Television

Television entrepreneur Raveena Raj Kohli

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You've only got a short time to grab a little glory,I want to have a good life, not a sad story,To stay within the boundaries seems so formal,If that's what life is, I don't want to be normal.

She prides herself on being a "born rebel" and these lines from a song by Randy Newman best describe her life's mantra. What's more... she has lived by it ever since she heard it as a 20-year-old.

From advertising to radio to Hindi general entertainment to terrestrial broadcast to the buzzing news business and now to branded entertainment... life seems to have come full circle for Raveena Raj Kohlli as far as her career is concerned.

Her's is an interesting story to tell - full of learning and surprises. "I think I have always been in an industry that was on a steep learning curve so while I learnt a lot; I also had a lot of surprises coming my way. These were different from learning because the industry that I was in, too was discovering itself most of the time," Raveena reasons.

She was in her 30s when she packed off with all her savings to NYU and studied feature films and broadcast news. "I am very passionate about learning things I don't know. I have this endless thirst for knowing more. That's why I went back to school," she says.

Whether it was HTA (now JWT), radio (in Singapore), Sony Entertainment Television India, Channel 9 or for that matter even Star News - each had a 'WOW" factor to them when she joined. "When I was in advertising in the 1980s - advertising for television was just becoming a big thing and was getting more global. We were seeing global brands entering new markets and hence ad films that were made for America were being adapted to India. Then when I was working in radio in South East Asia, radio was just getting into an organised industry there. The late 80s and the early 90s were also the start of satellite television in this part of the world. When I came back to India in 1997, there was this boom of private channels, which I knew nothing about and that in itself came as a big surprise. I have always taken these leaps into the unknown. So my professional life has been very high on the learning curve," she says.'.

SONY SAGA

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Raveena's association with Sony as programming head is how the job fell into her lap. The lady was busy scuba diving in Lakshwadeep island along with ad man Prahlad Kakkar and his wife Mitali and happened to meet one of Sony's directors on the same island. Sample what Prahlad said on meeting him, "If somebody up there loves you and if you are a very, very lucky person then here is this girl who will work for you."

"This is what Prahlad said to him while I was stumbling out of the ocean looking like a bumble bee in a black and yellow diving suit. I had not decided to move back to India. After that island incident, obviously the director got curious about me and I got a phone call saying, 'We hear you're lurking away with Mitali and Prahlad Kakkar somewhere on the Lakshwadeep island. We want you to come and meet us.' When I got that call, I told them that I was somewhere in Rajasthan on a camel, then going to Bangalore and then to Singapore after which I have plans to move to Indonesia. That call was made by Kunal Dasgupta and at that point in time I didn't even know who he was."

She came down to Bombay and met Dasgupta in the Sony office. "The first thing he told me as he looked up from his desk was when could I join them? I started laughing and said, 'I don't even know you,' to which he said, 'Nor do we know you,' which is very typical of Kunal," says Raveena.

When she was queried by one of the American directors of Sony as to what kind of Hindi entertainment programming was going to work in India, she said she honestly had no idea. Imagine having got the job on that line! "They were happy that I was honest with them and asked me to work for them," she says.

That time Sony was number 56 on the charts. Despite having no experience whatsoever in the programming arena, Raveena had the gall to put a condition for accepting the job. "I accepted on the condition that only one person would carry the can on the programming decisions. If they let me be for six months, I will either sink without a trace and they could pack me and send me away or if I feel that I have it in me to do it… the sky is the limit."

When queried as to what made her take up a job that she knew nothing about, she says, "I have always done things that I don't know anything about. I have been very lucky in the sense that people have taken huge risks with me. And I think I have always done the job that I have been hired to do. So it's been full of learning, surprises and rewards."

9 TIMES

Then came Channel 9, which was a different ball game altogether. Raveena feels that much more is made of it than what was actually true. "The aim was to set up a broadcasting company, which would start off as a programming company and then move on to a channel in the terrestrial space. In the terrestrial space you have far bigger reach and far more scope for many things. For this you need to have an alliance and some sort of a financial arrangement with the one and only national broadcaster, which had professionals who had set up the company and worked for it. Our belief was that we were doing something really good and of high impact. None of us went into that with any agenda and none of us had any influence over anything," she reflects.

For her, the challenge at Channel 9 was whether they could set up a channel within a channel in three months. The aim was to set up a team that was the best in the business and to put all the programming on air. "My answer was, of course we can do it. Have I ever said no? So that was the challenge and that's what we did," says she.

However the dream was short-lived with all the politics involved. The issue of licence came up and that's where the dream ended. "People like me who joined the company, joined with the belief that this was going to happen for the long haul. Definitely, nobody joins the company for one year at that age. But soon we realised that there was trouble in paradise and it was again after the owners and promoters of the company to do whatever they had to do to make that licence work. But it was not meant to be. To put it in very succinct terms - I don't know what actually happened. It may have just been an error of judgement on their part but on our part, we had a firm belief that we were going to do something and we did succeed to a certain extent," she mulls.

This experience is what matured her overnight. "It was a painful thing because it is harder to shut down a company than to start one. You realise the importance of human relationships because I still have a special relationship with everybody who I worked with in Channel 9. It was just nobody's fault," says Raveena.

How was it being a woman CEO at that point in time? "I think it's not just about being a woman, it's about being a young woman. That may have been an issue in some people's minds. I didn't think that the Channel 9 dream was short lived because I was a woman and neither did it have anything to do with the government officials," she supplies carefully.

Being a young woman at the top sometimes attracts more attention than is necessary and that's what Raveena faced at that point in time. "The problem of being a woman at an early age in a young industry, has its own consequences. You tend to make more enemies than friends and evoke more jealousies and raised eyebrows. I was always treated very well when I walked into an all male environment in the space of legislation and administration. I don't see why a woman should have a problem because you are there as a representative of your company and it's a job that has been assigned to you. You are not there for you. Yes, as I said earlier, you tend to attract more attention but that's not from the people you are dealing with. It is from the people you are not dealing with," she reasons.

Known to be successful in whatever she has dabbled with, Raveena has "almost" never faced any insecurity from her bosses. "All the bosses that I have had have been very secure in their positions. I have had a very enjoyable and mutually respectful relationship with them, which has always been full of giggles and lots of work together minus the man-woman thing, politics and tension. A man who is your boss has to be very sure of himself to be able to deal with a woman who is capable. And a woman who is capable has to be very astute and mature and recognise who is the right boss. The only time there was any tension was in circumstances where I had a male senior who was insecure," she provides without naming names.

STAR WARS

Once the Channel 9 story ended unsuccessfully, Raveena started her own production company - Sundial, which she envisioned as a multimedia company that would begin by being a production house. Hardly had she set up her company and team, than yet another challenge came her way and this was the mother of all challenges. This time it was huge. Rupert Murdoch wanted Raveena to take an English brand and convert it into a Hindi brand in 11 months.

"It was a sheer challenge for me to take up the Star News job. The moment somebody says - She can't do it. I HAVE to do it. The more people throw the brickbats, the more I was determined to make it happen. It did not bother me," says Raveena, who faced a lot of negative remarks on taking up the assignment.

When she joined, Star News did not have "a nut, a bolt, a person, a building, a network, a piece of footage, a camera… Nothing!" Her mandate was to create a news centre, bureaus, hire the team, train, orient, create programming and the backend and be on air within 11 months.

And the rest as they say is history. She joined Star News on 15 April and on 31 March the next year, the channel was on air - one full day before the deadline!!

"I am somebody who doesn't regret anything. The reason I took Star News is because I realised that if I hadn't taken it, I would have regretted it because it was a very difficult thing and it was going to evoke the maximum amount of bile, froth, hatred and jealousy. For me it was important to do something that was difficult to do and I did it to the best of my capability," she says.

Many people misunderstood her motives for taking this job. A lot of journalists reacted saying, "Who is this woman pretending to be a journalist?" But on Raveena's part, there were no pretensions of being a journalist. "I am a writer and a multimedia person and I was brought in there because I am a set-upper and Murdoch brought me into Star because he knew I could deliver. And I delivered. It took one year after that for the operations to settle and I always knew I had to move on because I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I had made that decision in the year 2000," she clarifies.

Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea told her, "Raveena, you will have to grow the skin of a crocodile." And she did.

Post her taking up the assignment, it was reported in the media that she was the replacement for Prannoy Roy. "It was utter nonsense. My job was to hire a good editor and an editorial team, whether I hired the right one or not is not the issue. I accept jobs, projects and challenges," she says.

TIME TO DISCOVER HERSELF

After she quit Star News, Raveena went into hibernation for a year or so. She took a long well-deserved vacation and did all the things that she had kept on the backburner. "I did up my house in Goa. I got back in touch with my family who I hadn't seen in almost 10 years. I had a reunion with my friends who I hadn't seen for almost 20 years. I had a family vacation for the first time in 20 years. I did things that were very important to me, which I had totally neglected," she reflects.

All through her break, she was very clear that she was going to start her own thing. "What I just did was nest, roost and consolidate my life and I needed to do that to go out and become an entrepreneur. I had to get my basics in order," she says.

However, when she was on her break, there were huge amounts of gossip, conjecture, pressure and questions and lots of job offers. She considered most of them and a whole lot of options were available to her. But she realised that her priority was to find out how valuably to spend her time and how much fun to have!

Used to being somebody whose views are respected and not being seen as a pushover, she is one strong and intelligent lady. "I have never been the one for corporate politics. I am too outspoken and honest to be in that game. I am a team person, believe in my cause and stand up for what I believe in. That makes me a very strong willed person and I am very much used to being my own boss even when I've had bosses," says she.

HERE AND NOW

Now is when she is using all her experience from the advertising to broadcast industry and applying the learning into her newest baby - Sundial Creative Media Pvt Ltd. The company has collaborated with Group M and is venturing into the arena of branded entertainment with a company called Show M.

"Globally, it is the first professional approach to strategic programming for brands and it is the perfect crossover between my years in advertising and brand building and my years in programming and broadcasting. It is very exciting. This harmonious synch of two schools of thought and businesses is going to give birth to a fantastic new hybrid kind of media person, who can think both (programing and advertising) in a creative manner," says an elated Raveena.

Apart from television content, co-producing films is also on the agenda. "I am extremely collaborative by nature. This is something that one may not realise of a person who seems to be this strong willed woman. As soon as you get collaborative and you share your spoils, it multiplies more that even you can think. As soon as you get jealous, possessive, angry, political, conniving and vicious - that negative energy doesn't work for very long. I actually enjoy working with people who are like minded," she says.

Not the one with a crab mentality, she has built strong relationships in which she has been willing to invest her time, on the basis of trust. Her honesty and her ability to say things without mincing her words has been the strongest point of her career.

Dwelling on her life in the fast lane, one thing that Raveena regrets is missing out on her personal life. "In 20 years I think what suffered was my personal life. I am not prepared to let that suffer anymore. But it is still not about balance. It is about being with somebody in your personal relationships who is mature enough to appreciate the amount of time you have to give your work. Neither your work or home should be a compromise. There is no such thing as balance in a man's, woman's or professional's life," she reasons.

So does this lady have any weaknesses? "My biggest weakness is that I don't suffer fools gladly. I think I am a little too honest. I am not diplomatic and that can sometimes be a weakness. I am non-manipulative. I would have been far more successful if I had been a conniving political beast and would have achieved 10 times more than what I have today," she laughs.

Queried as to how the television and media industry has changed in the last two decades or so, she says, "I joined the media business in the mid-80s. When I took my first job at HTA, a nice Punjabi gentleman told my mother - 'How can you let your daughter work in a field like advertising?' Today, I have 22 - 25 year olds, new MBAs from Wharton and Harvard beating down my door willing to work for Rs 10,000 a month because they want to be in this business."

She feels the self respect, value, salience and positioning of the business had undergone a huge change in 20 years. Defining it as the most happening and relevant business today, she explains, "We are actually making more 'Made in India' products in our business than in any other industry. Be it the TV, movie or the internet business, these are not centers for outsourcing. Look at what has happened to the value of people who are in this business. The salary scales are incomparable. There is a shock value when you hear that the managing director of a confectionery company earns as much as a vice president does in any big media company."

Raveena thinks that the game in the content business has just begun. "Big players will now form strategies that will grow the business rather than restrict it. If you look at the way even contracts are structured in our business, they have never been fair to talent. In the sense, creators of content have never enjoyed the benefits of their creativity apart from a small fee that they get to produce something. The awareness is just beginning as far as the respect that they want in terms of shared rights, intellectual property recognition and credits. When that will grow, the business as a whole will grow and we will have better people coming in," she says.

According to her, the television industry used to be "a new and brash business and the time has come for it to become a more evolved, mature and forward thinking business that is collaborative, professional and non-corrupt. That is the only way the industry is going to grow and it will happen. Better laws, more informed people who make decisions, people who are aware of their rights, better associations, better copyright and IPR laws - when all this happens it will become more rewarding," she says.

She, for one, got into the business by mistake but youngsters today are consciously choosing this as their career and she hopes they will come in and create a better industry.

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