Zee and Essel Group chairman Subhash Chandra is undaunted by the entry of telecom players like Reliance Jio into the content space. Steering a conglomerate of 28 companies, including media flagship Zee Entertainment Enterprises, Mr. Chandra, a Rajya Sabha MP, spoke about the emerging challenges facing the media industry and his thoughts on succession. Edited excerpts:
How do you perceive the changes in the media industry?
In the media business, the lines are getting blurred between telecom, voice, data and video as all are merging into one single pipe. New players have come in with Jio being a big example. That has helped put the industry into the 3.0 phase.
Jio’s entry has made the delivery pipe cheap and forced other telcos to do the same. This will help content companies like ours. However, Jio’s ambitions are very different… the DNA of that organisation is to be a monopoly rather than being a part of the industry. That will probably spur the industry into merging the content player with the pipe and data, which has happened in America and Europe.
Even the Amazons, Googles and YouTubes of the world now call themselves media companies instead of tech companies. So, thanks to Jio, this process, which could have taken 5-10 years, has accelerated in India. That’s an interesting development for this industry.
What’s your strategy with Jio’s entry potentially changing the game?
We have competed with all media companies. Today, NewsCorp is in India through Star. Time Warner was here, Viacom came, Sony is here, Discovery is here.
So, of the top eight global media firms, five are here and we have competed with all. In 2007, a management consulting firm said India will be left with just 3 players and Zee is the weakest link that will either close or get sold. That didn’t happen. Similar reports now say that Zee is a hard nut to crack.
Now, this gentleman (referring to Mukesh Ambani) has a different style of doing business. We will fight this out too. We will still stick to our ethical business practices. But maybe their thought process won’t work here. The reason – the broadband pipe has no differentiator. Data is data, pricing is the differentiator. Content is the only differentiating force.
The question now is can better content be driven solely by more money. I have learned in 26 years that only money cannot give you best content. I once read a Time cover story on Steven Spielberg where he said ‘If somebody thinks he knows what content will work in movies, he is fooling himself and the public.’ I also remember a time when KBC became a hit and Zee’s ratings went quite low, analysts naturally wrote negative things and our stock price fell. Yet, we remained profitable. In 26 years, we have probably had just one quarter when we made a loss. At that time, we called several big directors like Ketan Mehta and Sudhir Mishra to make good content for TV. They said: you pay too less. So we spent more, got Ketan Mehta to make an action thriller with Kay Kay Menon as the lead character.
Yet, the ratings didn’t come. I was willing to pay up to ₹20 lakh, but I wanted some assurance on ratings. So, money alone can’t do… creativity is important. This is a differentiator on which how much they [Jio] will be able to do [is unclear]… We know the deals they have done on the content side. They have money… one person has been given ₹1,000 crore to make films. But we also know the background of that someone over the last 25 years. I think we will win the game. The positive side is this has helped us to grow and that’s the bottomline.
Do you worry about regulatory capture as the regulations on this front are framed by the telecom regulator and the TRAI chief has got a 2-year extension…
Yes, I called up to congratulate [TRAI Chairman Ram Sewak Sharma] and told him ‘Everyone is saying that Reliance has got you this extension. Your name is getting associated too much with this and this shouldn’t be the case.’ He said, ‘No, no, you have seen me at work, I am not like that’. I said: ‘Yes, but I am telling you upfront what people are saying’ [laughs].
How do you view Amazon Prime and Netflix?
Amazon Prime has a different model. By connecting to them with content, they bring customers to their shop and push e-commerce. We are also giving content to them. But we are not giving content to Netflix. Netflix is a pure content player and it is successful in the U.S. as the cable bill used to be $120 a month. That is not the situation here — it’s $6-$7. There, the industry also erred by giving up all its content, which helped Netflix establish itself.
Twenty years back, you were known as India’s media moghul. What would you like to be called now?
I would like to be known as a social entrepreneur. When we completed 90 years as a group, I said whatever I do now must have some social, environmental or job-creating relevance. We are working on a few such ideas.