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In the name of the father

By Anusha Subramanian     July 17, 2007

A decade ago a wet-behind-the-ears Punit Goenka joined ASC Enterprises, a venture his father Subhash Chandra had conceived in typical maverick style. ASC's plans included the launch of satellite mobile, multimedia and broadband services and retailing of telecom hardware. Its biggest ambition, though, was to put a satellite into space. The satellite made sense from the point of view of Chandra's broadcasting operations, under the Zee umbrella of channels, as well as his direct-to-home (DTH) services.

As of today, however, Agrani (that's what the satellite was to be called; it means 'staying ahead' in Sanskrit) isn't yet airborne, and ASC Enterprises doesn't exist in its original avatar. It's been merged with Dish TV, the DTH service provider from Chandra's Essel Group. Chandra, say those close to him, hasn't given up on his plan to launch a satellite. The man who took over the ailing satellite company ICO Global along with a us entrepreneur at the turn of the century may still build a satellite, either on his own or in an alliance. Nothing, however, has been finalised yet.

What is fairly clear, though, is that his son Goenka is no more involved with ASC or the satellite programme. Since January 2005, the 33-year-old low-profile Goenka-who had done a short stint with Zee Music before ASC-has been in charge of Zee's flagship channel Zee TV. More recently, he also took charge of Zee Cinema. The entire Zee network, dubbed Zee Entertainment Enterprises (ZEEL), has Pradip Guha as CEO.

Goenka assuming charge at Zee TV coincides with the Hindi entertainment channel's best run in a long time. According to tam, relative channel share has increased by 61.5 per cent, from 13 per cent in 2004 to 21 per cent in 2006. As of May 2007, the share increased further to 23 per cent. Between 2004 and 2006, rivals star Plus and Sony Entertainment Television (SET) have seen a decline of 20 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively, in relative channel shares.

In 2007 till May, star and set had lost further ground, with their channel shares settling at 42 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively. What's more, in the last nine months Zee TV's gross rating points (GRPs) have improved significantly, from 190 to 240. The upshot? From a distant #3 in 2004, Zee TV is well placed today in the runner-up position, quietly chipping away at the leader's share.

How much of this turnaround in viewership would you attribute to the tyro who had an arguably forgettable stint at ASC Enterprises? Plenty, if you believe what those working with him have to say. As Nitin Vaidya, Executive Vice President, Zee Regional Channels, who has been with the group for nine years now, puts it: "There's been a noticeable change (since Goenka came on board). There is positive energy flowing. Above all, there is no fear of failure anymore. Earlier, each channel operated on its own and never shared or exchanged ideas.

Now there is a lot more learning and exchange of ideas within the various teams." What's more, attrition rates have fallen to less than 15 per cent from 34 per cent two years ago, when Zee TV regularly hit the headlines for the string of CEOs and senior executives who walked in and quickly walked out. Executives working with Goenka point out they have little problems in their interactions with him; with Subhash Chandra on the other hand, the stature of the man made it difficult for two-way communication.

For his part, Goenka, a Bombay University graduate, prefers to be modest about the comeback. Says the Director, ZEEL and Business Head, Zee TV and Zee Cinema: "Personally, I don't think I have brought about any change. The credit goes to the team that has made this possible. All we did was to identify what genre we would like to play in and how we should be telling our stories."

Clearly, Goenka's still got a long way to go-after all the gap between star TV and Zee TV is still a yawning one-which may explain why he is somewhat reluctant to pop the champagne. His seven year stint at ASC-where he worked his way up the ladder-in challenging circumstances may have been a baptism by fire, but it was also an ideal environment for team work, team building and decision-making. Says Pradip Guha, CEO, ZEEL: "Leadership is all about getting the best out of one's team. Punit has been a great cohesive influence on the Zee TV team. He is able to take bold decisions for the channel, consonant with the strategic plans of the network. Goenka confesses that more than anything else it's technology that still gets his adrenaline racing. "I do not understand content much. But I am slowly understanding what works and what does not. I am going along with what my team says," says Goenka.

At the heart of Goenka's success has been his ability to address what was going wrong at Zee TV.

"Ever since we launched in 1992 we have always been a progressive channel. Our view was that progressive is good but it does not address the mass who need the stories to be told in a simple way rather than be intelligent. The only decision I jointly took along with the programming and marketing team is to change our story telling style to suit the masses."

The stories haven't changed. The strategy has. And its execution too. Explains Ashvini Yardi, Senior Vice President (Programming), who has been with the broadcaster for close to a decade: "What we realised from our research is that earlier we told simple stories in a complex manner. So, while we stuck to same genre of programming and targeted women, we changed our story telling style and made it simpler. We are not preachy from day 1 and instead let our stories take a slow turn."

The revival also took a slow turn. Another problem with Zee's programming was that budgets were meagre relative to star and Sony, which resulted in shoddy production values. Earlier serials like Kamal, Kohi Apna Sa and Kittie Party sank without a trace. The tide turned only in October 2005 with Saat Phere, which currently enjoys television rating points (TRPs) of 3.4. That was followed in January 2006 by the launch of Kasamh Se (current TRP: 3.25). Backing these soaps are sophisticated promos and plenty of on-ground activities. "We have been careless in the past. But now the focus is on marketing. Below-the-line activities help us to get closer to our viewers," says Tarun Mehra, Senior Vice President (Marketing).

Clearly, the decision to step up investments in content and marketing has paid dividends. From 35-40 per cent of advertising revenues historically, these investments were scaled up to 75 per cent in 2006. In the current year, content and marketing spend will hover around 60 per cent of ad revenues. According to Nikhil Vora, Partner at broking house SSKI Securities, the benefits of increased investments into content have started accruing, both on the rating chart as also in advertising revenues. ZEEL now has 17-20 shows consistently featuring among the top 50. "ZEEL's advertising revenues have been growing at over 20 per cent per annum on the back of three rate hikes effected during this period," writes Vora, in June report on ZEEL.

Having got its content act together, perhaps it's an opportune time to hike ad rates. Points out Girish Swar, a media analyst with ask Securities India: "There is a huge price difference in terms of advertising rates between Zee TV and star Plus, which means there is plenty of room for ZEEL to grow its advertisement rates." Currently, the advertising rate on the prime time slot (9-11 p.m. band on weekdays) on Zee TV is in the Rs 75,000-1 lakh range. The ad rates on star Plus on the same time band are between Rs 1.30 lakh and Rs 2 lakh. On weekends, the rates are based on the properties. Zee TV commands approximately Rs 1.20 lakh for Saregama Challenge 2007, star Plus commands approximately Rs 1 lakh for Amul Voice of India and set India commands approximately Rs 1.27 lakh for Indian Idol-3.

Rivals are sitting up, taking notice-and giving credit where it's due. Says N.P. Singh, Chief Operating Officer, set India: "I agree we are #3 now. Zee has managed to get two hits in the prime time. But we are working hard as well and making continuous investments into innovative programming. We have just brought back Indian Idol-3 and we are also looking at more fiction offerings that will appeal to all." Even Ajay Vidyasagar, President (Content and New Media), star India, says: "The last one year has seen some good programming initiatives from Zee TV and an increasing choice for the audience. This is good for both the consumers and the marketplace as there would be a fresh infusion of ideas across the board".

A resurgent set is one threat Guha and Goenka have to watch out for. The bigger challenge, however, is to loosen the stranglehold star Plus has on viewers with programmes like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. Goenka is taking his time about it, but he hasn't given up his quest for the Next Big Thing on television after Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). "Ever since I have stepped into Zee TV we have stopped looking for that overnight formula. There has been only one KBc so far. Nobody has found another one yet. I am definitely looking out for that one big idea though. But until then we will move slowly and build the channel slot by slot." His CEO appears pleased with the progress made by the network as a whole. Says Guha: "As a network Zee is already #1. The cumulative GRPs of all our channels are higher than any other network. Speaking of Zee TV in particular, I would have ideally liked it to be #1 yesterday! But realistically speaking, I envision six months between us and the top spot." If Zee TV does win the battle with star Plus, Goenka would have surely earned his spurs.

Little brother's watching

Amit Goenka, Subhash Chandra's youngest son, is at the forefront of the group's convergence initiatives.

If Punit Goenka has made the big leap into the flagship business of broadcasting, Amit Goenka (30), the younger sibling of Punit, doesn't seem to be in too big a hurry to do so. Goenka does have a stint at Zee Telefilms to his credit, but currently he is dabbling in broadcasting of a slightly different kind. Amit is Managing Director of Dakshin Media Gaming Solutions, a company that has launched India's first 24-hour interactive gaming television channel, Play TV. A brainchild of Amit, Play TV has been launched with the idea of cashing in on India's growing gaming industry and the beginning of an entirely new genre of entertainment, where interactivity redefines television viewing. According to Amit, in Asia a 24-hour gaming channel like Play TV is nascent although globally gaming with a dash of entertainment and lifestyle is a huge market.

Amit is at the forefront of the group's initiatives on the convergence front. A graduate of Business Administration from the Apeejay Institute of Marketing, New Delhi, Amit has always been interested in technology. The first venture that he started was Cyquator Technologies, a company that was in the e-solutions space. Given his interest in gaming and technology, Amit has also been actively involved in managing the affairs of Pan India Network Infravest (formerly known as Playwin Infravest), an online gaming company, for the past three years.

Amit was also closely associated with the group's bid for ICO (the satellite company) and its subsequent restructuring. He's also on the board of several Essel group companies, but clearly what gets Amit going is identifying and evaluating new business opportunities for the group. For instance, recently he launched an all sports magazine, which promises to provide innovative coverage and analysis of both international and Indian sport. The magazine will cater to all sports with equal attention to games like football, golf, Formula One racing, basketball, hockey, and, yes, cricket too, but in moderate doses.


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