Chandra needs to carry his team with him

MUMBAI / NEW DELHI: Dissatisfied with what successive professional CEOs have been churning out at his company, Indian satellite television's biggest proponent Subhash Chandra is back in charge at Zee Telefilms, India's biggest listed media company. And he is pulling out all the stops: he has handed charge of the various components of his television network to his brothers and to other professionals in whom he has more faith.

Zee chairman Subhash Chandra will need to use all his positive cachet in the market to take his network on the ascendant again.

"The promoter's direct involvement in the day-to-day business is a positive signal not only to the markets, but all and sundry," said a media analyst with a foreign brokerage firm, adding that Chandra's role as a "visionary was never in doubt", but the problems erupted at the implementation level. "Now that he is taking direct control viewers may also start taking Zee more seriously," the analyst added.

Chandra's taking control is not really a new phenomenon. Promoters and entrepreneurs when they have found their backs to the wall have time and again got into the nitty-gritty of things to save their empires.

WHEN NEWS CORP WAS FLOUNDERING, IT WAS MURDOCH WHO HAULED IT UP: Cut back to December 1990. The picture that comes to mind is of global media baron Rupert Murdoch struggling to save his company, which was reeling under the weight of excessive debt of $7.6 billion accumulated from its years of aggressive acquisitions. At that time his News Corporation conglomerate nearly went belly up when he overstretched himself, borrowing from more than 140 banks to fund the launch of Sky in the UK and Fox in America. The advertising market was in a spin, the economy was not looking good courtesy the Gulf war and a cash crunch was hurting everyone. Murdoch went on a series of road shows to meet bankers all over, and present News Corp's case.

Credit is normally rolled over in financial markets but this time it was looking tough for Murdoch as one single bank chairman in Pittsburgh was threatening to call in a $10 million loan, which would have sent News Corp spinning into an abyss of liquidation, into oblivion. It was a moment of agony for the Australian-turned-American businessman. Citibank chairman John Reed had also been marshalled to speak to the bank chairman and tell him not to pull in his loan.

After hectic activity globally, his loan adviser told Murdoch to speak to the bank chairman himself. The call was made. He pleaded to speak to the Pittsburgh bank's chairman to no avail. He was put through to the bank's chief loan officer instead. "I had to beg," recalled Murdoch in his biography by William Shawcross. The same bank officer had earlier told his officials that the company would have to be liquidated if they could not repay the $10 million. This time after a few moments, the loan officer told him that they would consider News Corp's request and not recall the loan.

For Murdoch who was pooped and who had almost given up hope, this came as a shot of relief. His company would not be dissolved after all, his empire would continue to stand and grow in future.

Not just Murdoch, even other media entrepreneurs like Sumner Redstone have rolled up their sleeves, got their hands into the laundry to clean up their acts in the past.

SOME OF ZEE'S TOP EXECUTIVES JUST DID NOT FIT THE BILL: And the fact that Zee TV's Chandra is doing the same now is a sign in the right direction. It was Chandra, who along with his founding team of Karuna Samtani, Kamlesh Pandey, Digvijay Singh, Ashok Kurien, made Zee TV a crackling channel which wove a magical charm around Indian viewers, expanded cable in India and made Zee TV the numero uno player by far in the mid-nineties.

But herein lies another tale. Some of the CEOs and top executives, in the recent past, probably did not fit in with Zee Telefilms' work culture and vision. Said a Delhi-based media planner with a foreign advertising company, "Zee had been hiring people in the recent past who faced discontinuity of experience and did not have the wherewithal to handle a creative content organisation like Zee. "In this regard, the media planner, who has worked earlier with Sandeep Goyal, who recently quit Zee, explained that Goyal is a fine advertising professional, but found himself out of depth in Zee, specially when he had to deliver the goods in times of high crisis.

The team with Chandra now appears to be extremely savvy, especially the one he inherited courtesy his ETC acquisition. The trio of Yogesh Radhakrishnan, Jagjit Singh Kohli and Yogesh Shah are almost in Chandra's likeness. They are entrepreneurs to the core. They created a channel, channels actually, at a piffling cost, ran them extremely efficiently, and then sold out to Chandra. Given a free hand, they can make Zee TV and Chandra fly like in the past. Then of course there are his brothers, Laxmi Goel and Jawahar Goel who are running news operations and cable arm SitiCable receptively. The brothers are constantly in touch with each other and have a single-minded determination to take Zee TV back to the top of the charts. Finally, you have professionals such as Apurva Purohit and Prashant Sanwal who are heading Zee TV and the Alpha channels respectively.

The core team that Chandra has constituted which will now give direction to Zee's new strategy, comprises Purohit, president Zee TV, Sanwal, director of Alpha channels, Radhakrishnan, director of Zee Music and Zee Cinema, Laxmi Goel director of Zee News, Kohli, director of ETC and Ajay Trigunayat, vice-president of Zee English and Zee MGM.

CHANDRA NEEDS TO BUILD BRIDGES WITH TV, ADVERTISING, MEDIA COMMUNITIES: The only problem is that times these days are competitive and rivals Star and Sony have extremely competent and razor sharp teams of young professionals. Chandra will of course be leading from the front, but he will have to carry the rest of the generals with him.

He, along with his team, will have to work hard at building bridges with the television, advertising and media communities which have earlier been scarred and hurt by Zee TV's harshness and superior attitude. Pointing out that Zee Telefilms still holds some hope, RMG-David's Delhi head, Subrato Chakraborty, said: "Zee has always looked like a propieter-run organizations, but now it should not overplay this fact and behave like a professional organizations. At the end of the day, only good programming will bring back the viewers and the advertisers."

Additionally, Chandra will have to work on cleaning up some of the mess which has been created in the middle and junior ranks within Zee TV itself. Internally, Zee TV is like a desert with patches of oases. Paralysis runs through most of the network, with very few executives willing to take decisions until they get clearance from above. Morale is running at an all-time low. Empowerment to the right people would be a step in the right direction. Weeding out of the wrong kind would help Zee look and feel clean and mean.

"One of Zee's problems had been that it never had the right people and probably this is the time to do so," Chakraborty explained.

PROGRAMMING, PACKAGING AND PROMOTIONS HOLD THE KEY: Chandra's current strategy appears to depend on Hindi movies to lure lost viewers to sample the channel and also provide advertisers with a platform to reach out to viewers. But he will have to develop other programming around day parts and prime time, to enhance Zee TV's stickiness with viewers. Once they nibble and they find the spread good, viewers are prone to take a bigger bite of television. Out of the box thinking even around traditional programming such as soaps, serials, and game shows can work. Newer genres involving interactivity with viewers, (not reality shows which don't seem to have worked at all in India) could prove beneficial to build up audiences.

Packaging, promotion are other elements which, if handled well, could see Zee make a comeback roaring like the MGM lion that graces the films on their movie channel.

Echoing a similar sentiment, another media planner with an ad agency said marketing and communication strategy of Zee "leaves much to be desired" if compared to Star India, for instance. Whereas Star will go all out to promote even an average programme, Zee will go in for on-air promotion which may not reach out to the adequate number of people considering Zee channel's falling viewership base, he added.

Finally, Zee TV would be well advised to make payments to all its production partners on time, rather than hold on to the money till the last minute. A happy production community would be more than willing to give their best to Zee TV, rather than to other rivals. In the television business, it is content that makes a channel tick. Or go on the blink.

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