February 11, 2020
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The Channel Swims

Despite rumours of tremors at the top, Zee TV is beaming bright

The Channel Swims

ARE internal upheavals about to send Zee TV into a tailspin? The new Zee Network chief executive officer (CEO), whose sudden induction is alleged to have triggered the wobbles, is vehement: the dire tales of deep turmoil have no basis in reality. "The reports are a figment of some overenthusiastic journalist's fertile imagination," insists Vijay Jindal, who assumed overall charge of Zee's programming and marketing operations in the second week of this March.

Administrative changes have come thick and fast since his appointment, but the basic Zee formula, highly successful and much copied, has remained the same. The network's standing in the market, too, continues to be rock-solid. As much because of its own strong showing during the past four years as due to the severe functional and financial crises confronting its competitors—notably JAIN TV, ATN, NEPC and BiTV. "We were here first and our programme mix is still unsurpassed," asserts Jindal. With Zee's penetration topping 90 per cent in cable and satellite (C&S) households and its turnover projected to be in the vicinity of Rs 300 crore this year, Zee's bosses can afford to be cocky. With statistics on your side, can you ever go wrong?

Why, then, are Zee TV's personnel reported to be in a flap? Among the first things Jindal, formerly print media giant Bennett & Coleman's high-profile and effective corporate director, did was merge the thriving network's three channels—Zee, El and Zee Cinema—under one umbrella. Reports suggest it wasn't a popular decision. It set off a chain reaction. Mostly negative. But, counters Jindal: "Why would anyone object to the channel merger? It makes economic and administrative sense."

But the stories persist. One newspaper recently reported that as many as 35 Zee personnel, including a few top functionaries like Karuna Samtani, vice-president (programming), and Rajat Sharma, head of Zee News and host of the popular Aap Ki Adalat, were on the way out. As was Nitin Keni, Zee Cinema chief.

Among the reasons cited for the disenchantment were Jindal's arbitrary approach to promotions and appointments. Among other things, he was accused of elevating his executive assistant to the rank of general manager, Zee Cinema. "That's news to me," says Jindal. "The man in question is a senior manager, one of many, in charge of Zee Cinema's decoder sales. His appointment has nothing to do with me—he was in Zee before I joined."

Samtani denies the reports outright: "No, I am not quitting." In any organisation, people come and go, says Jindal. "The only person who is actually leaving Zee is Nitin Keni. And certainly not because of me. He was released by the management because he is setting up his own company, which he's been planning for a year now."

So, understandably, the mood in Zee TV remains upbeat. "The market always belongs to the number one," asserts Jindal. "When a competitor comes in, the market expands and it's the number one who benefits. All the new channels, which are Zee clones, have given our programming concepts legitimacy by imitating them." Says Anil Dharker, who recently quit Dalal Street Journal's India TV to join Zee TV as creative director: "We are so far ahead that there is no competition at all. The others are competing against each other. DD I and DD II are the only competition otherwise. But an IMRB survey has shown that in C&S homes, Zee TV is way ahead of both DD channels. "

In contrast, several of Zee's competitors, barring Sony and Home TV, are grappling with crippling problems. JAIN TV is off the air yet again: first, Russian company Inter-sputnik ejected it from one of its satellites; now Viacom, whose spare transponder on PanAmSat-4 the Delhi-based channel was using, seems to have shown it the door. Says Intersputnik's deputy director-general Istvan Kovach: "We took JAIN off because it didn't pay its dues. We have initiated steps for arbitration."

ATN is back on PAS-4, thanks to Viacom, after a hiatus of six weeks but its problems are far from over: market confidence in the company is at a low ebb and its proposed public issue has to wait till stability is established. ATN officials are waxing bullish.

"We are the only players other than Zee TV to break even. Channels like Sony and JAIN are still losing money. We can't afford to do that. Sony has deep pockets, we don't," says an ATN executive.

BiTV, which went off the air around the same time as ATN, is yet to return. According to sources within BiTV, the delay has been caused because the channel is shopping for a better transponder. But one industry watcher puts the blame squarely on the channel's financial troubles.

The more stable Hindi general entertainment channels—Sony and Home TV—are making steady progress but, being recent entrants, they still have some distance to go before they can actually start snapping at Zee's heels. Officials at Sony, which was launched in October '95, claim the channel's turnover will touch the Rs 100 crore-mark by March-end '97. "No channel can break even in the first year. We're willing to wait," says Sony CEO Arun Arora.

And that is what sets Zee apart. "We broke even in a year. The other players are talking in terms of five to six years. Our three-channel bouquet gives us an unassailable position," says Jindal. And, turmoil or no turmoil, that situation is unlikely to change in the near future. 

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