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Tarun Katial's deep dive with Zee5

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MUMBAI: Been there, done that and got the T-shirt. If Tarun Katial’s much-celebrated media career had to be summed up in one line, this would be apt. He has risen to the top tier of the media world, with a series of smash hits that include producing K-soaps at Star India, green lighting Big Boss before exiting Sony and building Big FM from the ground up. To use a baseball analogy, Tarun has hit two home runs in every inning he’s played. Yet with three rounds of success behind him, the opening line of this piece seems rather inaccurate. That's because his latest act – CEO Zee5, Zeel’s OTT- presents obstacles he has never encountered before.

“It’s the most future-looking gig that I’ve taken on. With digital, there’s no limit to scale. TV has scale but the timeline to scale on digital is far more crunched and it has far more possibilities,” says Tarun who was appointed boss of Zee5 in March this year after having worked closely with  Zeel managing director (MD) &  CEO Punit Goenka (PG) since the end of 2016.

“We were transitioning our properties from Reliance to Zeel and in that process, I was also helping put together this platform (Zee5) and it kind of became a logical end stop. When PG spoke to me about it, I thought there was a lot to do and learn,” Tarun recalls.

Tarun, however, reports to Punit’s younger brother and chief executive officer - international broadcasting business and Zee5 global Amit Goenka.

“Amit is a great person to work with. He gives you direction and freedom in great balance to be able to chart a great course. Amit really helps you build and empowers you to grow” says Tarun in a ringing endorsement of his new boss.

The now-peppered-with-grey executive turned to Vipassana fairly early on in his life. Success and young age make for a heady cocktail. Wiring himself to spirituality helped him deal with all the tectonic shifts in his life.

“Coming to Zee is kind of a full homecoming for me because I had actually looked at Subhashji very closely because he is a big proponent of Vipassana himself and it’s actually a great scientific tool to keep your head in balance,” Tarun adds.

He describes the Essel Group chairman as Indian media’s startup king. Tarun, 43, considers this a great opportunity to work with somebody who has the understanding of building a business. However, he isn’t new to such a setting. At 23, Tarun was strategising with Rupert Murdoch at Star. Was he ever intimidated?

“You know when you are 23, you have nothing to lose. You get intimidated at 35 when you have enough success behind you and you want to build a great future. At 43, you’re never intimidated because you have enough experiences. It’s 35 that you’re in the middle of nowhere that you do get intimidated,” says Tarun as he lets out a big laugh.

When you’re an A-list business executive, life’s nothing short of a highlight reel. But even the best doubt themselves at some stage. Tarun endured that moment three months into his job at Star. It was a tough atmosphere and he felt compelled to go back to advertising.

"One afternoon I spoke to my ex-boss at Ogilvy and told her I wanted to have lunch with her. I was on my way and I got a call and I had to come back for a meeting. I cancelled the lunch and I never went back or rescheduled it. Maybe my career wouldn't have shaped the way it did had I looked back and gone back. I have never looked back in my life ever since," he muses.

Although Tarun has little or no experience in the OTT space, his track record provides some insight into what we can expect from his tenure at Zee5. He's a big bet maker, who will go the distance for what he believes in. Like taking the call of moving away from English channels to regional at Reliance. Like daring to build a radio business without T-series, which controlled 60-70 per cent of Indian music at the time. Like creating properties such as Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin and Indian Idol that cater to an aspirational India. Like investing in people around him and empowering them.

Progressive and future looking, the Zee5 brand is bound to have a distinct Tarun Katial stamp on it. Regional content and original regional content are likely to be the key drivers of growth from a content perspective. Continuing to attract the best talent, staying ahead of technology and finding the right partners to create unique but mass content will be the major areas of focus for the company under him.

Does he feel handicapped by the absence of a live sports offering on his platform?

"In every challenge lies opportunity. Great storytelling will always hold you in good stead. Netflix grew on the back of House of Cards. It is the world's largest OTT today. We will do live content in the entertainment space, which will be as good as what you get with cricket and other sports," he quips.

Tarun is confident about tackling the distribution challenge too. Apart from the pull of his product, he sees enough opportunities with his alliance partners to bolster the reach of Zee5 content.

One thing you can't deny Tarun is his sense of timing. He has a knack of landing at the right place at the right time. He calls it his karmic cycle and he wants it to continue.

"I think it's the right time to be in digital and OTT. The proliferation of data, video content and devices is not going to stop. This ship has sailed and it is going to go as far as you think it can go," he says when asked about the timing of his latest gig.

Tarun's professional life has always been guided by a sense of purpose. With Zee5, he aims to make content accessible to all Indians in their own time and language. He wants to create for India and not impose what works globally. Suiting the taste of the Indian technology, telecom and content ecosystem is a priority for him.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that Tarun's entry into India's OTT space has made matters all the more exciting. With a proven pedigree and a sizeable risk-taking appetite, he's bound to give the early entrants and frontrunners Star's Hotstar, Viacom18’s Voot and SPN's SonyLIV a few things to think about.

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