February 15, 2020
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How Zee Is Shooting Star

Lobbyists have a field day as Subhash Chandra guns for partner Murdoch's expansion plans

How Zee Is Shooting Star

IN the power games that people play, unbridled excess is often the key to runaway success. Hence the principal combatants in the great Indian television bazaar have pulled out all the stops. Swadeshi cabalists, proglobalisation lobbyists, powerful pressure groups, high-profile software producers, media columnists and peeved bureaucrats have taken up positions on one side or the other as two estranged corporate partners—one a global Goliath still struggling to steady his Indian ship, the other a desi David who knows all the tricks of the trade—engage in a fierce battle to control the minds and pockets of viewers in the world's second most populous country. No soap opera, no matter how meretricious, could have topped this real-life script that has pitted the master of the world's airwaves, Rupert Murdoch, against the homegrown Haryanvi media Houdini, Subhash Chandra, whose Zee TV is a success story everyone envies but can't emulate.

The dramatic twists and turns in the Star-Zee kickup have been edge-of-the-seat entertainment, with the bureaucracy contributing generously to the face-off. First, it was the temporary ban on direct-to-home (DTH) television, the cornerstone of Star TV's expansion plans; then the sharp attack on Rathikant Basu, the Hong Kong-based network's chief executive officer in India; and now the concerted efforts of the 'be-Indian-buy-Indian' camp to persuade the 30-member Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to put the brakes on the Murdoch juggernaut in India. Star's ambitious DTH plans entail the launch of 40 premium channels beamed from seven Ku-band transponders on PanAmSat-4. While Star TV is ready with its platform, Zee network's plans in the DTH sector are yet to crystallise.

The latest Zee salvo, clearly, is the crux of the matter; the Basu episode, which seems to have died a quiet death despite all the threatening noises made by some top bureaucrats, media rivals and the Central Bureau of Investigation, was only a diverting subplot. "Murdoch cannot be trusted," is the constant refrain of the anti-Star lobby. "He has made a career of breaking rules the world over. He shouldn't be allowed to get away with it in India." Exactly how much ground the government should concede to Murdoch will be decided by the JPC, set up to assess the contentious Broadcast Bill.

No prizes for guessing who is behind the aggressive 'oust Murdoch' campaign. In his presentation to the JPC last week, Zee chairman Subhash Chandra pulled no punches. He argued that Murdoch's stand that foreign equity participation in satellite TV should be allowed for the healthy growth of the industry was unacceptable. Quality service and software could be provided by Indian players without any help from outside, he asserted. According to a Zee insider, Subhash Chandra, however, has no objection to channels beaming programmes only in foreign languages, including English, being controlled by non-Indian companies. "Those who watch foreign-language channels have access to other foreign sources of news anyway," the source says. "But when you get into Hindi or regional language channels, your audience becomes much wider and caution is required. So only those who appreciate the sensitivities of the masses should be allowed in."

Star TV, of course, is unlikely to sit back and let the vast Indian market slip out of its grasp. At the JPC's last hearing, Basu, supported by representatives of Discovery Channel and ESPN, stoutly defended the right of the foreign channels to control their own affairs. "The Bill, instead of opening up the media, will close it up" was the burden of his submission. The broadcasting industry, Basu argued, is a capital-intensive, long-gestation sector, and it needs investments to the tune of $8 billion. That kind of money, he asserted, would flow in only if foreign equity participation was allowed.

The Murdoch-Subhash Chandra relationship formally began in 1994, when the former nearly bought 50 per cent of Zee Telefilms. For a year, the sailing was smooth. But then Murdoch realised that while his channels were consistently losing money, Subhash Chandra's Zee formula was raking in huge profits, only $4 million of which went into Star's coffers annually. So Murdoch made an attempt to buy up Zee. Subhash Chandra resisted. Murdoch being Murdoch, the network went right ahead and added an Indian time band to Star Plus in October 1996, and with the help of the newly-hired Basu, weaned the best software producers and programmes away from Doordarshan and Zee. A few months later, he announced the investment of $450 million in an ambitious DTH project. What happens to the partnership? "Our relationship is only a business arrangement, and it cannot take precedence over the laws of the land," says a Zee official. "The Bill is an Indian legislation and we will adhere to whatever it lays down."

 Star's bosses are aware of the question of mass acceptability. When Star CEO Gary Davey announced his DTH plans in New Delhi in March, he went out of his way to allay fears that his network would be a national security threat if it was allowed to enter the direct-to-home segment. "We are invited guests in people's living rooms. We have to respect their sensitivities," he told a press conference. When the temporary DTH ban was announced, Basu told Outlook: "The bogey of national security suggests a fear that someone will subvert the system. You cannot send a bomb through a satellite, so what you are worried about is news. But then the proposed Bill exempts news channels from licensing."

THE anomalies in the Bill notwithstanding, Zee is sticking to its guns. And the government, still smarting from the blow dealt to its prestige by the exodus of Doordarshan's key officials to Star, has successfully opened up three flanks of trouble for Murdoch's men in India—the DTH controversy, Basu's alleged misdeeds during his DD days, and the proposed Broadcast Bill. Star TV bosses in India, and in Hong Kong, will have enough to mull over during the next three months or so as they try to ensure that the advantage gained by the bilingual Star Plus—this channel is the reason for Chandra's ire—isn't frittered away in the face of the onslaught of their local rivals. Zee, of course, is making the most of Star's discomfiture. "In this business, trust is the key element," says a senior Zee official. That is something, he argues, Murdoch's network cannot lay claims to. Not as yet.

There's plenty of 'incriminating' material floating around to substantiate just that. Some months back, a letter purportedly addressed to Murdoch by "a majority of the employees of Star TV" and speaking of the "directionless and corrupt business practices being adopted by R. Basu" had landed on the desks of many media correspondents. More recently, an equally mysterious videotape, unsolicited and without the sender's identity and address, arrived to apprise the media, and perhaps JPC members as well, of the grave dangers inherent in allowing Murdoch a free run of the Indian market. The documentary, funded by the American Corporation of Public Broadcasting and presumably aired on a US TV network, uses the reminiscences of former Murdoch editors and employees to paint a scary portrait of "an anti-establishment, free-market buccaneer" who generates fare that could "be toxic to our culture and our democracy".

Surely, our culture and democracy couldn't be so feeble. Hence the government seems to have adopted a more legalistic means to stop Star TV in its tracks. They've picked on Basu, once the government's favourite bureaucrat, today the bad boy of babudom who's sold out to Murdoch the marauder. Peer envy? Some elements in the bureaucracy agree. It is pointed out that when the DTH ban notification was issued, Basu, accompanied by Prannoy Roy and Rajat Sharma, had rushed to the prime minister who, in turn, had hauled up three senior bureaucrats—cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramaniam, telecom secretary V.K. Gokak and the then information and broadcasting secretary N.P. Nawani—for issuing a sensitive order without consulting the PMO. That got the bureaucracy's goat and the ministry of personnel and the CBI were asked to fix Basu for good.

 Every available missile has since been fired at the Star TV India CEO—the rule book, an ultimatum to remit office within 15 days, the threat to set the CBI on his trail. It did spread panic—Gary Davey flew down to Delhi twice, Murdoch flew into Hong Kong to take stock and Star's ally, Prannoy Roy's NDTV, faced the prospect of being sucked into the vortex of the raging controversy—but, as things stand, Basu is still in the saddle and fighting. The case against him is that as a former DD chief, he is privy to the national broadcaster's long-term plans. But one has to be spectacularly gullible to swallow that line: the only secrets that DD can possibly yield for the benefit of its rivals would be about how not to run a network. It is, after all, a badly-managed outfit whose policies have less to do with market realities and its public service broadcasting aims than with the whims of its political bosses in Shastri Bhavan.

Now the most important question: Where does the JPC stand? Indications are that the diverse grouping of MPs, who see eye to eye on practically nothing at all, are nearing a degree of consensus on restricting foreign equity participation in satellite TV ventures (they want the limit down from 49 per cent to 26 per cent) and on making uplinking from India mandatory, two clauses that fit neatly into Zee's scheme of things. In the past week, a worried Basu, Rajat Sharma in tow, met BJP leader L.K. Advani, whose party has a large representation in the JPC, to present Star's side of the never-ending story. In the weeks ahead, as the JPC prepares to wind up its exercise, lobbyists will go into overdrive, pushing the tenuous Subhash Chandra-Murdoch tie-up closer to snapping point.

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