25 and a huge force to reckon with!

29 Sep,2017

 

Zee TV completes 25 years of existence on October 2, 2017. Since we are closed that day, we bring you the first in a week-long series on the channel starting today. The last in the series will appear on Friday, October 6

 

By Pradyuman Maheshwari

 

Phew! Twenty-five years of Zee Television. Just five years back, one celebrated the twentieth anniv with much fanfare. I remember the days when Zee TV was being launched in 2002. Tension was building up around Babri Masjid which culminated in what happened in Ayodhya in December 1992.

 

I would edit a computer magazine then – Business Computer for the Indian Express group’s Sterling Newspapers. I would also review television for film trade weekly Screen and moonlight for a few publications.Star Plus wasn’t for the masses then – though shows like The Bold and The Beautiful and Santa Barbara were very popular with the urban set. One would watch the BBC World Service to find out what actually happened at Ayodhya in 1992, and many of us would be nuts about the graphics on MTV and knew each veejay by name.

 

The Zee Story

 

Timeline of mostly the entertainment part of the Zee Television story

 

1992

> Launches Zee TV

> Initial Public Offering of Zee Telefilms Limited

1994

> EL TV launched

1995

> Commences Siticable operations Joint Venture with News Corp

> Launches Zee News and Zee Cinema.

> Zee TV goes global – launches Zee TV, UK

1996

> Starts first cable channel in India – Siti Channel.

> Launches Zee TV, Africa.

1997

> Launches Zee Music (originally called Music Asia).

1998

> Launches Zee TV in the US.

> Institutes ‘Zee Cine Awards’.

1999

> Acquires News Corp’s 50% stake in joint ventures of their television broadcasting business tie-up.

> Launches regional channels.

> Launches Zee News

2000

> Launches Internet over Cable services – first cable company in India to do so.

> Enters into content distribution joint ventures with MGM and Viacom.> Launches pay bouquet of channels in the Asian region.

2001

> Introduces Zee TV and Zee News as pay television offerings.

>‘Gadar – Ek Prem Katha’ became highest grossing box office movie (it released on the same day as Aamir Khan’s Lagaan)

2002

> Acquires controlling stakes in ETC Networks Limited and Padmalaya Telefilms Limited.

2003

> Launches 5 new channels for the DTH market viz. Action cinema, Classic cinema, MX, Premier cinema and Smile TV.

> Enters into a distribution tie-up with Rajshri Pictures for theatrical distribution of films in India.

> Launches ‘Trendz’ – A premium fashion and style channel, targeted at the fashion conscious Indian consumer.

> Launches Zee Business

2005

> JV with Dainik Bhaskar group to set up DNA, DNA launched

2006

> De-merger of Zee Telefilms Limited.

> Failed attempt to acquire news agency UNI

2007

> Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (ZEE) gets listed as an independent company.

> Zee Next launched

2008

> Zee Next shuts down

2010

> Launches Zee Khana Khazana – India’s first 24-hour food channel

> Launches Zee Salaam – India’s first Urdu infotainment satellite television channel> Acquires stake in Ten Sports.

> Launches Ten Cricket – a dedicated 24-hour Cricket Channel.> Launches Ten Action+ – sports channel showcasing the best football action from around the world.

> Launches India.com – Joint Venture between Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. and Mail.com

2011

> ZEE’s distribution arm, Zee-Turner Ltd, enters into a 50:50 JV with Star Den Media Services Pvt. Ltd. to form MediaPro Enterprise India Pvt. Ltd.

> Announces share buyback

2012

> Launches Ditto TV – India’s first and only OTT (Over-The-Top TV) Distribution Platform

> Launches Ten Golf – India’s first and exclusive 24 hour Golf channel

> Launches 24-hour Bengali movie channel

> Announces launch of a kids’ channel

>Launches Zee Alwan – Dedicated 24 Hour Arabic Channel

2013

> Launches &Pictures and Zee Anmol

2014

> Launches &pictures HD and Zindagi – a premium Hindi GEC channel

2015

> Launches Zee Theatre – India’s first M&E company to foray into theatre production

> Launches Zee Magic – the first French GEC offering Indian content to mainstream French audiences in Francophone Africa

> Acquires Sarthak TV – the #1 GEC in Odiya language

> Launches Hindi GEC &tv and &tv HD

> Launches Zee Hiburan – A GEC localised for Indonesia

> Launches Zee World – a GEC for mainstream audiences in Africa

2016

> Announces acquisition of the GECs from Reliance Broadcast Network Ltd

> Launches Zee Marathi HD, Zee Bangla HD and Zee Talkies HD

> Launches Zee Mundo – its Spanish-language Bollywood movie channel for the US Hispanic & LATAM markets

> Launches Zee Cinemalu – its Telugu movie channel

> Launches Zee Anmol Cinema – its FTA Hindi Movie channel

> Launches Zee Yuva – the first regional youthful channel targeted at Marathi audiences

> Launches Zee.One – a Bollywood movie channel for Germany

> Launches Zee Sine – a Bollywood movie channel for the Philippines

> Launches OZEE – a new digital platform

> Launches ZEAL for Unity – a peace initiative

2017

> Launch of Z5 Weyyak for the Arabic audience

> Launches Zee Mundo in Mexico and Ecuador

> Shuts down Zindagi on June 30, moves it to OTT

> Announces entry into Poland with Zee.One

> Enters Mali with the launch of Zee Magic and Zee Cinema

> Completes first phase of Two-Phase Divestment of Ten Sports Network to Sony Pictures

> Launches its first radio station 106.2 big fm in the UAE

> Launches two new channels, Zee Bollymovies, a 24-hour dedicated Bollywood movie channel and Zee Bollynova, a customised GEC, in Africa

> Completes acquisition of RBNL channels Big Magic and Big Ganga. Also, 49% equity in Big FM

 

Source: Zee Corporate Communications, Zee website, MxM Newsdesk

 

Zee arrived and not many took it very seriously initially. All we knew was that a Subhash Chandra Goel was behind the venture. Yup, the same man who had set up the Esselworld amusement park on the outskirts of Mumbai, was once a rice trader and had made a success of Essel Packaging. But for someone like me in the Mumbai media, it was the association of Ashok Kurien, then poster boy of Indian advertising, that led me to believe that there was merit in the venture.

 

A friend at Mid-Day asked me to write about this weirdly-named ‘Z’ TV. For a while, we would call it Z, thinking that just as our Maths professor at college would pronounce ‘z’ as ‘zee’, the announcers called the channel Zee. I am fuzzy about it, but I think my story on Zee in Mid-Day appeared soon after Rajdeep Sardesai’s did in the Times of India.

 

I remember reasoning with my friend that Zee had a future because Kurien couldn’t get it wrong, and it’s for this reason I insisted we also interview Subhash Chandra on the occasion. I don’t think we carried the interview.

 

Zee moved on from strength to strength. UTV, which had done programmes like The Mathemagic Show on Doordarshan, came up with a variety of gameshows… Saanp Seedi, for one.

 

Doordarshan launched a Bollywood music countdown show in Superhit Muqabla (produced by Harish Thawani’s Nimbus), but the satellite channel came up with its own popular countdown show (Philips Top 10).

 

There was a period when Doordarshan’s primary and Metro channels gave Zee serious competition, but with time, couldn’t match Chandra’s longterm vision of the space.

 

Zee experimented a fair bit – a news bulletin in colloquial Hindi peppered with a lot of English words, a weekend show on the stockmarket, a telefilm by Mahesh Bhatt, and finally a second channel called EL TV. I would work with Mid-Day then and very actively tracked Zee’s various forays.

 

Zee’s top team saw various captains as business and programming heads: – Karuna Samtani, Nitin Keni, Digvijay Singh, Kamlesh Pandey, Meenakshi Menon, Anil Dharker for a bit, Chandraprakash Dwivedi… the list could go on. Sandeep Goyal too was CEO and announced a makeover, but he exited soon, to be followed by Apurva Purohit. Pradeep Guha occupied the CEO’s chair, but he left after a few years. Nitin Vaidya, who had helmed the regional channels for a while, took charge of the flagship Zee TV, but he too moved on leaving one with the belief that while the Zee top job may be coveted, it was too hot to handle for professionals. In fact when MxMIndia tried speaking to some of the former captains around the time of the 20th anniv, many refused to be quoted saying that since it was too long ago for them to remember much.

 

Yet, privately they acknowledge that even though Subhash Chandra is a maverick, he’s a huge force to reckon with in Indian media. He is aggressive, dynamic, cost-conscious and a big risk-taker.

 

Last year (in 2016), Subhash Chandra released his autobiography ‘The Z Factor: My Journey as the Wrong Man at the Right Time’. It’s a must-read for anyone to get under the skin of one of the world’s most dynamic media leader.

 

Very few others in the media have seen the ups and downs that he has probably seen. After being a darling of the stockmarkets and the Indian viewing public, Zee’s stock fell – in every possible way. In the early 2000s, the Economic Times would have a story virtually every other dialing quoting some regulatory irregularity.

 

But Subhash Chandra, minus the Goel that he dropped in the late 1980s, wasn’t going to be down for too long.

 

In 2005, after hiring Pradeep Guha from The Times of India group, he stitched up a joint venture with the Dainik Bhaskar group to launch a newspaper called DNA. PG, as Guha is popularly called, and the Bhaskar group’s Agarwals ensured that the paper had a high profile launch. That the Times of India improved its offering several times over, launched Mumbai Mirror and Hindustan Times too kicked off a Mumbai edition may have been dampeners, but DNA didn’t take too long to establish itself.

 

I was fortunate to be part of the DNA editorial team for a bit, though often felt the strains of a newspaper with too many people at the helm – owners and top management.

 

Much after I had left DNA and the Bhaskar group, I learnt that Subhash Chandra had assumed charge of DNA. There were several exits around that time, and one feared there would be instability after that. But that didn’t happen, although the editor changed and the paper dropped the editorial page. The DNA has continued to see many changes, many CEOs and many editors.

 

Flagship channel Zee has seen its ups and downs. From a clear #1 in the 1990s to losing its leadership first to Sony and later for a long, long time to Star Plus, Zee has come back and attained strength in the GEC space.

 

Post Kaun Banega Crorepati in 2000, Zee was hit badly. It produced a dud in Sawaal Dus Crore Ka to combat KBC.  All those who backed the network had fallen in love with the new Star. Not for too long, as Subhash Chandra’s team picked up the pieces and steadily started inching up. And then Colors happened in 2008, pushing Zee down again. However, soon after his channel had turned #1 the then Colors CEO Rajesh Kamat told me that more than Star Plus, his team and he were watching Zee very closely. Its fictions and reality shows had promise.

 

Which it did. Cut to 2017, although there’s been a see-saw in the Hindi GEC space and Star Plus and Colors have dominated the ratings roster, but over the last few months Zee has got back to the top slot. Post the release of ratings for rural audiences, Zee Anmol has also been doing rather well. It’s indeed happy days for Zee as it celebrates its 25th anniversary on October 2.

 

Credit for this goes to Chandra’s son and Managing Director and CEO Punit Goenka who has led the network very effectively.  Zee Media Corporation Ltd, the company managing the news channels, has There are various genres Zee is in, but its channels aren’t much to talk about. Zee News has a new CEO, but it will need to do loads to turn #1. Ditto with the various other channels – Zee Music, Zee Smile, Zee Studio. Zee Cafe has tried to create a bang with more recent seasons of popular shows, but the niche channels require some attention from Goenka (See interview). Chandra’s second son – Amit Goenka – manages the international business which again has been growing very rapidly.

 

His leadership team has an interesting mix… Other than Punit and Amit Goenka, there are: Bharat Kedia (CFO), M. Lakshminarayanan (Company Secretary & Compliance), Praveer Priyadarshi (Chief People Officer), Punit Misra (CEO, Broadcast), Rajneesh Mittal (CTO) and Sunil Buch (Zee Live & Talent, Head – Corporate Brand & Communications)

 

Goenka’s leadership has also brought with it much camaraderie with Star India and its CEO Uday Shankar, and this is one reason why there has been little infighting amongst the various entertainment broadcast major.

 

Until a few years back, Zee lacked buzz-creating content. But no longer. DID has been putting up a blockbuster performance every year. Sa Re Ga Ma Pa continues to rock ratings. Zee didn’t come up with anything like Satyamev Jayate, but it chose not to be a me-too.

 

At times like these when celebration is in the air, it’s not uncommon to gloss over a company’s various failures. But rather than blips, I would look at these as the network’s strength to have in Subhash Chandra a promoter who has been willing to take risks.

 

Although I wouldn’t report on media in 2000-01, I am told the proposals for Kaun Banega Crorepati and some of the top-rated Balaji soaps were rejected by Zee.

 

Chandra started EL TV (no marks for guess where that name came from) at a time when he thought he could replicate the flagship’s success with a second GEC. That didn’t happen, and EL metamorphosed to Zee India TV and later Zee News. Yet another attempt to look at the younger, urban set with Zee Next in late 2007 survived for less than a year. Zee’s radio foray was still-born and attempts to publish TV and film magazines didn’t work.

 

Zee had much failure in bidding for cricket rights, including the World Cup. Despite his bid being the highest, Chandra lost out which many agreed was unfair to the media baron. In 2007, buoyed with India winning the T20 World Cup and the success of the 20-over format, and anguished with the ways of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Zee set up the Indian Cricket League. While the ICL took off, it never gained ground as key cricketers of the day were not allowed to participate for the tournament was dubbed ‘unofficial’. Chandra gave up after a protracted fight with the BCCI as the ICL became meaningless post the success of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Zee has now permanently exited the sports arena, but, then, as any Zee-watcher will tell you, you never know with Subhash Chandra. Chandra is now a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament, with his allegiance to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but with very close friends in other political dispensations.

 

Twenty-five years on, how would I rate Zee’s performance? A 9 or 10 on 10 for the spirit of enterprise and growing the industry.  Too many leadership changes may have not given the company stability, but as Chandra once told me, the only reason why he’s had to move CEOs out is because of non-performance. And he shouldn’t be faulted for that. The ousted CEOs naturally have another story, but as mentioned earlier, almost everyone who has been associated with the network plus his business rivals and peers recognise Subhash Chandra and Zee’s tremendous contribution to Indian broadcasting.

Three cheers to that!

 

Adapted from an article by me published on MxMIndia in October 2012

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