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The 'K' factor

In The Making of Star India, Vanita Kohli Khandekar narrates how one of India’s largest media conglomerates was built swiftly in a little over two decades – peppered with relevant data, snippets from interviews and industry facts. Excerpts:

'What's that stuff he's selling?' asked James Murdoch, pointing to a gajrewala at the window of the car we were travelling in. The tiny white garlands of jasmine flowers were beautiful. The gajrewala looked on expectantly as I explained that the garland is used to decorate one's hair. 'I don't have enough hair,' he said with a laugh, touching his head.

At twenty-seven, James Murdoch was guileless and full of beans. He had the enthusiasm and curiosity of an intelligent, restless mind and the irreverence of a teenager. Like most Harvard dropouts, he had done several things. He had set up his own music company (Rawkus Records), which specialized in rap metal bands, and then sold it. He had created a cartoon strip, Albrecht the Hun, about a Hun who preferred literary pursuits. When he finally got around to joining News Corp, he chose to figure out the Internet as the head of new media strategy. He bought several businesses across China and India at the peak of the dotcom boom—an exercise that had News Corp writing off $300 million worth of investments later. In December 1999, dad Rupert Murdoch asked him to 'think about China'.

In the summer of 2000, on his first visit to India as chairman of the Star Group (the Asia business), I had a wonderfully frank interview with him at the company office in Andheri, in the northern suburbs of Mumbai. After the interview, Peter Mukerjea, CEO, News Television, and James were on their way to south Mumbai for a meeting. Since my office in Worli was on their way, Mukerjea offered to drop me off and we got chatting about gajrewalas and other things. James was like a kid who couldn't get over all that was happening on the streets of Mumbai while Mukerjea was excited about an upcoming show, Kaun Banega Crorepati. 'We have got Amitabh Bachchan to host it,' he said in that lisping British accent that I came to associate with him over the next few years. He turned around in the front seat while sharing the news. I smiled politely.

This was April 2000. India had about 100 entertainment channels, the first multiplexes were opening up, and we had tasted both the Internet and private FM radio. Dozens of new shows were being launched every week, so another new one was not exactly headline-grabbing news, even if the 'Big B'—as Amitabh Bachchan was popularly known—was hosting it. Mukerjea had been CEO for a year, but Star remained a laggard. India had done well, bringing in a nice chunk of the $111 million in Asia revenues in the financial year ending June 1999. Much of this was thanks to increased ad revenues from Star News, the integration of Channel [V] into Star TV and the encryption of channels such as Star Movies. Encryption meant that a trickle of pay revenues had started coming in. However, overall, the satellite television business in Asia continued to bleed—$141 million that year. About a fifth of those losses came from Star's disastrous DTH foray. According to estimates, News Corp had by then lost over $1.5 billion in Asia—primarily in India and China. The whole Asian satellite TV business brought in just about 8 per cent of News Corp's top line. Star was far from being out of the woods.

Soon after that interview, I went off to Cambridge on a fellowship. When I returned four months later in August 2000, Star was not just out of the woods, it was the king of the jungle. Most of India's 33 million cable TV homes stopped everything to watch Kaun Banega Crorepati at 9 p.m. on Star Plus every night from Monday to Thursday. On the back of the licensed version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and two daily soaps, it had become the largest, most popular channel by far. And News Corp was on a renewed investment spree in India with the almost $300 million that Subhash Chandra had paid it for the divorce. It was expanding into radio, had made over $100 million worth of investments in Internet start-ups in India, had invested in a cable company, was producing shows with BBC, and was planning a health channel among a host of other things. News Television was the hottest business story in India. It was the first one my editors asked me to do as soon as I got back.

Star's rise had begun, and it would not stop for six long years. It began with the coming of the irrepressible James Murdoch in Hong Kong, then slowed down and collapsed when he went off to head BSkyB in the UK in 2003. It would rise again when he was back in charge of the Fox business in this part of the world in 2009.

The making of Kaun Banega Crorepati

Pratim Mukerjea became 'Peter' when he moved to England with his doctor father, sometime in the 1970s. He'd studied at the prestigious Doon School in India before moving to the UK where he completed his school and college education. He studied business management. Mukerjea then worked with (among others) food major Heinz in the UK and later DDB Needham in Hong Kong where he handled the Star account for Richard Li.

He became CEO of Star in 1999 at age forty-five. Mukerjea spent much of his first year as CEO cleaning out the stables by having an audit done and ratifying the books. He was worried about skeletons emerging from the closet. Simultaneously, he put together a fantastic team that worked well together—probably his most important contribution to Star's success. 'Peter always hired people better than himself. He would let people fly because he was confident, a team player,' says Sumantra Dutta, who was then part of the ad sales team. Mukerjea had a reputation for being a hard taskmaster but good at delegating authority.

There is, however, another school of thought among old Star hands. That Mukerjea hired as he did because he was essentially an ad salesman and didn't know enough about the other parts of the business. 'To run a business, I believe you need to have a pretty strong commercial sense more than content sense. I don't buy programming, unlike my predecessor [Basu] who was very involved with the process. I knew that I did not want to do that because there are experts in the field and you can hire them. I get involved from a broader, strategic perspective.

For example, if we take out the news at 9 p.m. what is the financial impact?

Positive or negative? And for how long? I don't sit there and say that let us do a drama and let us do it with this producer,' said Mukerjea to me in August 2000 when I asked him about his lack of programming experience.

In any case, this approach stood him and Star in very good stead. The team he put together has given a disproportionate number of CEOs to the Indian media industry. It included a new chief financial officer (R.S. Narayan), a head of business development (Kaushal Dalal) and a new head of distribution (Arun Mohan). Raj Nayak was the ad sales head for all English channels (Star News, Star Movies and Star World). Dutta was made ad sales head for the flagship Star Plus, which would soon become a twenty-four- hour Hindi channel. Sameer Nair was the new programming head. By July 1999, Star was ready to put together its plan for Hindi programming.

Nair, thirty-four, was key to this. An easygoing man who loves a laugh, he had done everything from selling chicken rolls and yellow pages to being an adman before he joined Star TV in 1994 as a producer-director for interstitials for Star Movies. Interstitials are pieces of content that fill the breaks during a film. It could be behind-the-scenes stuff or interviews with the stars. By 1996, under Basu, he was producing shows such as The Bhaskar Ghose Show. A year later, he was head of promos and presentation for Star Plus, the flagship channel, and also handled movie acquisition. But till then he had always been on the fringes of the action.

(Excerpted with permission from The Making of Star India by Vanita Kohli Khandekar; published by Penguin eBury Press. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled ' The Sixty Minutes That Saved Star'.)

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