Indian Entertainment Power Player Eyes U.S. Growth

Subhash Chandra Executive Portrait - P 2011

Subhash Chandra Executive Portrait - P 2011

Subhash Chandra, chairman of Indian media giant Zee Entertainment and the Essel Group of Companies, talks about opportunities in the States, competition from Hollywood players in India and where the industry is going in his home country.

Subhash Chandra, chairman of Indian entertainment firm Zee Entertainment Enterprises and the Essel Group of Companies, is one of Forbes’ 20 wealthiest media moguls in the world. During a visit to New York, THR New York bureau chief Georg Szalai talked to him about his plans for wellness programming business Veria Living in the U.S., an International Emmy he will receive Monday, competition from entertainment conglomerates in India and the outlook for the media and entertainment business in India.

THR: A few years ago, you launched wellness programming network Veria Living, which has a TV network and online component. How is that going and are you working on gaining broader distribution beyond current distributors Dish Network, Verizon FiOS and Frontier Communications?

Chandra: Veria Living should be in every home, every bedroom. It's a product that we strongly feel will help the viewers to live well and be healthy. We are talking to all cable and satellite operators, including Comcast [to multiply our reach from around 10 million homes currently]. On Dish, we are on a [tier] that just reaches about 4-5 million homes. We would like them to expose this to all 11-12 million homes. DirecTV is still not on, but we are talking to them. People ask me why we are not getting distribution. You can have four pornography channels, but no wellness channel. They say there is scarcity of bandwidth. But I'm sure once word of mouth spreads, they will also carry us.

Is there any U.S. network you feel competes with you in terms of wellness and health content?

There isn't any network, which does that. But there are networks that carry some health programming [of] half an hour or hour [in duration]. But there is no full 24/7 wellness and lifestyle channel.

You announced today the creation of a $250 million (U.S.) content development, production, co-production and acquisition fund that will benefit Veria over five years. What exactly will you do with it?

What we are doing is we will do production here, co-production in other countries. We want the best of programming. Eventually Veria Living will be a global brand. Once it is well distributed here in the U.S., the next stop will be all English-speaking countries and then non-English-speaking countries. In this country, we also plan to do a Spanish version of the network. We want this to reach the maximum number of people.

How do you feel about new digital distribution opportunities for Veria? Any interest in getting content on Hulu, Netflix etc?

We are committed to growing across television, Internet, mobile and [over-the-top] platforms. Our objective is to reach out to the maximum number of people. We are talking to mobile companies, Internet companies and others…It has to be distributed in a linear way, but we have to compliment it with the Netflixs and Hulus.

There are plans for new primetime programming on Veria in 2012. Anything you can tell us about that? And any big names that will be part of this?

There will be new programming. And there will be some celebrities involved. Our programming team will deliver. The programming should be entertaining and of utilization to the viewer. Celebrities will be ones that are already into the wellness space. They may not all be big celebrities. [For example, Deion Sanders does reality TV show Sports Dads about fathers who want their kids to be sports stars. And Jewel will host the new season of The Incurables.]

I heard you are focusing on health and fitness as well. What do you do on that front in your private life?

I eat vegetarian food. I try to avoid fried food. I try to do my workout every day - a little bit of yoga, a little bit of using the machines. I do about an hour.

You will receive the International Emmy Directorate Award here on Monday. How important is that for you and your company?

Frankly, I must confess I didn't know too much about this. Then our people said you must accept this, and I did. The take-away for me is instead of feeling personally proud, I feel it is a recognition of India as a television programming country, which was so far only appreciated by South Asians. But now Hollywood and other people are also accepting that India is not only about computer software, but has quality programming for TV and movies. 

Is there room to bring more content from India to the U.S.?

We already brought here six Indian language channels. We haven't done [major distribution deals] yet. My recommendation to my team is that they should try and dub some of the programming into Spanish here and experiment with it how it is received. We are dubbing into local languages in other countries, such as Indonesia and Russia. We are slowly, gradually doing some things. There is already too much content in English. I think dubbing into English might not work.

You mentioned that Hollywood has taken note of India. Viacom, CBS, Disney, Time Warner and Sony are all active over there. Do aggressive global media groups provide tough competition for Zee?

India in terms of regulatory affairs is very open. Viacom, Sony and anybody else can own 100 percent and don't need Indian partners. The more of them come, the better it is. We should [know and serve] our country, our people, our programming much better than they can do. And competition always makes the industry better.

Any thoughts on whether some global entertainment companies have done a better job in India than others?

Most of them are there. Some have done better jobs, some have done bad jobs. I would not like to comment on who is [doing] better. 

Zee has English movie channel Zee Studio and English entertainment channel Zee Cafe in India, among others. How are you doing in the English-language space and are Hollywood conglomerates a tougher competitor there?

There is no doubt they are very good at English language programming. The problem is that English programming has niche audiences. Although India has a very large English-speaking population, bear in mind that 70 percent-80 percent of homes are still single television homes. And the remote is in control of the ladies. And they want to watch their own programming. So English programming has more of a niche audience. Today, in a $13 billion-$14 billion industry, the revenue for English language would not be more than, my guess is, $100 million. And there are many channels offering English-language programming, including CBS, News Corp., Sony and more. We have three English networks - one is purely fashion, one is general entertainment, one is movies. We try to buy programming from here and Europe. Shows you are seeing here, you would see over there on our network. I don't think we need to go broader than that. There isn't any market.

Hollywood and India have done or explored some collaborations, such as the DreamWorks-Reliance partnership. Do you expect more of this? And which U.S. entertainment companies are you working with?

Yes, in terms of production, I see more of it coming in terms of movies. There will not be as much in television programming. We have a partnership with Time Warner and now with News Corp. We are distributing our and their content together in a joint venture company. It's going quite good.

Do you expect more cross-over of Indian stars like Anil Kapoor into the U.S. and vice versa?

Slowly, it will happen. Monday's International Emmy Award may be the beginning of that. The industry is recognizing that India is producing quality programs. That will open up some discussion and partnerships. Cross-fertilization of talent will happen.

What's your outlook or forecast for the fast-growing Indian media market?

It used to be 30-35 percent growth over the past 18-20 years. That has slowed down to about 15 percent. The industry has grown in an unstructured manner.
There are 500 TV stations, 20 news channels in one language and about 75 including other languages. That kind of thing is unsustainable. Growth is slowing down, but there will be a time when it explodes again after some consolidation.

How about your outlook for Indian content in the U.S.?

The programming from India will continue to grow at the current level of 5-6 percent. But people will slowly start using our formats and want to know about Indian history and biographies [and other formats]. Once that programming starts coming out of India, I am sure it will explode.

Any misconceptions you see about India and the Indian entertainment industry?

Misconceptions have been created by us Indians. Sometimes some Indians tend to overpromise and deliver less.


Twitter: @georgszalai