In October 1992, when we got our first Hindi channel in the Star bouquet we also got our first, instant, home-grown Indian TV baron, with a salt and pepper goatee even then. Subhash Chandra put himself on air during the inaugural transmission of Zee TV to tell his fellow Indians what the channel would do for the country even as it aired clips of people partying at its Bombay launch. Off and on in those early years Chandra would pop up on his channel, sometimes in the audience of an Antakshari show.
Initially, the big achievement was just being on air. Zee was an upbeat clone of Doordarshan, when it was not being a straight movie channel. And, as one discovered, it was even manned by DD! Zee’s channel manager in Hong Kong was a DD news producer on leave from his employer. With the advent of Zee, moonlighting, a regular practice for DD employees, had moved to another dimension.
The early transmission was three hours a day, with a movie and reruns of old Doordarshan programmes thrown in. There were days when the new Indian alternative to DD would offer a really old DD serial in the same time slot that the government channel was offering a new serial. But there were also new ideas. Such as Vinod Dua probing middle class mores in a chat show called Chakrvyuha, and taking it beyond what Nalini Singh was doing with Hello Zindagi on Doordarshan. The producer of this programme was none other than Ronnie Screwvala. Pritish Nandy presented a programme called Fiscal Fitness into which he would occasionally sneak in recycled footage from a defunct videomagazine.
Though the media treats this month as a the 20th anniversary of Zee TV, it is more accurately the 20th anniversary of Indian satellite TV. Available talent scrambled on to the new channel, new faces were found, and more Indian satellite channels followed really fast. In 1993, Asianet began transmission in Kerala; Jain television started beaming in Delhi; and Sun TV in Tamil Nadu. And, responding to competition, Zee began to show films in South Indian languages in the afternoon. It never failed to be quick off the mark.
Zee innovated in other ways as well, quickly putting together a formula of froth, films and political jousts. It began to drop serials with alacrity if they did not pick up ratings really fast. There was also a bikini show on offer. Meanwhile, Rajat Sharma had come on board; there were new shows such as Faisla Aap Ka and Aap ki Adalat; and there was a Helpline programme for consumer complaints. Sharma was useful, he knew politicians, he knew journalists, and he became Subhash Chandra’s door to the Delhi power circuit.
Within five months of launch, Zee also began its Sunday morning transmission and began announcing the existence of a trade promotion cell. What this did was to tell Indian advertisers that they could reach West Asian markets by paying Indian rupees, and at rates less than half of what it would have to cost to advertise on DD. It was an angle successfully sold to the media and by early February 1993 Chandra was figuring in double-page spreads in the business press, gesturing expansively.
But by August, Rupert Murdoch bought a majority stake in Star TV and that brought an element of uncertainty to an enterprise that was zipping along nicely. Open confrontation between the homegrown Murdoch and the original one was still in the future. By November 1993, there was evidence that Zee had begun to get rural audiences, and by end 1995 there were three Zee channels, and computer education on satellite TV was being offered.
With the advent of the state elections in the last quarter of 1993, BJP MP J.K. Jain launched his satellite election service, as a precursor to his regular channel. It offered election time advertising packages to candidates, at ten seconds for Rs.6,000. By 1995, Indian politicians had a choice of platforms to appear on. NDTV and Aaj Tak were on Doordarshan, Zee had popular shows featuring politicos. By 1997, BBC had brought on Question Time India.
1995 saw Eenadu TV make its debut in Andhra Pradesh and spearhead the rapid penetration of cable in the state. In Delhi, channels such as the TVI network, Home TV and DD 3 were launched in the following years and eventually fell by the wayside.
Dramatic things happened by late 1996—Star began its own Hindi channel, Doordarshan’s former director general Rathikant Basu moved across to Star TV to helm it, and it quickly became a mini Doordarshan. Then Rajat Sharma, already restless, was successfully persuaded to switch sides.
In 1997, Subhash Chandra got his revenge and demonstrated his clout: he scuttled Basu and Star’s DTH plans, for which staff had been hired, and did so by ganging up with the then information and broadcasting minister C.M. Ibrahim and Basu’s former bureaucrat colleagues. A clause in the Broadcasting Bill made sure no DTH operation could be launched, pending the passing of the Bill. So the coast remained clear till Chandra’s own DTH venture Dish TV came in seven or eight years later. By which time the Bill had become history, never passed.
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.