Zee TV at 28: A walk down memory lane

The group has what it takes to be even more successful in the coming years.

MUMBAI: 28 years sounds like a long, long time. But it seems to have gone by in a flash – for Zee TV’s founders, for TV viewers, for media observers and for investors. It was certainly an audacious move when a goateed gentleman by the name of Subhash Chandra Goyal decided to set up an entertainment channel in 1992. The only TV entertainment we were familiar with was that of public broadcaster Doordarshan for close to twenty years. The last nine or 10 of those were in colour, while the first 10 were in black and white.

Small cable TV operators with single master antenna television services (SMATV) used to serve us with those original Hiba (Nari Hira) movies, stolen copies of popular Hindi films, pirated versions of Mind Your Language, and Top of The Pops, as well as pornos late in the night during the late eighties and early nineties. Then they began to air Satellite TV Asian Region (Star TV) channels and shows including The Bold and the Beautiful, and Chinese subtitled movies and a mix of international and Chinese songs and finally CNN and BBC, when Li Ka Shing and Richard Li flagged off the ambitious service. Successful at tapping into the minds of India’s metro dwellers, the shows gave women in the first class compartments of trains enough to chat about – such as the exploits of Eric Forrester and Brooke Logan. VJ Nonie on MTV, which was part of the STAR bouquet..

Into that uncharted territory stepped a bunch of maverick entrepreneurs. Among them: Subhash Chandra, better known for making lamitubes for toothpaste under Essel Packaging, and a cable TV operator named Siddharth Srivastava from the southern part of Mumbai. Srivastava beat everyone to the punch, launching ATN with the promise of many more channels offering songs, movies and sports to come. ATN was interesting but was on an ageing Russian satellite which wobbled. When it did, cable TV operators had to reorient their dishes, which was pretty frequent. Hence, when Zee TV was beamed off Asiasat-2 with its bright pictures and differentiated entertainment shows, Indians became glued to it. Not just in the metros, but in smaller towns and cities, and in some prosperous villages as well.

And it seemed like Zee TV could do no wrong, even as others attempted to get into the same entertainment channel space. Business India TV and the Times of India unveiled flashy plans while the Hindustan Times and Dr JK Jain launched channels as well. But in time they dropped out of the race, a clear indication that experience in print or out of home media need not guarantee success in television. The highly successful Business India founder, Ashok Advani, borrowed big for his BiTV and cable TV forays, but floundered so badly that his publishing empire almost went belly up.

Meanwhile, the business savvy Chandra attracted the shrewd Rupert Murdoch to partner with him, locking him in a deal which helped Zee TV grow, and kept the Star TV network in check. The duo finally parted ways with Chandra paying off the Ozzie media baron. 

Chandra and team seemed to have his finger on the pulse of what viewers wanted to watch: both in non-fiction and fiction. He pioneered singing talent hunts, long before the Idol franchise was created globally, tried almost every genre of fiction programming, right from drama to crime to thriller to horror to adventure to kids. He also had the foresight to acquire rights to movies, paying what seemed like top dollar in those days to acquire them for perpetuity. .

He succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination: an increasing number of channels followed. Some succeeded, some he effortlessly folded up when he discovered that audiences did not approve. He forayed into cable TV with Siti Networks, DTH with Dish TV, news with Zee Media  – all of which are assets which have served the group well. Yes,  the group could definitely monetise them better, but for that regulations have to be conducive.

Along the way, he brought in a string of executives who promised to grow his empire. CEOs like Digvijay Singh, Vijay Jindal, RK Singh, Sandeep Goyal, Pradeep Guha came and left. Yes, the TV network did grow, but it did, at times, randomly based on Chandra’s growth urge.

It required his elder son Punit Goenka to come in and bring some sense of order into the company by hiring professionals from mainline FMCG companies. Of course, it’s to Chandra’s credit that he supported or maybe fronted those decisions. The group forayed into print with DNA – a segment which was challenged then and is  under even more pressure today with the spread of digital. Thankfully, better sense prevailed and the legacy business was shut down.

Chandra tried to diversify the group into other ventures like infrastructure, which required a lot of capital. To fund those projects he pledged the family’s ownership of Zee. Unfortunately, the infrastructure venture did not go according to plan and the lenders came calling. They gave the group time to pay back. And Goenka promised he and his team would deliver.

In the meantime, many in the industry and media wrote off Chandra and sons, saying they are sitting targets for an investor-led coup, or that they would be ousted by India’s richest industrialist. They questioned the business practice transparency levels of the Zee group. Others ridiculed and dismissed’s belief in Zee’s abilities to turn the situation around.

The forebodings of naysayers and detractors never came to pass. Today, the family owns a minority stake in the business. But it has the trust of investors who helped the promoters pay back their debts against pledged shares to banks and financial institutions. Goenka heads the organisation, his younger brother Amit leads the international and digital businesses, while Chandra is chairman emeritus. Of course, old friends such as ad man and investor Ashok Kurien continue to support the family and are on-board. Goenka has put in place measures on transparency which have more than satisfied the investor community.

Like many other companies in the media and entertainment space, revenues have plummeted this year due to Covid2019, lockdowns and precautionary measures put in place by the government. But team Zee has been slogging it out to pull a larger share of those earnings in. Some of those initiatives are working. Goenka is sanguine that Q3 and Q4 are going to show signs of turnaround. And next year is going to be stellar. The group is banking on its widespread network of channels serving several languages in India and its OTT streaming platform Zee5 to provide entertainment and information to its viewers in the country and globally. And bring in the revenues. Zee5 is showing every sign of scaling up even further - both on the SVoD and AVoD spaces. It has signed a slew of partnerships for content and distribution and is gaining viewers, without any sport as part of its programming.

To Chandra’s, Amit’s  and Punit’s credit, Zee has a productive studio business which churns out films and TV shows, a music label and publishing initiative and even a live venture, – all of which were halted in their planned expansions and growth courtesy the pandemic. But they have a lot of potential, undoubtedly.

Over the last several months, Zee has taken steps to aid different state governments in their battle against Covid2019, whether it be by  gifting ambulances, or providing funds for PPEs and medicines. In their twenty eight year run, even while grappling with their own financial pressures, Chandra and sons have been thinking about the public good.  Just the same as when he launched Zee TV to entertain Indian audiences.

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