2017's Top India TV industry leaders - Part I


MUMBAI: The year 2017 threw up myriad conundrums and dilemmas for the men and women who are the showrunners of India’s media and entertainment (M&E) sector, which is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.9 per cent, to reach USD 37.55 billion by 2021 from USD 19.59 billion in 2016, outshining the global average of 4.2 per cent.

It was a rocky year, one during which everyone’s mettle was tested. First, there were the aftereffects of demonetisation. If that wasn’t enough, the Goods and Services Tax was unleashed in the second half of 2017. This sent everyone into a tizzy. Business targets went awry as executives grappled with the changes they had to deal with. Net results: industry growth numbers dipped. Despite this, the resilience of the industry and media leaders was never in question.

Like in the past, we decided to list down—not in any particular order—the top 20 senior leaders from the television industry who, we believe, made noteworthy moves in 2017.  Of course almost every professional in the business deserves to be lauded in these rapidly mind-numbing-confusing-as-hell changing times—for even just hanging in there.  Forget about doing well. However, a list has to be selective and we took upon ourselves to do so. We hope you will appreciate our initiative. Read on for the first installment in our year-ender series featuring six of India’s top TV industry leaders and their achievements in 2017.


Mukesh D Ambani

Disruption. That’s what the D in his full name stands for, apart from his entrepreneurial father’s name Dhirubhai. And clearly that’s what the chairman of Reliance Industries did in 2017. He shook old established players in the telecom sector by giving away wireless data access for free through Reliance Jio–a process he started just as 2016 was ending–quickly adding more than 100 million subscribers.

The old guard yelped, blocked calls to their networks, but he plodded on through the year, fought them out in courts, and had his way. In the process, he forced them to rework their business plans and models.

The entry of Jio has forever changed the way the telecom industry prices services for customers. The cheap data has also changed the way Indian viewers are consuming their video content.  Probably, forever.

Since the launch of Jio more than 200 crore hours of video and around 10 GB data per capita per user per month are being consumed every month by just Jio subscribers. The number for the 375 odd million internet users will be much higher than that. Apart from wireless delivery of video, Ambani also has plans for distribution by fibre to the home (FTTH). If leaked pricing plans are to be believed, he is likely to totally upset the economics of the cable TV ecosystem, too.

 Jio has also invested in content companies such as Alt Balaji, partnered with Hotstar, and appointed Siddharth Roy Kapur Films to curate content for its VOD services. And Ambani already owns close to 38 TV channels under the Network18 group, and has a joint venture with Viacom that gives it a clutch of channels amongst which figures the leading Hindi GEC Colors and other entertainment channels in many languages. Ambani has more disruption plans up his sleeves. At the Viacom18 tenth anniversary celebrations in Mumbai he said he has not paid attention to the video content business under that group company. But he added that the teams there were going to see a greater involvement from his side. That should give a lot many in the TV business sleepless nights.


Uday Shankar

This journo turned media CEO clearly stands head and shoulders above almost every TV and media industry executive in the country. Over the years, his bold, brazen and, at times, out of the box moves have seen what was once a smallish TV network expand into the leader in the media and entertainment landscape—of course, the foundation had been laid some his predecessors and the promoters, the Murdoch family, gave ample support to this ‘jewel’ in the crown of the parent company that’s now known as 21st Century Fox and is seeking regulatory approvals in the US to merge with Disney. 2017 was no different for Uday.

The year saw Uday getting appointed as the Asia head of Fox – of which Star India is an offshoot. But before that he betted big by coughing up USD 2.55 billion on sewing up the all-media rights for the world’s top cricket property – the Indian Premier League. Many have scoffed at the audacious price he has been willing to pay for that property; something which they did when Paul Aileo and Peter Chernin picked him to run Star India around a decade ago after Peter Mukerjea’s departure.

But Uday proved the nay-sayers wrong in every way.  He is likely to do it again. And again. Under Uday’s leadership, the India business has firmly established itself as a world-class asset with durable businesses across entertainment, sports, satellite distribution and OTT. Now he has set his eyes to do the same with Fox Asia.


 Jawahar Goel

The third of the four Goel brothers who nourished Essel Group (Zee and Dish TV’s parent), along with the eldest sibling Subhash Chandra, Jawahar Goel, or JG as he’s popularly known as in the industry, has always been a street fighter—and a smart one at that. Historic boardroom battles in New Delhi’s Lawrence Road-based Essel House in the 1990s, notwithstanding (Zee had three JVs with Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV then), JG is regarded as a go-to-man in the industry by most people because of his understanding of the complexities and nuances of the various segments of the media industry. A tech-savvy person, his tablet is the holder of many secrets and strategies.

2017 saw him getting into the limelight if, for a bit, in stops and starts. In late 2016, he announced what seemed like a mother of a merger with rival Videocon d2h–the process of regulatory clearances for the same took up most of 2017. Everyone expected the going to be smooth and the final clearance came from the ministry of information and broadcasting at close to the end of the year. And then came the announcement in the last week of December 2017 that the merger was being delayed because of technical glitches. And those glitches became clear in early 2018: JG had instructed his investment bankers and lawyers to relook the deal in the light of the fact that the Videocon group was defaulting on loans and whether any action by the government or financial institutions would have an impact on the valuation of Videocon d2h. The market has interpreted this to mean that JG is back at his best: he is striking a further hard bargain or that he has decided to not do it all.

JG also set the cat among the pigeons in the year by alleging in letters to the TRAI, IBF and the MIB that if the rights of the IPL were awarded to Star India by the BCCI it would tantamount to a monopoly. Nobody heeded him and the rights still went to Star India. That still did not stop JG: he then appealed to the courts that Star’s pay TV service Life OK should not be allowed to go FTA as Star Bharat. Once again, the courts did not agree with him.

2018 will be an interesting period for him. He will have to come clean on whether Dish TV is going ahead with its merger with Videocon d2h or not.  And if not then what is the course, he and his CEO—a top notch professional who ran Hero Honda—Anil Dua are going to do with the firm going forward. It’s over to the man.


Arnab Goswami

You can hate him, you can love him, but you just can’t ignore him—no matter how one tries doing the last. Republic TV—Arnab’s new baby—before its debut whipped up a political storm with BJP politician Subramaniam Swamy questioning use of the word `republic’ for a commercial venture and his former employers Times TV Network dragging him to court over who owned the copyright over the phrase ‘the nation wants to know.’

But Arnab loves a slugfest; he got into a public brawl with Times TV on ratings, distribution practices with the latter taking him to court. For a moment it looked like the News Broadcasters Association and even the ratings body had got polarized with those for and against Republic or those for Times TV. So much so that Arnab called it names. But finally sense prevailed as the dust settled and Republic took up membership of the association.

Republic TV continued to be a hot topic of discussion throughout 2017 with its line of editorial stand and shows, which some critics dubbed as absolutely partisan and non-journalistic. However, despite widespread criticisms Republic TV not only managed to lead the ratings game amongst the TV news channels, but also succeeded in dividing the news fraternity at one time over audience measurement numbers.

That it continues to lead a life on the edge of ethics and non-ethics --- and thrive --- speaks volume of the Arnab charm and his brand of opinionated journalism. With Republic TV expanding into VR programming and also spreading wings outside Indian shores ( it debuted in the Middle East last year), 2018 would be an interesting period of evolution of this news venture backed by some of the staunchest supporters of  PM Modi and his government.


Smriti Irani

For many years, Smriti Irani along with Ekta Kapoor and Star India contributed to the rise and rise of Indian television thanks to the hugely popular Kyuunki Saas Ki Kabhi Bahu Thi, a series in which Smriti played the role of a dutiful Indian daughter in law, who had sanskaar yet was willing to stand up for herself when she was wronged. 

Now, 17 years later, Smriti sits over the entire broadcast sector as India’s TV content regulator as  the minister of information and broadcasting, a position none of the executives or professionals in Indian television even envisaged she would one day hold.

Smriti acted quickly following her appointment: she put a halt to the process of e-auctions of DD’s free-to-air direct-to-home platform DD FreeDish.  She even stopped the privatisation of time slots on national broadcaster DD National and even said not yet to two productions (one by Gajendra Singh and the other by Balaji Telefilms), which had got the go ahead. That did not augur well for at least Singh as it allegedly caused him grievous losses.

Then, under her watch, her ministry has been demanding that the world’s most valued cricket league the IPL is of national import and that Star India needs to share its feed with pubcaster DD, something which the Fox group company sees as not fair. Additionally, the ministry has also raised the fees for live uplinking—a move which many see as targeted at making things dearer for Star India as it cover test cricket in six languages in 2018.

Smriti also left her stamp on this year’s IFFI, which was probably the most glamorous in its history with A-list Bollywood stars winging it to Goa. Her ministry lifted the bar for the festival in terms of scale and quality.

She also clamped down on steamy condom commercials, which were flooding channels on TV channels during the day. Broadcasters were ordered to telecast such ads only between 10 pm and 6 am.

public://Shashi Shekhar Vempati.jpg

Shashi Shekhar Vempati

Shashi Shekhar Vempati has quite a few creds to his name. One of them being that he is youngest executive to be the CEO of pubcaster Prasar Bharati and the other being that he is the first private sector manager called on to run the behemoth. And 2017 put all his managerial skill sets to the test.

When he joined, there were plans already in place to grow DD Free Dish, to study if there was opportunity in the kids’ space for it and check out if a gasping DD National could be given fresh oxygen and survive the hectic competition in general entertainment television.

Shashi slammed the brakes on all growth plans, heeding to the orders of the powers that be (read his new I&B boss Smriti Irani). Under his watch, the e-auctions of DD Free Dish, the selling of slots to private producers were called off. He also told DD director general Supriya Sahu to dive deeper into DD Kids and not rush into it. And he spent a large part of the year studying what DD was all about and what he could do and not do at the organisation. 

This apart, Shashi has been focusing his energy on two fronts: one on sports and the second on DD’s News outreach and ensuring that the pubcaster relays the right messaging of a nation, which is being watched by the world.  India is predicted to become a global power— one of the most important consuming countries globally in the not, too, distant future.

Most people saw the Supreme Court’s endorsement of the Delhi High Court verdict, which disallowed Doordarshan or DD from sharing the live feed of cricket matches of ESPN and Star India with cable operators as a setback. But not the new kid on the block; Shashi saw it as an opportunity.

During an interview with www.indiantelevision.com, Vempati said that the decision forced away complacency at the pubcaster where earlier many changes and additions were either being implemented either too slowly or not at all. Prasar Bharati now had a reason to make DD Sports a go to destination for viewers and would help in promoting DD Free Dish and DD terrestrial to larger audiences across many more cities than the 19 in which DD’s terrestrial signals are available, and to switch DD Free Dish to MPEG-4.

Shashi said that the verdict has created an avenue for making DD Sports the place for cricket. Earlier, cricket and other sports were being aired on DD National. Now they would be aired on DD Sports. The court’s verdicts’ would prevent cable operators from pushing their own ads while blanking out DD National signals during matches. In future, through DD Sports, there would be a separate feed for cricket and there would be no need to blank out an important channel like DD National.

 Shashi will be watched through the year in 2018. He has plans to harness new technologies such as in-built digital tuners in some television models, DVB through dongles and mobiles and plugging into hotspots that are DVB ready. He feels that DTT is a new viewership base and is a new way for advertisers to connect with viewers.

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