Subhash Chandra and the Zee TV story


More than 25 years have passed, but Essel Group promoter Subhash Chandra still vividly recalls the scene in the boardroom of Richard Li’s Hong Kong offices, where he had taken his team along for a meeting with Li and his executives. After a heated exchange with his own team, Li, son of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, rejected outright Chandra’s proposal for a joint venture to launch an Indian language channel.
The year was 1991 and Li had just launched a media and entertainment business in Asia under the HutchVision banner with four satellite television channels—Star TV, BBC, MTV and Prime Sports. Li’s argument was that there was no money to be made in broadcasting in India, Chandra recalled on Wednesday in a phone interview from the US, where the chairman of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd is on a visit.
That was hardly a propitious start for India’s first private television broadcaster. Nonetheless, Zee overcame that initial rejection, survived, grew and turned 25 years old on 1 October 2017. There was more humiliation to come at that meeting with Li. Chandra, a rice merchant from India who ran a packaging unit and an amusement park back home, changed tack and asked Li to let him lease a transponder on his satellite AsiaSat.
He asked for $5 million (around ₹ 37.5 crore today) a year for it. I had made many trips to Hong Kong in the last 10 months. It was close to Christmas and I was desperate. I agreed to pay $5 million only if he signed the deal immediately,” Chandra said. “The HutchVision team went into a huddle and Li emerged after an hour only to turn down my proposal.”
Li did sign the deal with Chandra a few months later in India, and the rest, as they say, is history, with Zee pioneering the Indian cable and satellite television industry. Li had approached several Indian media groups and business houses, but not one was willing to pay $5 million for a transponder.
“Subhash Chandra was the last man standing,” said Siddharth Ray, a former Star TV executive who was then working with the Sanjay Dalmia group, also in the race for satellite space. “He took the biggest risk and wrote the Indian broadcasting story.”
To clinch the deal, Chandra had to not only arrange money from his non-resident Indian friends, he also had to enter into a joint venture called Asia Today Ltd with Star TV for the transponder because the laws didn’t allow him to lease it outright.
Karuna Samtani, an ad film-maker who was the first employee to be hired by Zee, said the transponder deal was signed in April 1992 and the television channel went on air on 1 October. “The channel that began with three hours of original programming went to six-hour programming a day in three months,” said Samtani, who was responsible for content. Zee became a 24-hour entertainment channel within a year of its launch and remained the market leader up until 2000, although several other channels had gone on air in the interim.
Chandra’s broadcasting business has many firsts to its credit in terms of programming, distribution, regional content and global expansion. “During the first 10 years, he came to be known for his innovativeness.


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