Zee@20: At the helm of the vision

01 Oct,2012

By Meghna Sharma


Nitin Vaidya (Currently preparing to launch his own business in the field of Media & Entertainment):

Nitin Vaidya

I started my career in the world of television with Zee way back in 1997 after being a print journalist. I was instrumental in launch of Zee Marathi channel in August 1999 which was the first non south private satellite channel in India. After the success of the channel, I was also given charge of other regional channels in 2004 (Bengali, Gujarati & Punjabi channels). The network has been way ahead of its time and therefore, was able to see the growth in the regional market when others were hesitant to put their money there.


The entry and growth of Zee in the regional channels can be said to be instrumental in the overall growth of the regional markets be it television or films. And in 2008, I assumed the charge of National Channels of Zee Network and was directly responsible of Zee TV as its Business head. For over a decade with the network, I looked after National as well as Regional channels of Zee, before calling it quits in October 2010. The journey has been a long learning experience wherein I got to work with creative and vibrant team. It was also great to work with Subhash Chandraji and Punit Goenka.


Like me, I’m sure there are many in the industry who started their careers or have worked with Zee at some point in their careers. The industry – television as well as film – have to thank the Zee network for giving them opportunities and a learning ground to reach where it is now.


Also, I do believe that one can easily say that the entertainment industry was started in the country by none other than the Zee TV. It is the pioneer of GECs!


Ashwini Yardi

Ashwini Yardi (Currently producer of the film OMG):

Fresh out of college, I had joined Zee as assistant director and after working with the network for 15 years, I left as programming head. And I can proudly say that today whatever I am is because of the channel and all the lessons I learnt while working there. Unlike today, there weren’t any courses in television also the satellite television was young too. Therefore, we all learnt on the job and nothing can be more exciting and enriching than that. Even the team as a whole was young (average age of 26-27 year-olds) who were full of ideas.


I have only good and enriching memories of my time spent in Zee. I can call it my family!


Meenakshi Menon, founder and chairperson, Spatial Access:

Meenakshi Menon

It was September 1994, I had just joined Zee as Vice President Sales and Marketing. My appointment letter was issued by Ambience Space Sellers Pvt Ltd. but I was head of Sales and Marketing of Zee TV, a channel that was owned by Asia Today Limited, a Hong Kong based company that was floated by an Indian businessman called Subhash Chandra whose brothers were Goels.


That was my entry into the exciting, confusing world of Zee TV.


Satellite TV was just a few years old. The Gulf war of 1990 was the catalyst for CNN and drove penetration of satellite dishes across the country. Star TV launched in Dec 1991 with Santa Barbara and the Bold and the Beautiful. In October 1992 Zee TV had launched its Hindi satellite service. Programmes like Saanp Seedi, Colgate Top Ten, Close-up Antakshari, Khana Khazana, Tara and Bournvita Quiz contest were fresh and entertaining. They fuelled TV penetration as strongly as they fuelled C&S penetration. The middle class bought TVs because for the first time they could sit at home and in the comfort of their homes be entertained by television where the focus was creating a fresh new world every 30 minutes. But this is not about TV programmes. Enough has been written about that and how Zee created a genre of programming that set the pace for change; social re-engineering we use to call it. There were protests from men’s groups that Tara was encouraging women to stand up against their menfolk. The woman’s media advocacy groups on the other hand gave Tara and its lead Navneet Nishan an award. But this story is about the people behind Zee and not anyone else but the man who was Zee. SC as we called him with a mixture of respect, affection and angst in equal measure.


My first week at Zee, my immediate boss Digvijay Singh was travelling. SC sent for me. He wanted an update on the revenue figures for the July/Sep quarter. I grabbed the reports from my finance team and ran up the stairs to meet him. My heart in my mouth. SC was known for his short temper and his ability to reduce everyone (including the senior guys) to tears. I walked into his waiting area, told his secretaries (he used to have two secretaries and two office assistants, even in those days) that I had been summoned and settled down to wait. The Boss would have three, four, five meetings running in tandem. He would step in and out of meetings and pick up the threads without skipping a beat. Ten minutes later he walked up to me and said “Meenakshi, kaise chal raha hai? Sab theek?” Much later I was to learn that “Sab theek” was his way of telling us that all was well and not the question that I thought it was in the initial months. “Haan SC, sab theek.” He looked at the sales figures and frowned. It was September, the Divali season was around the corner and SC was not happy with what had been done the previous quarter. “I want you to double revenues for the next quarter,” he said. “Can I count on you to do it?” Now Diggy, my boss, had not warned me that SC was not used to refusals or debate. His question was purely rhetorical in nature. He was not looking for an answer. All he wanted was action. Unfortunately I had not been briefed and it was too late. “Double revenues? No way. Not unless we revamp our operations systems and hike up our rate card.” Have you ever experienced time stand still? I did that day for the first time. There were three sets of people waiting to meet SC, two foreign visitors, his four-member office staff. Everyone was frozen. Did I not know that you were forbidden from saying no to SC? Did I think my professional reputation would save me from the gallows? What was I doing? Why was I messing up the day for the whole company? Nothing moved. Even the phones were silent. The crows outside his first-floor office window were cawless for one crazy suspended-in-air moment. SC looked at me and said, “Toh rate badhao! Par revenue double hona hi hai.” I could hear the loud intakes of breath from a dozen lungs around the room. SC stood up and so did I. My knees were quaking. Double revenues? Hike rate card? I had escaped SC’s wrath but I was about to be the most hated person in the advertising industry. Little did I know that day that it was to become a bit of an occupational hazard for me. Being on the opposite side of the hordes was always a preferred position.


Second week September, I have created a new rate card. Built a concept that permits us to take a rate hike 365 days of the year. Programmes move up or down a cost scale based on delivery and demand. Pricing is perfectly positioned to seize the moment and double the revenues of the quarter. I ask SC for a meeting to walk him through the new rate card, Digs is still in Europe. SC’s response is, “Can it be justified? Then why do I need to see it? Don’t waste time, send it out to the market.” The rate card is out, agencies and advertisers are up in arms. How dare Zee hike rates just before the festive season. What is SC thinking? He gets calls from agency heads, advertisers. To each one he says, “Nayi bachchi hai, maalum nahi. Ab kya kare? Aage dekhenge.” Then he stops taking calls because he knows I am pissed off at being made the scapegoat behind my back. I have no problems with being the fall guy but it has to be stated up front. I draft a letter for him to send out to all those who call or complain. It says the same thing but asks them to call me if they have a problem. I will sort it out. No one gets in touch. The few that do are dealt with compassionately but end up paying just as much as those who did not call. Some agencies run by a bunch of SC cronies and distant relatives go to him with a complaint. I am arrogant. He needs to put me in my place. His answer to them is, she is arrogant with me and I pay her salary! The new rate card is accepted by the industry. Even today It forms the basis of all the rate cards that are currently used by TV channels across the country. Programme and day part categorisation. Where the categories do not change but programmes move up into higher categories. Rarely do they move down. The weekly rate adjustment (hike is a four-letter word) is here to stay something that was created by me in my second week at Zee TV. Something that SC did not even want to see because he had faith in me….in my second week on the job.


That is the most amazing thing about SC. If he trusts you he will be one hundred percent behind you. If on the other hand he suspects your motives you could be Mother Teresa and he would find fault with everything you did. In those early years of private broadcasting there were no rules and conventions. We were all inventing the rules as we went along. What would succeed, what would fail? The only way to find out was to jump in head first. We were a young team with no experience but huge ambitions. SC was there to support, motivate, chastise, reward, reprimand. He was there for us 24×7 before the term became fashionable. In turn he expected the same from us. We were all consumed by Zee TV. It was not a job. It was a calling. We were all responding to SC’s vision of taking an amusement park into every household. To have people enjoy the thrills, spills and chills in their living rooms. He did not know TV. People used to disparagingly refer to him as a rice trader. His inability to mask his accent. His proclivity to smoke bidis with the lit end in his mouth. His lack of flash and dash were all part of the message that he was sending out to people. “Do me a favour, underestimate me.” That was his mantra and it served him well for many years until his adversaries and partners and partners who turned adversaries got smarter.


SC was an amazing teacher. He taught me about business. He taught me that anger could be used constructively and that emotion was better than intellect and that human nature does not change even if the accent does. He taught me how to be a boss and how to be generous with my staff and how to get them to acknowledge it. But more than anything else he showed me the value of going after my beliefs. Today, almost 20 years later, his inputs hold me in good stead. Zee will evolve, will have its ups and downs, but for me the time spent learning from SC will always be my initiation into the business of the world.


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