A business full of characters

Vanita Kohli- KhandekarIn 2000, when I told my editors that I wanted to cover media and entertainment, they couldn't get it. Why on earth would a hardcore business reporter want to write on films and TV serials. There were endless jokes among colleagues. But I was fresh from a fellowship in Cambridge.I had seen what good, solid analysis of the business of media and entertainment was about in the UK market and I wanted to do the same. It combined my MBA and experience as a business writer with my fascination with everything to do with the media business. 

Amusing: Media is, largely, an owner-driven, personality led business. This makes it great fun to watch.

It is a fascination that not too many analysts and business writers will admit to. Most hide behind a veneer of contempt for anything to do with the media and entertainment (M&E) industry. So soaps are routinely ‘regressive,’ film stars are dumb, Hindi movies are passé and so on. If we followed what the media writers and critics said, then we would be a nation of righteous intellectuals watching documentaries every day and reading serious books.

But the media business is about so much more. It is about the process of creating that right book or script or film that connects with the right audience and makes money. It is about creativity and its distribution. Or as consultants would say, about content and distribution.

That is the first reason the M&E business is such a fun place to be in. It mimics in many ways telecom and IT with a huge creative element thrown in. You need large distribution infrastructure — DTH, cable or multiplex chains — in place to make money from content. But you also need to have enough content for that infrastructure to be of use.

China has only six minutes of content available for every 60 minutes needed. Since it is not a democracy a lot of things are taboo. So it has large multiplex chains and digital TV systems but not enough programming to feed them. India, on the other hand, has loads of content, a lot of it good. But it struggles to make money on mediocre infrastructure. Though multiplexes and digital TV are happening, we are a long way from covering the entire population.

The second and biggest reason this industry rocks is because it is so full of characters. Globally almost every major media company is owner-driven. News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch), Viacom (Sumner Redstone), Liberty Media (John Malone), the list goes on. It would be safe to say that just about half of the world’s top 100 media companies are controlled usually by one man or a family. News Corporation, for instance is listed.

But it is for all practical purposes controlled by Rupert Murdoch. This is true for several professionally run, large media companies. Bob Iger of Disney or Tom Freston, the former head of Viacom are stars in their own right.  There are no clear reasons why media is such a owner-driven, personality-centric business. But one can hazard a guess. 

It was after hours of waiting to meet Richard Li who owned the only satellite broadcasting into India and China in 1991, that Subhash Chandra decided to pay five times the asking price. Almost every major media firm in those days — The Times Group included — has declined space on that satellite. But Chandra saw something that the others did not.

His vision gave birth to Zee and consequently private television broadcasting. Only a maverick, visionary kind of chap can see what Chandra has seen again and again in different business — lotteries, DTH, amusement parks or flexi-packaging.

Ronnie Screwvala (UTV), Prannoy Roy, Samir Jain (Times Group), Aroon Purie (India Today) saw something long before it happened and fought everything — regulators, existing norms — to create markets, brands and businesses that changed this country. If you are such a man, chances are that you are also a strong personality.  You could argue, rightly, that Narayana Murthy or Kiran Mazumdar Shaw too are visionaries in their fields. For the sake of focus I will stick only to media. 

This personality-centric feature makes media a fun business to watch. What is disappointing is that it still hasn’t achieved a size that reflects the potential of the Indian market. India’s largest media group, Zee is just over Rs 5,600 crore. It is a fraction of the size of the largest companies in sectors such as telecom or IT. The total M&E industry brings in just under one per cent of India’s GDP. For an entertainment crazy country those numbers simply do not tell the full story. Clearly, this one is still being written. 

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at

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