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'The last 20 years belong not to Star but to Zee' : Star India CEO Peter Mukherjea

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Peter Mukerjea became the CEO of Star India at a crucial period of satellite television history in India when the relationship between two media moguls Rupert Murdoch and Subhash Chandra had soured.

led Star against India’s homegrown broadcasting business of Chandra and took its flagship Hindi general entertainment channel (GEC) Star Plus to the top in 2000, the position it still enjoys after he quit to try his hands at his own private equity-backed broadcasting venture.

The former Star India CEO admits that the last 20 years of private television broadcasting belong to Subhash Chandra despite himself being at the helm of a significant piece of Indian broadcasting history by successfully leading Star India.

In a tete a tete with Indiantelevision.com’s Sibabrata Das, Mukerjea speaks candidly about how Chandra has outrun Star and Sony and today "runs the most effective broadcasting network, has a thriving cable business and was the first to launch DTH in India".

Excerpts:

Q. Rupert Murdoch and Subhash Chandra started as allies and formed a joint venture. But this relationship turned stormy by the time you became Star India CEO. How bitter was it?

The relationship with Zee was initially harmonious. But as News Corp started becoming more grounded in the Indian market and established its capability, Chandra’s views on Star, Murdoch and a multinational broadcaster changed.

That in a way was inevitable to happen. So long as Star was in English and Zee in Hindi, the two companies operated in two ecosystems. The moment Star started Hindi content, Chandra saw it as a violation of the joint venture agreement and there was a major shift in relationship between the two partners.

Q. And the beginning of the pay TV industry in India also helped in Chandra taking a hostile approach?

Yes, it built a hostile environment. Alongside the personal stresses and strains, pay TV was becoming a reality in India. Murdoch has experienced pay TV in other markets and successfully developed it in his sprawling media empire. Chandra knew this.

Though the two also ran an equal joint venture in Siticable (the cable TV outfit), there was mutual suspicion. The partnership became frigid and fell apart.

I was in the hot seat as CEO. And the only way to progress was for Zee to buy out News Corp’s stakes in the joint ventures - which they eventually did. Having finished with that task, Star got an opportunity to do a total Hindi entertainment channel. Punit Goenka (son of Chandra and now in charge of Zeel and Zee News Ltd ) was a baby then and Chandra was running the company.

Q. Were Chandra and Murdoch bitter even when they met after they split?

Even when the meetings were pleasant, there was always tension in the background. Both were media moguls in different parts of the world and there was mutual respect. But it was always laced with a fair amount of rivalry.

Q. In your early days as CEO, how did you find Chandra’s aggressive attacks?

There were lots of questions put in Parliament and Star was accused of repatriating money from India and showing obscene content (Star Movies). Some of these were public petitions but we suspected that they were from our competitors. We, though, had no proof that they were Zee-backed.

 
‘Lobbying, having deeper pockets, being able to hire better executives – all these don’t matter. In love and war, all is fair. As a piece of history, it is Chandra who started DTH first in India. He has a strong presence in cable and runs the most effective broadcasting network in India. It is only in sports broadcasting that he needs an international partner‘

Q. Murdoch always wanted to be the first to launch direct-to-home (DTH) operations in India. So what made Chandra beat Murdoch in this race?You can say it is because of lobbying or whatever. But the truth is that Chandra launched the first DTH platform in India. And he deserves credit for that.

Q. Even Murdoch is known as a lobby master. Is that how you see this as a neutral proposition?

Lobbying, having deeper pockets, being able to hire better executives – all these don’t matter. In love and war, all is fair. As a piece of history, it is Chandra who started DTH first in India.

Q. So who would you say ruled the first 20 years of private satellite television broadcasting in India?

The last 20 years surely belong to Chandra. He runs the most effective broadcasting network in India today. He has created an Indian product and has built a phenomenal international business with that content. He is the first to set up a regional-language network across India. And he has a strong presence in DTH and cable.

Q. You say this even though you used to work in Star and later head it?

Yes, you have to give credit to the man. He has worked so hard getting back, despite being knocked off in Hindi entertainment business in 2000. That was the time he expanded into different languages. Chandra has helped Zee stay probably as the largest broadcasting business in India today and as a publicly listed company. He had a longer part of the rule in these 20 years.

Zee has outrun everybody else. It’s not Star, not Sony but Zee which is the leader of the pack. And this despite not having the backing of the multinationals which have an advantage in bringing truck loads of money. Look at the impact he has had in Indian society and entertainment culture. Zee has connected deeply with the Indians.

Q. Do you see Chandra becoming a leader in sports broadcasting?

He has to find an international sports partner. Though India is just cricket, he needs to step out of the base and bet much bigger. If he has higher risk-taking ability in sports and finds an international partner to provide richness in content, Zee will become a strong competitor to Star in sports broadcasting.

Q. But didn’t he bid the highest for the ICC World CUP and also the BCCI rights?

You can blame that on pedigree. The sad truth is that if you are a decision maker in allocating sports rights, you may go for a lower bid which has greater capability rather than give it to the one whose monetary bid was higher.

Q. Chandra is now stepping into local languages in overseas markets like Middle East and Russia. Is the timing good?

After building a solid business in India, Chandra is now stepping out to other parts of the world. There are great opportunities in eastern Europe or the entire Soviet Union country base. Parts of America are also a good hunting ground.

I think it is a great strategy. Chandra has built the capability, the resources and the relationships. And it is not a bad time to strike. News Corp is going through a crisis and a lot of management time is wasted on external issues rather than businesses. Zee can capture market share and grow it.

Q. Do you think Zee’s over-the-top (OTT) platform has a fair chance to succeed?

There are serious rights issues and OTT is not still an open book. The bulk of the revenues in OTT is in the movie business. Chandra will have to wait it out. But it is creditable to pursue OTT and see it as a future growth business. Even in India, OTT will happen and grow alongside TV.

Q. Would you have loved to work as CEO of Zee?

That is difficult to say and I have never thought of it. I have never spent time with Chandra to understand him as an individual and what his goals are. A lot depends on the personal chemistry that you share with your personal boss. If goals do not match, then that relationship can’t work.

Q. How much does an organisational culture matter?

The promoter always brings a certain kind of personality into the organisation. But a lot depends on the CEO rather than the owner in influencing that culture; he brings his style and charm to the operations of the company.

There are many critics who say the corporate culture in News Corp is not as wonderful as it is supposed to be. Citing the phone hacking issue, they say the organisational culture is wrong. There is, thus, no fixed solution to corporate culture.

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