It’s right at the end of the interview that Subhash Chandra really gives the game away. We start discussing his wealth — anything from $2bn to $5bn depending on whom you believe. For once, the 61-year-old media mogul sounds genuinely embarrassed. Gone is the quick witted, sharp-shooting self-styled business guru, who has forever changed the face of television in the world.
“Oh no, oh no. Please,” he says, when asked how much money he really has. “You know something? It has never been about money. If you chase money, money never comes. If you have other objectives, which is to achieve something that is good for people, and you achieve those objectives, then money will come.”
If Zee Entertainment, which he owns, was ever to broadcast a movie about a kid who is called back from college to help pay off his family’s debts, and goes on to run a conglomerate encompassing eight divisions and 8,000 employees, the chances are it would sit well alongside the 3,000 Hindi titles it already owns the rights to. Except this is not Bollywood fiction, this is the very real world of Subhash Chandra. Modest? Yes. Mischievous? Very. Megastar? You bet, in every sense of the word.
Today, Zee Entertainment has grown to become the largest producer and aggregator of Hindi programming in the world, with an extensive library housing 100,000 hours of television content. It has 650 million viewers in 169 countries. Incredibly, it was just 20 years ago that Chandra revolutionised the industry by launching India’s first satellite Hindi channel Zee TV, and later the first private news channel Zee News.
But that is only part of the Chandra story: his massive Essel Group has interests in technology, packaging, infrastructure, education, lifestyle and wellness, and even precious metals. Chandra mentions “packaging” as an afterthought, forgetting to add that one in every three people on the planet brushed their teeth this morning using one of his laminated tubes.
But it’s television that Chandra will be best known for, and is about to become even better known for. Not content with conquering the local market and the massive Indian expat population across the globe, his latest venture is Zee Alwan. The theory is simple, ambitious and audacious. If Bollywood movies (and general Hindi programming) are so popular with Indians, why not offer them to the Arabic market, with all content translated into Arabic? This move represents a $100m investment into the region, one that serial risk-taker Chandra is not afraid of.
“This is a big new strategy for us. The whole Middle East region has a large population, and we want to give them entertainment in their own language — it will be a new entertainment and information experience for them, and it will also provide strong opportunities for Arabic creative talent to work with us,” he says.
With a population of 350 million, the region is a fast-growing television market that already has 600 free-to-air channels. Joining the party won’t be easy — add to that the fact that advertising revenues were recorded at around $1.5bn three years ago, compared to over $50bn for the similar-sized US market.
Not to worry, says Chandra. “It’s always a challenge, and working in a challenging environment has got its own kick. There is also an Arabic population that is spread around — certainly in Europe and America. So Zee Alwan will also find a place and distribution in those markets. So that will offset what is a challenging market in the Middle East region.”
He adds: “We will be somewhat unique in the sense of what is out there already — more than 50 percent of the content available to the 350 million population is more motivated with Western content. There is 35 percent locally generated. The Indian content is not available in Arabic right now — we will produce in their language some programming with local talent so it will be unique. But I also believe advertising revenues will grow, they will be corrected over a period of time. This will be a big market, I have no doubt.”
There will no doubt be many obstacles thrown along Chandra’s Arabic path, but given his track record, the chances are he will swallow most of them up. Having initially made a success of his packaging company Essel Packaging, he handed over the reins to his brothers, deciding to set up EsselWorld in 1988 in Mumbai, which was to be India’s largest amusement park.
“When we did the park, only one third of the guests we anticipated came. We were told that people actually wanted entertainment closer to their homes. The political class also really gave us a lot of trouble. They wanted to recover 150 percent tax on an amusement park that was meant for middle-class families and their children. So I was having in mind that there should be a communication channel that becomes a bridge between the government and the people,” he says.
Inspired by CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War, Chandra began exploring the options for a private television channel. A year after CNN’s now-famous breaking news of the bombing of Baghdad by the Western allies, Zee TV was born. However, it was no easy birth; local regulations prevented any private sector launch, forcing Chandra to set up shop in Hong Kong. “We started in 1992 and were illegal until 1997,” he says.
Legalities aside, and despite heavy financial bleeding in the early years, Zee TV quickly built a following of 50 million. There was no going, or looking, back. Chandra puts the success down to a combination of factors. “It’s many things. We are a home-grown brand. But if you even look now at the programming, we are the only one out of four Hindi general entertainment channels in which a father, son and daughter can sit together and watch. We are very different. If you look at some of the other channels, some of them the father and daughter cannot watch together. And Zee is now the only 100 percent Indian brand — the others have all become foreign-owned.”
There is also the small matter of making money: India may have the potential to become the largest pay TV market in the world. The FICCI-KPMG Indian Media & Entertainment Industry Report suggests the sector will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.9 percent between 2011 and 2016. But as a whole, the Indian television industry is losing over $1bn a year.
However, Zee Entertainment’s latest figures for the quarter to June 30 2012 showed a 21 percent rise in net profits to $28m.
“The broadcasting industry is losing a lot of money. I think basically we are large shareholders and our team and our interests are aligned to the minority shareholders. Some of the other broadcasters, the management and shareholders’ interests are not aligned,” Chandra says.
Chandra’s place in television history is already secure, which in some ways is a shame, as he deserves similar credit for his efforts in the packaging industry, which is where he first made his mark.
Born into an extended family from Hisar, his early memories were working in the family business of converting whole grain into pulses. Survival was the only goal, and Chandra had to come back from college because his family couldn’t afford the fees. Years of struggles followed, before he eventually moved to Mumbai. In 1974-75, a bumper crop resulted in a lack of storage space for grain. Chandra created a plastic storage using black polythene sheets, a move that led to the birth of his first significant venture, Essel Packaging.
By 1981, he started making laminated tubes. But like the Zee TV experience that was to follow years later, initially there was no demand, no interest, and plenty of regulation to wear him down.
“When I went to Colgate they said why should we buy your tube? We can sell 4,000 tonnes of tube a year but we are licensed to produce only 1,000 tonnes. So why should we buy your more expensive tubes? We cannot supply the demand. But we remained resolute in our thought process that eventually this will work, it is a good product. If you have a good product, you must keep your faith, continue to pursue that idea and work on it. Don’t give up. But there were a lot of sleepless nights.”
The lack of sleep paid off. Today the company produces 8.5 billion tubes a year, and has a staggering 40 percent share of the global market. That success initially gave him the funding for his media ventures.
And after years of continued success, Chandra is now just as busy giving back, becoming one of India’s most influential philanthropists. Amongst many activities, he has set up TALEEM (Transnational Alternate Learning for Emancipation and Empowerment through Multimedia) to provide access to quality education through distance and open learning. He is also the chairman of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of India — a movement to eradicate illiteracy from rural and tribal India. The foundation provides free education to nearly one million tribal children across 36,783 villages through one-teacher schools.
Chandra says: “I sometimes joke to people that if I knew this would become such a large monster, maybe I would never have started it! When you are large you have 650 million eyeballs. It gives you a kick on one side. You can say I have more customers than the largest bank in the world, but at the same time it brings a lot responsibility.”