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Sunday, July 8, 2001
Lead Article

The gospel according to Peter

ĎAbout a dozen TV companies will go out of business shortlyí  Star TV CEO, Peter Mukerjea, speaks about the channelís gameplan to Ashwini Bhatnagar.

Peter Mukerjea

PETER Mukerjea, Chief Executive, Star Television, India, canít help smiling to himself for having lapped up all the cream. About a year ago, he came across only stale crumbs ó leftovers from the tables of the two Big Guys ó Zee and Sony TV. But in just one year flat, the story has changed dramatically. Starting from scratch, Peter built Star from being a nowhere player to being undoubtedly the number one network in the country. Both its revenue and reach have apparently gone through the roof ó and the relief, as well as satisfaction, of having hit the jackpot after nine years in business shows.

Revenues apart, Peter and his team have created some sort of television history by having as many as 40 of the 50 top shows in their kitty. Such a huge chunk was never available to any other channel during the last 10 years of satellite televisionís history in this country. Moreover, Star TV, by bringing in high-end programming (Kaun Banega Crorepati?) altered the rules of the game altogether. KBC , from the very first day of its launch, set a scorching pace for other channels. Zee and Sony had to come up with their own versions of this costly game show and burnt their fingers badly. Star, in the meanwhile, posted one milestone after another to come out trumps.

 


Ask Peter about the gamble that he took in introducing KBC at prime time after shifting popular Star News and he says with a twinkle in his eye that it was a calculated, time-bound plan. "There was no gamble. The only question was whether it will happen in July last year, or by December or March, 2001. It was just a question of timing but certainly it had to happen sooner than later. We had taken some very fundamental decisions. We took off Star News, which was an half hour show, and replaced it with a one hour show four nights a week. So, if the competition needed to respond to that they would need to replace eight shows in the week. And, as we know, eight new shows do not exist in the market.

You cannot go out and buy eight shows off the shelf. If you have to commission eight shows, it would take you at least six to eight months. So, you have lost the race before you started," Peter explains patiently. "If we had done KBC one night a week, there was a big risk. But we took a calculated decision that it would not be just Zee but also Sony which will have to go in for eight shows. This means 16 shows. Where in the market would you find 16 shows? If the market was in a position to accommodate the demand for shows, our strategy would have been very different. But it wasnít so. It was, therefore, a very tactical move. It was based on research and on findings from the market."

The first phase was quickly over with KBC riding the popularity charts and Peterís Principle started operating. "We built Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi ... and Kahani... on the back of KBC and with it Star Plus channel. We now want to build the other six or seven channels that we have on the back of Star Plus. Obviously, there will be new soaps, dramas, game shows etc, on Star Plus but the important thing for us is to look at the network as a whole and build all these other channels. There are a lot of people watching our shows, whether in the afternoon or in the evening, and, if for any reason, they feel bored and want to watch something else then there should be a promo which says that some other show is starting on one of our channels." The idea, quite simply, is to use the eyeballs now glued to Star Plus to move across the Star bouquet and not revert to other rival networks.

Hence, for Peter it is important that Aaj Tak and Zee News donít compete with him in the news sector too. "The news channel is a constant source of interest to me. News changes fast and it is reflected on the screens. But Star News has started to look very much the same. It is very important to change that. In the last three years, we havent changed. I think it is also very important to bring more Hindi into Star News."

Is Star thinking of starting its own news channel and parting company with NDTV? "Not yet. News is being looked after by NDTV right now. It is a production company and if we need to change the look and content, it is their responsibility to find the right people to bring about the change. NDTV is like a supplier to us. We have said that we donít like a few things and what we have said is based on research."

What sort of branding is Star TV aiming at? Didnít it start of as a high-end channel with programmes like The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara but in a yearís time it is propagating the saas-bahu syndrome which actually belongs to the India of the Ď60s? Arenít the shows getting a bit regressive? Peter smiles benignly. "I think with a single channel which is doing Hindi entertainment, our whole philosophy for Star Plus is to keep it as much close to the common denominator as possible. We canít be seen to be too elitist and we canít be seen doing Krishi Darshan. We have to be sitting nicely somewhere in the middle, and in that middle there will always be people who will say that we donít like this. You can never win. We have taken a decision to be in the middle of the spectrum. We neither want be violet nor completely red."

Taking a breath, he asks whether one is interested in knowing about how he is positioning the channel? Yes, of course. "The positioning of the channel," he says, "is decided after doing a lot of research with the consumers. It is a reflection of consumer behaviour. Five years ago, the consumer behaviour was different. So, what you now see on our channel is a reflection of consumer behaviour. Morover, you have to see where we are coming from. We have a history of being completely foreign and international. We had to change that. We had to change perceptions about us. We had to Indianise ourselves. Hence these shows. And, if some people say that they are regressive I have to ask them why are the viewers not turning away from these shows? Is it because there is nothing else on television? The largest viewership across all socio-economic and gender groups is sitting and watching these shows today. So, we must be doing something right. From a channelís point of view, we have to remain as commercial as possible and refine the character and personality of the company from being international to being Indian."

But initially Star had shows like Saans, which were said to be more contemporary than Saas bhi ... and other such shows. Why the swing? "It was one show which was different. It was a path-breaking programme from a particular point of view and the show may well come back. We are in dialogue with Neena Gupta and she is rewriting some stuff, but to move from The Bold and Beautiful to something like that in the Indian context would be a big leap of faith. We may do some such shows but we will have to take things step by step. We canít go from A to Z without the intervening steps. We are positioning ourselves as mainstream channel and would continue doing so. Television is a high -risk business and we have charted a course. We have to revamp Channel V, Star News, and Star Plus is an ongoing process. We are also starting out in the radio business. There is a lot of work to do."

What about starting a regional channel? "Yes, it is big business. But there is not enough money in it yet. From the point of view of the size of the market, from the potential, the only language which makes any sense right now is Tamil. We are looking at it, there is no firm plan. In three years time, there will be run of people going after these regional language channels. Before that it would be too risky."

A lot of money is being spent in programming and promotion because of the intense competition in the market. Do you fear a meltdown? "I donít see a meltdown as far as the four or five big players are concerned. But I think in the next 12 or 16 months, we will see the disappearance of at least 10 to 12 channels because the economics just doesnít work out. Advertising revenue is not there to sustain everybodyís growth. They are all free-to-air channels, the costline is too high and the cost of programming is going up and up. They will not be able to survive. It all looks very rosy from the outside. You start a channel and it works alright for a couple of years because you can write off those losses against your tax but after that when you start running it as a real business it becomes difficult. So, you will see changes and companies will leave the field." A bust in the offing? "I dont know whether the market will go bust but there will be a change ó a change in the mix of people in this business. There will be new people who will come in."

The future, according to Peter, lies in affiliations. "As businesses expand and become stable, you require more resources and not just money. You need resources in terms of people, in terms of expertise, technical skills etc. You cannot go out and buy because it is very expensive. You got to affiliate with somebody who has those skills so that you can lean on them."

As far as money is concerned, Peter believes that the industry will have to look at the share market. "During the past year and a half," he says," Whatever media groups have gone public, they have received good response and have been oversubscribed. Thatís where we have to look to. Public funding will change the dynamics of this business. In the past, it was a family-run business and now you will find public money which will enable channels and others to make shows and put them on the shelf. The broadcaster will be able to buy shows off the shelf. It will be like shopping. Today, nobody goes shopping as there is no mall right now. This is because there is no funding into the production community." DTH? "When you want to go into a venture which is big and requires that much money, it takes time to plan. DTH is a platform and a lot of channels would have to come together and sit on that platform. DTH is like a super market ó the consumer will have a choice. But right now , we are looking at several models on how to go about it"

Finally, how does it feel riding a crest? "Very dangerous," avers Peter.

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