN Star Sports saw cricket reach more countries than ever before in Europe and other territories. While the ratings in India were not great, one can expect Modi to come up with more innovations.

In 2009 Modi also took up the issue of piracy on a war footing. Under his guidance an association in conjunction with the cricket boards of England, South Africa and Australia was formed. This move has the backing of the ICC and is the first time that sports broadcasters and stakeholders are making a concerted effort to fight this problem.

In 2010 Modi is showing no signs of slowing down. The deal with YouTube this year could change the face of sports broadcasting in the years to come. And with the commercial success of the IPL, Modi is thinking in terms of spreading the global reach of the game. He has already hinted that the US may be the next frontier and is in that country at the moment. The aim is to possibly do an event within the next 18 months.

Dr Prannoy Roy

At the beginning of 2009, Prannoy Roy looked an extremely worried man. The psephologist turned hardcore newsman had got himself into a corner. Two of his diversifications were burning up cash and how, scorching the main mother news network.

The first was a general entertainment joint venture channel NDTV Imagine with US major studio NBC Universal. The second was his lifestyle programming forays into NDTV Lifestyle. Roy had launched these services earlier when the times were good, and revenues were in full flow, but with the economic downturn he was being battered. It was imperative that something be done.

The economics doctorate from the Delhi School of Economics decided to take the battle to the frontlines along with his senior management team spearheaded by KVL Narayan Rao. Get rid of the diversifications and focus on your core competence - news - became the mantra. Along with the senior team and investment bankers, he spent a large part of the first part of the year scouting for buyers for his non-news verticals.

The other focus of the team was: reduce the group‘s high interest burden which had come its way courtesy its need for cash for its diversifications. He bought back NBC Universal‘s 26 per cent indirect stake in NDTV Networks Plc. The company‘s $100 million step up coupon bonds due 2012 were bought for $72.4 million. This drastically lowered its borrowings and concomitant high interest bill. NDTV was also freed from the undertaking to provide a $40 million guarantee to the bond-holders.

He also shut down a local news channel he had started in Metro Nation Delhi, cutting down costs.

NDTV Lifestyle was put on the auction block and around Diwali, he managed to find a buyer for it. The US-based Scripps Networks Interactive bought up 69 per cent of the company on a fully diluted basis for $55 million, in what was seen as an extremely profitable sale.

Then just as the year was ending he unveiled his final coup de grace: he found a buyer for the hungry for cash NDTV Imagine. Turner Asia Pacific Ventures bought out 92 per cent of NDTV‘s stake in Imagine for $67 million, while investing in fresh equity in the company to the tune of $50 million, bringing up the value of the transaction to $117 million.

The moves were lauded by all media watchers and the company‘s bottomline started showing improvement.

And Prannoy ended the year with a beaming smile on his face. Yes, the network still has its work cut out for it. But the comeback has begun.

Harish Thawani

This year this street smart maverick renewed the deal with the BCCI with his company Nimbus for another four years till 2014 in a deal worth Rs 20 billion, thus ensuring stability. Thawani has asserted in interviews that the payout per match is similar. Of course, the deal does not include new media.

Thawani also maintains that rationalisation was bound to happen with the economic environment. He insists that everybody in a deal has to benefit and that the days of bids reaching stratospheric levels are gone. The fact that the BCCI did not bother to go through a tender for the rights, as Nimbus had the first right of negotiation, shows that Thawani got his calculations right in terms of what these rights are worth. After all, the BCCI would have conducted some talks with other sports broadcasters to find out if they were willing to pay more.

Thawani is known for being proactive in terms of deals being done. He asserts that the company got a 10 per cent discount on the earlier deal on account of the mandatory feed sharing act being passed. Even not going for the new media rights this time around was a deliberate strategy. Highlights and clips got more traffic than live streaming under the old deal. Therefore for him it was not a cost effective proposition.

Last year Nimbus had complained to the BCCI in a letter about the quality of facilities for broadcasting which forced cricket‘s richest body to take action. Thawani is also said to have been a strong force behind the BCCI instituting the Corporate Trophy.

On the distribution front, it is expected that Neo would have doubled its revenue for 2009. This is creditable given that Neo had to do the distribution on its own after the deal with Star went sour a couple of years back.

Moreover the channel‘s audience deliveries have been better than the competition‘s at times as was seen with the India versus Sri Lanka series. Neo Cricket now claims to have finished as the top sports channel for two years in a row. Overseas, Neo Cricket bolstered its presence with several deals last year and is now present in 25 countries including Japan, Korea, Singapore.

Thawani, though, is looking beyond just cricket. He has plans for two new channels in the lifestyle and film genres. And, yes, the IPO could be round the corner.

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