“Technology has done a very good thing for all of us. Technology cuts across boundaries, territories, countries, continents. When we talk about IPTV or digitalisation or digital TV or OTT. Technology makes the airwaves flow across continents, which means there is a global platform for global content,” says Harish Goyal, CEO of Zee TV Asia-Pacific, Africa and Mauritius.
The complex and heterogeneous Asia-Pacific has been added very recently to Harish’s already large territory. In an industry where long timers are given top positions, Harish as an industry outsider has done well in a relatively short time with the network.
Harish joined Zee TV in 2014 as the head of the Africa operations. Initiating a slew of measures, which opened up revenue opportunities across 50 countries and launching four channels in the African continent - Zee World, Zee Magic, Zee Bollymovies and Zee Bollynova.
Since its launch in 1992, Zee TV is one the most widely distributed Hindi GEC (General Entertainment Channel). The popularity of the channel arises from its understanding of Indian culture and beliefs, which are depicted in its programming. Connected to India (CtoI) caught up with Harish Goyal who is shuttling between the African continent and Asian countries before he establishes a permanent base in Singapore.
C to I: Tell us about the various Zee channels operational in Africa and do you have a separate beam for the country?
Harish: Yes, it is a dedicated beam. In Africa, we have 12 TV channels. Of the 12 channels, three are in English. There is a channel called Zee World. This is Africa’s number one GEC. When I say Africa’s number one entertainment channel, I am comparing it with Hollywood, Nollywood (Nigerian film industry) and all kinds of channels. We are basically competing with channels that show South African content, channels like Fox. We are way, way ahead of these foreign channels. We have been (ahead) in 42 months of our launch. Last month, we delivered the highest rating of the channel since we launched. Zee World has become a phenomenon. In fact, about six movies have been made on our channel itself. The name of the movie is called Zee World Madness.
There is another Bollywood channel we launched called Zee Bolly Movies. It is a 24*7 Bollywood movie channel in English. So, all the movies are dubbed in English and the accent is not Indian. We dub in neutral English and it is a two-hour movie on the channel, which means that songs are not part of the movie. All the movies are brought in Hollywood style.
There is another general entertainment channel in English called Zee Bollynova. This channel is again bringing the content in English.
C to I: When did Zee launch in Africa?
Harish: Zee has been here since 1996. We have launched it on October 2, 1996, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, 21 years ago.
C to I: All these innovations you are talking about—be it Zee Bollywood movies, Zee Bolly Nova, Bollywood movies dubbed in neutral English, etc, have these existed for that long or are these comparatively recent phenomena?
Harish: Until 2014, we were catering only in Hindi and Tamil languages in the African continent. It is in 2015 that we had done our launch of Zee World and then in 2017, we launched these two other Bollywood movies and Zee Bolly Movies and Zee Bollynova. In 2015 October, we also launched a channel Zee Magic that brings Bollywood in French because in Africa, there are 26 countries where French is spoken
Zee World is world’s first Bollywood dubbed English GCE. This English Channel in Bollywood has never happened anywhere else. Not even in America, not in UK, not in any English-speaking country.
Similarly, Zee magic is world’s first fully dubbed Bollywood channel in French.
C to I: Tell us about Africa in terms of the entertainment they consume? Why is English and your channel is so popular considering a large number of countries in Africa speak French?
Harish: For me, Africa is a continent of 50 different countries and one billion people. It is a very young population of a billion people in the continent. The concept we worked on is that whenever we are launching any product in the continent we have to think Africa as United States of Africa. And, there is a very close cultural resonance between Africa and India. When you start seeing the cultural resonance, people from both the African continent and from India love music, dance and colours. That is the first connect. This is the answer why Bollywood worked in Africa.
The second connect is the storyline. In India, we actually have grown up wherein we say that the elder sibling has to take care of the younger ones that is the culture in India and it is the same in Africa. We are very family-oriented people and in the evening, we used to sit together and watch TV together. In Africa, it still happens. There is community TV. These are the first cultural commonalities.
When I came in 2014, we thought about why we should do it in English. About 80 per cent of Africa speaks English, 18 per cent of Africa speaks French and two per cent of Africa speaks Portuguese. We are just busy in preparing and launching this channel in Portuguese.
I said, siblings, families all of us sit together and watch TV and then another connect is storylines. We in India have grown up with our mindset that a fairer colour is better. There is the same thought process in Africa. There is a story in one of the shows about two daughters in a family; one has darker skin while the other one has fair skin. And as someone comes to marry the elder girl, they instead choose the younger one as she is fair. That is the storyline that worked in India. When we launched that storyline in Africa it became an immediate sensation because every African saw themselves; they have been through that kind of experience in their lives.
There is another show called ‘Punar Vivah’ that we have shown on Zee TV many years ago. This story is about the challenges of remarriage. Africa is considered as very modern where divorce rates are very high and remarriages are common. However, this story worked very well because again the viewers are females in the age group of 20 to 55. The females saw themselves in the story and we are telecasting this show on our channel for the fourth time. It is still garnering high returns.
Storylines are very important. African people see themselves when we show these kinds of stories. So, these are the connections which have worked on.
Africans were given the experience of Bollywood very early. About 30 years ago, they used to see a Bollywood movie on a Sunday on a free-to-air channel in the afternoon. But that used to be in Hindi with English subtitles, which in my view doesn’t work that well. So, there is a lot of research we had to do before actually launching this channel.
The last thing we will attribute I should have spoken about it are people. People are very important. When you are doing something in a country, it has to be done by the locals. My entire team is African. Everything has been done by the African team. They watch the television as per their own habits and not as per the Indian viewing habit. Their viewing habits are different.
C to I: How large is your team in Africa?
Harish: We are about 200+ people and we have a very elaborate team because Africa is a vast continent.
C to I: Considering you were in a totally unrelated comparatively B2B sector, how did you land the Zee TV job? You are involved in a genre which is all about people and you are taking care of almost a billion people. How did the shift happen? How did you end up in a television broadcasting kind of a job?
Harish: I have worked in entirely different industries, which is evident from my career path. I never moved to a competitor in the same industry. When I was in the telecom industry I worked in the Airtel Group. I never went to the next telecom operator or next competitor. I worked in the Times of India Group, Bennet and Coleman, and never went to another print media or another FM station.
Any business I get into, I take two weeks to learn about the business and from the 15th day, I start taking decisions. Some of the decisions may be actually wrong when I look at them in the long run. But the good thing is that I have always learned from my mistakes..
The most complex thing about any business is not the business itself but mankind. Human beings are the most complex ingredient of any business. If one has found a way to manage this human being, that makes a team, they actually make things happen and make everything possible.
So, I think I would attribute success to the team, to the people that I have.
C to I: Asia Pacific is extremely heterogeneous, for example, Singapore is totally different from Malaysia. Cable TV and IPTV are getting challenges from the mobile market and people want to consume any content they wish to. How do you see the difference in the way the content is used in the African market and the challenges you will be facing in this part of the world?
Harish: Technology has done a very good thing for all of us. Technology cuts across boundaries, territories, countries, continents. When we talk about IPTV or digitalisation or digital TV or OPT. Technology makes the airwaves flow across continents which means there is a global platform for global content.
While there are fine differences between each country, I would say continents are further apart. So, whether Africa or Asia, we cannot use a ‘wide brush’. We have to use a ‘fine brush’ which means the way business has to be done in Singapore is different from the way it is done in Malaysia or in Thailand or in Philippines or in Australia or in Vietnam or in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Maldives. These are all very diverse portfolios I am taking care of. 18 countries in Asia Pacific have been added to my portfolio and 50 countries of Africa; in total, 68 out of 173 countries in which Zee operates in are under my jurisdiction. So, it is a fine brush but then that fineness has to be understood by us.
What makes Malaysia different from Singapore and Thailand different from Malaysia? Similar challenges existed in Africa. The way content is consumed in South Africa, which is considered the ‘Jewel of Africa’, is very different from the way it is consumed in West Africa which is Nigeria and the way it is consumed in East Africa like Kenya.
There are separate beams. Even for Zee World, there is a separate feed for Southern Africa and a separate feed for Western and Eastern Africa because the content is consumed differently and time zones are different. TV prime time is different in every country. Because in Africa, there are four time zones. Similarly, in Asia, we are dealing with multiple time zones. Customisation and adaptation are the keys to success.
To do that kind of customisation and adaptation, we have to understand what are the fine differences? What is it that the consumer in Thailand likes compared to Malaysia or in the Philippines? One of the finer differences I can bring up is when we bring Indian or Bollywood content in Thailand, the mythological heroes between India and Thailand are common. We share the same mythological views whether it is Ram or Hanuman or Buddha. This means that these storylines will work if we customise and adapt it for Thailand viewers.
Now, if we try to bring the same show in other Asian countries or in Africa, people just don’t get it because in an African’s mind if I draw a parallel, a mythological hero or God will not have abnormal limbs which means they can’t have multiple heads or a face that is not resembling a human face. So, these stories don’t work in Africa at all. However, they will work in Thailand. If I take a wide brush and I try to cover the same thing, it won’t work.
C to I: It seems that you produce a variety of content in Africa. Cost must be one of your bigger challenges. In Singapore, I have also seen how Zee has moved from not producing any local content to doing more events on the ground so and so forth? Is that part of the growing strategy in Asia-Pacific as you move in?
Harish: There is always a range of cost per minute of content when it comes out in Africa or Asia or globally. The average cost per continent works out to be the same. It is not grossly different barring few exceptions of Hollywood content. We have our studios in Canada where we produce our content in Canada in Vancouver. We are producing African content and we are also working on Asian content.
For a global operator like Zee which operates in 173 countries, we look at the global business average when we look at the content. In certain cases, it can be lower than the average while in other cases, it can be higher. In every country we try to produce and telecast localised content. In Singapore, there are certain contents and shows which we are producing.
Local content is part of the business. The events are also an integral part because events marketing is closely connected. The effort is always to create love for the brand and the content.
C to I: Do you think that the ad sales prices which you get in this part of world is a challenge?
Harish: Even as recently as 2014 when I took over this business, the spot rate used to be USD15 for 30 seconds. Today, that has rate jumped to USD700 for 30 seconds. This is the figure in July. And we have set rules in the game in this territory wherein. The journey from USD15 to USD700 was not very linear and it was not easy either. So, we had gone through our own set of challenges. First challenge was competition. Second challenge was customers. But the biggest challenge we had to fight was our own mindset of the people.
I remember when I told the team to increase the rate from USD 15 to USD250. That was just after one year of completion in Africa. The team went wild saying how can this happen? The first response I heard from the team was that you don’t come from the media, that’s why you can think about such impractical pricing. I requested the team to just give it a try. Do it. If not 250, then do 300, it will work. We achieved the pricing in October 2015 and after that we never looked back. The team got confident after the initial hiccups. The second thing we established was that we will never discount. The third rule we established last year was that our rates will be net rates.
C to I: What will be your biggest challenges in this part of the world?
Harish: In Asia-Pacific, I am seeing only opportunities and more opportunities. Last week, I was in Singapore; I also visited our Thailand office and then I met my team which is spread out across various countries. It is a region full of opportunities because lot of the challenges I was seeing in Africa don’t exist in Asia-Pacific. And of course, there will be newer challenges in Asia-Pacific that I may not be aware of. However, I am full of positive thoughts.