It all began from the sea. Over three decades ago, we were willing to beam the first-ever entertainment signals into the Indian mainland from ships. It was breaking entertainment genres—the meteoric rise of a concept that ranged from Alpha to Zee. The core of programming was simple—build programmes around communities and communities will draw reach and bottom lines.
With the Zee Telefilms IPO, not only did Zee break traditional norms but created unparalleled value within and outside the organization. ‘India is a poor country, it can't afford a satellite transponder,’ from the moment Richard Lee walked out of that Hong Kong conference room outwitted by Subhas Chandra, the die was cast. Zee even made office boys into millionaires. I recall just about five producers in Bombay then who paved the way for over 5,000 content creators in Mumbai alone now.
It was indeed a stubborn, passionate man’s dream against all odds to create an enormous ecosystem of in-home and out-of-home entertainment for the traditional Indian whose entertainment revolved around Doordarshan at 8 pm. For nearly 12 years, Zee ruled the hearts of every Indian with a TV set. The logic was simple: we needed to create and own the entire value system to aid sampling and revenues therein.
The future saw phenomenal growth of traditional analogue Cable Networks / MSO’s and a behemoth of JV’s spread nationwide carrying Bollywood, soaps, news, music and events to an entertainment starved India. Distribution played a key role in delivering products to the end mile—media is and was no exception.
Then came the Murdochs with Direct To Home. It was time to go wireless. Things were not going to be easy post the demo by Murdoch himself, to a section of decision-makers in Delhi on a humble C Band, given Ku Band hesitation the power corridors had at that time. It was 1999 and the Zee scrip was riding high at ₹1,200. We witnessed the rise of Indian media to stratospheric moments. Looking through the large windowpane of a small business centre office on Mumbai’s Juhu Tara Road, the privileged few of us looked out to the vast ocean of opportunities ahead of us. Then came KBC and Zee tanked to the bottom of reach and revenue. I recall the moment in 2002 when even Sahara knocked us by 52 GRP’s to a humble 50. Zee never really recovered that knockdown. Why?
The ecosystem that led to the enormous equity of Zee was being torn at the seams, as an esoteric new was bursting through to cater to a brave, new, young India. Looking back from the same window pane, the investor-led charade—I believe Zee is still looking out at endless possibilities of a brave new media landscape.
The first churn in a business segment is excruciating. There are lessons from the churn in the early 80s in petrochemicals & chemicals that bellowed the likes of Bombay Dyeing and parts of Reliance and SVC Superchem. It was so bad that the landed cost of PTA ( Purified Terephthalic Acid), was cheaper. Zee was a trailblazer because it was ploughing a new-age lexicon. The media industry was being built, brick-by-brick by Subhash Chandra himself.
The team then was a group of committed samurais who feared none and walked the paths never walked before. What Zee did to DD then in viewership and reach term is what is happening to Zee in the last decade, pronounced in 2021. Will Chandra benefit? Yes, only if Zee takes a step back and looks at the big picture. It is no longer the brave, young-in-mind enterprise, let alone the spirit of a warrior it once was. The organisation has aged, mindset blinkered and the leadership comfortably in saddle believing they live in the 90’s.
Wall-held TV is dead. The pandemic just proved it. Zee learnt the hard way when we gave up on the GMPCS (global telephony) ambition in the wake of GSM & CDMA national roaming rollout. Zee was brave then; it has to be brave now to remind itself of the times it gave up gracefully things like HITS, GMPCs, PMRTS, ICL, DNA, Playwin and more because they did not fit into the future.
Not many would know it was Chandra’s vision that saw India’s first digital content initiative way back in 2004-05—when India didn’t even know what OTT or digitalisation was. The launch of Dish TV was still the most difficult part, given almost 75% of content was denied to Zee and ARPU from traditional cable was still a nascent ₹50 a month against ₹3,750 for Dish TV.
The grey area for Zee has been the second-line leadership to bedrock his unparalleled vision and ability to dream big. A restless man can never find refuge in the likes of private bureaucrats that rule Indian private broadcasting. Zee and Chandra are no exception. Those were far excruciating decisions than letting go of the Zee of today. It was Chandra who articulated a “wire to wireless” vision for Indian broadcasting. Only he knows that every business is unique right from the base up. Zee is far from ready for consumer-centric business with the current structure.
This is a phoenix-like moment for Zee to discard things that are pulling it down. Tremendous value is regrettably locked in the education business, Zee News, Dish TV and regional business of Zee. It is time to focus on unlocking the billion-dollar potential of these tucked gems.
Digital business is the future but it needs a new age mindset. Zee needs to discard the traditional TV baggage it has carried for so long. Storytelling and ideation is a whole new ball game that is alien to traditional Bollywood and television mindsets. Netflix—which is head and shoulders above every other platform3has failed to make a dent with anything Indian. The highest viewership on all successful platforms comes from the English content, which often is originally made in various European languages dubbed in English. Why is it that the greatest OTT platform has not been able to create anything as remote to a Downtown Abbey, MarcoPolo, Money Heist, The Trial, Suits and a host of endless brilliant programmes? It comes down to having a digitally sound, responsive, consumer-focused organisation without traces of traditional broadcasting that hovers around the stardom of a handful. Digital content is neither TV nor Bollywood and needs an organisation with an ear to ground and arms wide open to embrace path-breaking content ‘thinkers’. Globally, successful digital organisations are driven by their content and not actors, directors or producers.
Zee isn’t ready for the digital battles of the future. Given the changed shareholding economics, all one can do is hope, pray and plead and still preside over the last rites and the inevitability of it. Zee can always create another vision outside of Zee. The old structure has to pave the way for the Zee of the future that can have discerning content for upwardly mobile viewers who are on Netflix, and then the value-driven viewership that competes with SonyLiv, Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video. Consumer-centric restructuring would take a toll on any traditional business. First mover advantage is rare to find yet easy to lose in absence of a responsive leadership.
Zee has basked in that glory for three decades. Now is the time for shifting the focus, discarding the old so that the new can rise. After all, India is a land of limitless possibilities. We are yet to reach 35 crore homes that can be digitally reached. They do not know anything but Zee—but is Zee listening to the sound of the future?
The writer is a media veteran, doctoral research scholar in mass communications and author. Views are personal.