MUMBAI: Black Wednesday. Network18 employees must be quite bewildered by the happenings of 28 May 2014. First came the announcement that group CEO B. Sai Kumar had decided to call it a day after 14 years of nurturing and growing it along with Raghav Bahl and Haresh Chawla. Then came the news that even COO Ajay Chacko had decided to bolt for the door.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg, according to sources. Apparently, a senior management exodus is likely to hit the group over the next few days. The group today issued a release on the BSE stating that CFO RDS Binni Bawa has already tendered in his resignation. Among those who are tipped to follow include : senior vice-president corporate affairs and company secretary Anil Srivastava and group general counsel Kshipra Jatana.
Their departure is a precursor to the biggest announcement that is likely to come out: that of the exit of founding/controlling shareholder & managing director Raghav Bahl.
Whether leading journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai, Sagarika Ghose, Senthil Chengalvaryan, Sheeren Bhan, amongst others would quit the Network18 group or not is not known at the time of writing. Though speculation is running rife that this will also come to pass in the next few days. However, insiders insist that Sardesai is believed to have assured the team of CNNIBN journalists at an internal meeting at CNNIBN a couple of days ago that "he would be staying and that things are only going to get better from now on."
No one from the company was available for comment, despite several attempts by indiantelevision.com journalists.
Apparently, the entire exercise is part of Reliance Industries getting into the driver’s seat at the Network18 group. The former is likely to make an announcement to buy out Raghav Bahl's equity stake, followed by a offer to the public, in order to take a controlling stake in Network18
Says a media observer: “These changes are happening at a time when Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) has in recent times plumped up on media heavyweight media executives. It has lured away Zee Media Corp Ltd CEO Alok Agrawal, senior journalists Gautam Chikermane, BV Rao and Rohit Bansal. Speculation is that this exodus is taking place as a precursor to Reliance taking over the management and control of the group.”
No one from Reliance Industries was also available for comment either, at the time of filing this report. Spokesperson Tushar Pania said he would send a formal statement as soon as possible.
It may be recollected that Bahl had sought the help of RIL chairman Mukesh Ambani to bail out Network18 when its debt had ballooned beyond manageable proportions a couple of years ago. Ambani had extended a loan through a trust to Bahl’s companies that held the Network18 stake. That loan was used to pare down the group’s debt and also acquire the ETV channels. But it also left open the door for Ambani to wholly take over the Network18 group at a later stage, though the commitment had been made that Bahl and the team would be left alone to manage it.
Sources indicate that RIL has been pushing Bahl to cede control of the management over the past few months and he seems to have finally consented.
(updated on 30 May 8 am)