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"India is not yet developed to venture into TV pay model": Sri Adhikari Brothers' Markand Adhikari

He adds that one cannot enter into digital market with a three-year plan.

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15 September 1959 saw a small transmitter and a makeshift studio in a corner of Delhi give birth to terrestrial television. Decades later in 1990, India saw the arrival of private television channels. When saas-bahu dramas ruled, SAB TV is credited for putting a smile on the face of the Indian audience with the launch of India’s first and only comedy channel. After acquiring relevant experience in the fields of advertising, marketing and media publicity, Markand Adhikari, along with his late brother Gautam Adhikari, started Sri Adhikari Brothers (SAB) Group - in 1985 as a partnership firm. Later, it went on to become the first publicly-listed television production company in India when it was listed on the BSE in 1995.

The company initially created regional language programs in Marathi and Gujarati and then moved on to producing Hindi programs on the Doordarshan. With the advent of satellite channels in India, SAB started producing serials for Zee TV. The group had numerous channels like SAB TV (now owned by Sony Networks), Mi Marathi & Mastii. The group made regional channels for rural parts of India like Dabangg, Dhamaal and Dillagi. The duo further forayed into films.

Sri Adhikari Brothers co-founder Markand Adhikari, in an insightful fireside chat with indiantelevision.com founder, CEO and editor in chief Anil Wanvari, got candid about his journey, plan going forward, advertising and subscription model in television and more.

Edited Excerpts:

You have been a part of television industry for 40 decades; can you tell us more about your journey?

When Doordarshan started in India, it only used to telecast an infotainment show called Krishi Darshan. When I was just a teenager, I met then information and broadcasting minister Vasant Sathe to discuss the chances of bringing commercial shows in India just like the west. At that time, he only asked me to look outside the window and asked me what do you see, I said I could see green trees and a colourful world. He explained to me about vision to bring colour television in India which was heavily criticised back then. Somehow, he accepted my proposal to create a show with Shashi Sharma. It started the era of sponsorship programs on television. We did sponsorship programs on Doordarshan for quite a few years then we ventured into regional space with LPTS (Low Power Transmission). We connected to the regional centres of Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Bandini became the first serial for Bombay Doordarshan. We carried a lot of shows for Doordarshan from the mid 80s to 1991.

My late brother Gautam Adhikari’s name was registered in Limca book of world records for directing the maximum number of shows. I made Commander with Essel Group chairman Dr Subhash Chandra and I learned a lot from him. With the help of Jeetendra Kapoor (veteran Bollywood actor), I met Ketan Somaiya, a Nairobi-based entrepreneur who used to run an Asia channel in London with Amitabh Bachchan. We created a show called Waqt for him for $11,000 per episode and at that time import and export were free. The show had 52 episodes but due to some non-payment issues, the show was stalled at 26 episodes. After this, I again switched back to Doordarshan because Zee never used to give rights to the shows. DD Metro was recently launched where I did popular shows like Shriman Shrimati and All The Best. At that time, it was Rs 1,20,000 for 10-second spots on DD Metro. Doordarshan wanted us to make an afternoon soap within 15 days. I spoke to TV Asia about my 52 episodes out of which I was only paid for 26 episodes. I imported the pending episodes on half of the rate. Starting with 52 episodes I made Waqt Ki Raftaar which eventually had 600 episodes.

What happened after you listed your company in 1995?

Due to the Harshad Mehta Scam, the entire stock market suffered until 1998. Finally, in 1999 the economy was witnessing a boom then I realised it is the perfect time to start our own channel. The main challenge was we were always in production. Broadcasting was altogether a new experience. Our financial adviser only gave the plan of Rs 115 crore for the channel but to launch a channel it was too less. Then with the limited amount at my disposal, I started SAB TV in 2000. Again, due to Ketan Parikh’s scam, the economy was in shambles still we managed to run the channel for five years. We were a trend-setter by bringing a niche comedy channel. Sony Networks took over SAB in 2005, which till date is my biggest regret. However, I am happy that SAB is a big brand. After SAB TV we started two news channels Janmat and Mi Marathi which later I sold at a good price.

What do you think about the future of television?

Television in India is not going to die so soon, it will at least stay for another ten years. In the typical Indian household, it is still a culture to watch TV together. Most of the people are not aware of the multi-set concept or firesticks. However, one of the benefits with digital channels is that it is moving whereas television is static. Television is appointment viewing, on the other hand, digital is infinite. But digital requires a lot of capital investment. One cannot enter the digital market with a three-year plan.

Are you looking at OTT content production?

Our next-generation has already ventured to digital space with a series called Dheet Patangey that was uploaded on Disney+ Hotstar. It is directed by Gautam Adhikari’s son Ravi. My son Kailashnath and Ravi already have close to five shows which are almost done.

Television is heavily dependent on advertisers; do you think subscription-based models will be a viable option in the long run?

As far as television is concerned, I think in India most of the channels will be dependent on ad revenue. Also, I believe India is not yet developed to sustain on a pay model. There are broadcasters, MSO, semi-MSOs and then cable operators who collect money from individual households. So it has a lot of loopholes and layers in between which needs to be identified. There is a lack of transparency. At the same time advertising models will not work on digital platforms because audiences are now used to watching OTT content ad-free.

What are your thoughts on IPL which is expected to happen during Diwali? Also, will it benefit all the channels or only sports channels?

I believe it is good news; it is creating a moment with the advertising world and advertisers. IPL or any other cricket forms were running in the same manner as it was before Covid2019. Advertising spends were created keeping all the channels in mind; it was just not for sports channels. I don’t think so IPL will impact the revenue of any other channel.

According to media planners, 30 per cent of advertising spends are kept for IPL, so do you think it will impact other channels?

It is not a new scenario. In fact, it is a testing time for other channels, where we will get to see how they perform when IPL arrives.

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