The challenge today is to bring in innovation within the daily soap format - Tarun Katial

Young Turks. introduces a new series profiling the brightest and the best among the youth brigade in the Indian television industry. Under the spotlight will be the men and women on the "right side" of 35 who are serving it up stirred and shaken. And making a huge difference, each in their own right, to the way in which the TV business is managed.

In this, the first of the series, we get up close and personal with Tarun Katial, senior vice-president programming content & communication, Star India. In just three short years after joining Star as assistant manager, strategy and planning in July 1999, 28-year-old Katial today handles all aspects of programming and marketing at the Star TV network.

An MMS from Mumbai University, Katial has had one-year stints at Saatchi & Saatchi (media trainee), Enterprise Nexus Lowe (media executive) and was with Ogilvy and Mather for just under two years before finally settling in at Star.

At O&M, Katial was in media planning and buying. In his second year at O&M, Katial was managing all media buying on television for O&M in Mumbai across networks, which is how he came into contact with Peter Mukerjea, heading ad sales at the time. A few months after Mukerjea took over as CEO from Rathikant Basu in February 1999, he invited Katial to join Star.

Tarun Katial is your regular boy next door. As far as looks go anyway. Picture the kind of son-in-law that your traditional north Indian lady would like her daughter to bring home and Katial fits the bill to a T. A modern Indian strongly rooted in "traditional values" is the abiding image the man projects. He has a red "tikka"on his forehead and a corner of his office is devoted to a number of Ganesh idols of various shapes and sizes.

By his own admission, Katial's is a seven-day working week, with meetings, brainstorming, keeping him tied up till 10:30 at night on a regular basis. The weekends are for looking at scripts, reviewing tapes of episodes gone by and episodes coming up.

All this activity does not give him any time for a love life and he is currently single and unattached. A classic case for burnout? Well, he takes a 15-day break every six months and travels. His favourite destination is the UK, which is where his sister, who is an engineer, has settled. He keeps in shape by swimming, watches what he eats and does not smoke or drink.

In a tete-a-tete with, conducted soon after a pitch made to him by Pritish Nandy, celebrity journalist, Shiv Sena MP and promoter of Pritish Nandy Communications, Katial expounds on the road he has traveled that has bought him to where he is today - head of programming and marketing of the Star Network.

Katial, all of 28 and sharp as a razor, took time out from his packed schedule to recount just what it is that keeps him occupied virtually seven days a week breathing, eating and sleeping television.

"For a single brand or product we might work on five promotional campaigns a year. A TV channel has to generate up to 40 a week."

Can you recount the road you've travelled to get where you are today? What have been the major landmarks?

Advertising is where I come from. I started in Saatchi, then Enterprise Nexus and then O&M in strategic media planning.

I really learnt a lot from Madhushree Dalvi at Saatchi and Anand Halve at Enterprise Nexus.

When I came to Star, it was Peter who asked me to join. I was interviewed by Peter and Sameer and I knew I would be under Sameer's wing. Three years has been one huge learning curve under Sameer. He's intrinsically built for television.

What has been your growth graph within Star Plus?

When I joined I was involved with content scheduling and managing promos and presentations. By the time KBC started, I was overseeing the entire business of Star Plus under Sameer. I was given independent charge of Star Plus about six to nine months after KBC launched. And when Sameer became COO (April 2002), I started heading marketing as well.

How big is your team?

It is a layered structure but there are about 50 people under me.

What are the challenges you face as programming head at Star Plus?

One of the big challenges at Star Plus has been to expand the viewing base across time bands.

The area that fascinates me the most is the promotion and presentation of our shows. That is also partly due to my advertising background. And the amount of creative stress involved is enormous. For a single brand or product we might work on five promotional campaigns a year. A TV channel has to generate up to 40 a week. The story and plotlines are moving at such a fast pace that one has to keep up.

The challenge in television today is within the hit format, which is the daily soap, to bring in as much innovation as possible. And beyond that within acceptable parameters (culturally and otherwise) to give the audience what it wants. The challenge is also in being able to put a fix on what is acceptable.

And Star, as an organisation is an ideal place for fomenting creativity. Working under people like Peter, Sameer and Steve Askew, allows for that. The company is structured in such a way that allows for great deal of personal initiative. The organisational structure helps. Essentially we grow with the company, and there are basic competencies that start with as the core business is television so there are enough people to give you ideas, give you exposure, then leave you to pick the right one that is suitable to this market. Steve

Askew is a great example of this. I often send him ideas. He gives his opinion and then basically leaves it to me to make a final call. Sometimes his ideas may be bang on. At other times I can argue that his ideas would not work out here.

"A vague thought but 10 years down the line I want to get into academics as a full time occupation."

What are your schedules like?

The week goes in meetings, brainstorming, creative sessions, marketing sessions.

And the weekends?

I spend that time looking at scripts, reviewing tapes of episodes gone by and episodes coming up.

How do you keep from burning out?

Every six months I take 15 days break to get my mind off it all. I generally like to travel out somewhere. My favourite destination is the UK, where my sister happens to be. I keep in shape by swimming daily. I watch what I eat. I don't smoke or drink and that helps, I guess.

Sameer Nair has been credited with the choice of getting Amitabh Bachchan onto the show and the success it spawned. Do you have one piece of programming inspiration that you are proud to have generated?

Honestly there is nothing that I can take sole credit for. But Khulja Sim Sim and Kismey Kitna Hey Dam are what I have been personally very closely involved with.

With three years in the television business under you belt almost seven days a week as it were, are you clued in to what works on as far as Hindi speaking audiences are concerned?

My endeavour is to stay on the learning curve. Because once you think you that know it all you're dead.

Any names from the industry that come to mind as those who have contributed significantly to that learning?

Ektaa (Kapoor), Vipul D Shah, Neena Gupta. All of them are creative geniuses in their own right. Monisha Singh of UTV is another name that comes to mind.

Among the actors I would say that Aman Verma (host of Khulja) and Hussein (who hosts Kismey... alongside Sonu Nigam) have been great to work with. Both of them are essentially actors but worked really hard to get a grip on what it takes to be a show presenter.

How do you see programming in India evolving?

The staple diet will continue to be soaps and dramas. There will of course be evolution in the backdrops and characters as tastes evolve.

Marketing is going to take a more and more central position in the scheme of things as the clutter for eyeballs is increasing.

At this point who do you see as a bigger threat, Sony or Zee?

Both are equally important. But the basic funda is we will not be reactive. We will aim to be proactive.

There seems to have been a cooling off on Star as far as importing foreign products and adapting them to Indian tastes are concerned. Other than KBC, nothing else has really worked. Do you agree with this line of argument?

Well, Khulja is a foreign import (adapted from Let's Make a Deal) and it has worked fabulously. If there is a good product that is adaptable to India we will do it.

For Tarun Katial what does the future hold?

A vague thought but 10 years down the line I want to get into academics as a full time occupation. Maybe do a PhD and teach on media subjects.

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