Wake up Zee
TEN years ago this month Zee TV came into existence starting with a few hours of telecast a day, demonstrating that you could get bright-looking programmes on shoe string budgets, and providing an audacious, upbeat contrast to Doordarshan. Its first telecast was of its launch party, and making his appearance on the small screen was Subhash Chandra, the new magnate in the making. In the 10 years since, the company's fortunes have been a roller coaster ride. An early tie-up with the world's best known media czar, Rupert Murdoch, then the even more audacious feat a few years down the line of buying out Murdoch's stake in the company they owned jointly.
Over this decade, Zee stocks have soared and plunged. It became the first satellite channel to demonstrate that you could break even very early and begin to make profits, but today it has to turn to innovations such as its online lottery to get returns which are simply not coming from its flagship channel, Zee TV. In the first half of the decade there was no doubt about who was number one in the Indian satellite market, today, incredibly, that same pioneer is number three, after Star and Sony, even as the Zee empire has become huge and multifarious.
Subhash Chandra and Zee still matter, but never before have they had to scramble so hard to rediscover a formula for success which slipped away somewhere down the line. And thanks to his association with stock market operator Ketan Parekh and the suspicion that he manipulated his share price, Chandra's halo as an ambitious, outward thrusting media czar became somewhat besmirched a couple of years ago.
On its tenth anniversary, Zee Telfilms has to confront a vastly changed media scene. It is becoming an industry where unless you are very sharp or very lucky (both in the case of Star Plus's experience with "Kaun Banega Crorepati") you have to spend huge amounts of money to just stay in the reckoning. Not only have dozens of regional entertainment channels fragmented the viewing universe, but also niche channels such as those for music and news are taking away audiences and advertising.
Chandra's early formula was to spend on enhancing quality only when the revenues had started coming in, today his company spends huge sums and the revenues are still elusive. For instance it spends over Rs. one crore a month on a single Balaji telefilms serial which is in the early evening band on Zee TV, and is spending Rs. 40 crores on acquiring films to show on Thursdays in the hope of winning audiences on that day. When it began, back in 1992, it was known for paying not more than Rs. 25,000 per half hour episode of programming.
If in a business built on ideas and marketing savvy, people are an entertainment company's biggest resource, Zee has never been so bankrupt as it is today. Subhash Chandra's penchant for hire and fire has only grown over the years, and when he hires men who in turn hire and fire in rapid succession you end up with a scenario where all the old Zee hands are history, the latest CEO who came in less than two years ago has also just become history, and is strangely enough leaving the company's top management in the hands of a team most of whom are not only just a few months old at Zee, but collectively have almost zilch TV experience between them.
The outgoing CEO came from advertising and has subsequently brought in others from the same field. Meanwhile, Zee acquired two ETC channels, ETC Punjabi and ETC Music, and has acquired their owner-manager as well along with the channels. A person with a cable operator background who is now part of Zee's new core mangement team.
Arrivals and departures are so much the norm in this company now that consolidation is fast becoming an alien concept. Each new head who comes in (and they come in all the time) fires the old hands. Last year when the man at the top at Zee News changed, a 100 were fired. When he left a few months ago, some of the older ones came back. This year, one sales team alone has seen three changes of head in six months. Barely a month ago the Zee creative head, and the head of a couple of other Zee channels also departed.
Programming at Zee has become an expensive gamble, which these days it loses more often than it wins. Its big flop "Sawal Dus Crore Ka" was succeeded by a huge expensive non-starter, its "Prisoners of War" reality show. That not-so-bright idea was abandoned before it saw the light of day. Its current strategy of pitting shows based on glamorous career women against Star Plus 's saas bahus has barely registered a blip on the ratings. Last month Star Plus's rerun of a Shahrukh Khan "Kaun Banega Crorepati" episode earned a rating of eight, while Zee's new crop of serials the same week barely crossed one point on the television viewer rating charts. Last year the then new CEO Sandeep Goyal launched at huge expense some 26 or 27 new shows, most of which sank without a trace.
The winner has been the occasional episode of "Jeena Isi K Naam Hai", its celebrity-based show, with huge TVRs for episodes featuring Laloo Prasad Yadav and Johnny Lever. And of course its Playwin lottery begun with the Sikkim Government, with a jackpot of Rs. 8.61 crores.
The latest programming bright idea credited by some to Subhash Chandra, and by others to the departing CEO Goyal, was to start daily serials on Sundays instead of Mondays, run them till Wednesday and then have a movie of the week on Thursdays. The market has yet to pronounce on the wisdom of this particular gamble, aimed at striking at Star Plus's strategy of weekday daily soaps.
In the early years of Zee's success it would have seemed unthinkable that its viewership base should be smaller than that of Star TV in India. Yet today that is the case: it currently stands at 36 million, way behind rival Star TV's viewership of 54 million. So Subhash Chandra is moving as he has done many times before, to reassert family control. His brother Lakshmi Goel now heads Zee News, and he intends to oversee Zee TV and Zee Cinema himself. Because its parent empire is now so big, with movies, satellite, entertainment complexes and overseas cable channels, Zee Telfilms rides out the many bumps it encounters. But if television is to remain its core business, it needs to rewrite its own script urgently.
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