Punit Goenka: The mark of Z

Punit Goenka remembers the exact moment he stopped seeing viewership numbers on Fridays.

In 2005, Zee launched a prime-time show called Saat Phere. It was an important series for them, and Goenka, then business head for Zee TV, was eager to know how it had done. He left office on Thursday night at around 9.30, assuming he would see the numbers on Friday morning, as he did normally. But an SMS he received congratulating him on the show was a rude surprise—he realized that the ratings actually came out on Thursday nights; it was just that his team would see them on Friday mornings.

“That’s when I called my entire team, and that was the first firing they got from me,” he says. He told them: “From now on, we’ll see the ratings on Thursday night, discuss them, plan what has to be done, and then I’ll take you out for drinks and dinner.”

I’m on the 16th floor of a Lower Parel high-rise, the Mumbai headquarters of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (Zeel), part of the Essel Group, which has been run by Goenka’s family for over 90 years. Goenka, Zee’s 42-year-old managing director and chief executive officer (CEO), is sitting across from me on the other side of a large table, in his spacious office. We’re 6 hours into Goenka’s workday, the office end of which usually wraps up by around 7.30pm. After that, it’s “business over social activity”, meeting with colleagues or business interests over a drink, till 9pm. Then it’s home to the family: wife Shreyasi, an art patron and co-director of the Saat Saath Arts Foundation, and their daughter and two sons.

Zee Entertainment Enterprises is divided into six verticals: domestic broadcast, international broadcast, digital, movies, music and live events. In the days leading up to our meeting, though, it was the digital, or OTT (over the top), division, headed by younger brother Amit (also CEO, international broadcast business), which was on Goenka’s mind. A few days before I met Goenka, the network had launched Zee5, a part-free, part-subscription streaming platform which subsumed Zee’s earlier platforms, Ozee and
Ditto TV.

With a host of streaming options—Hotstar, Amazon Prime, ALTBalaji and Netflix are just a few—available to the Indian consumer, Zee5 has its work cut out. Goenka says they plan to release one new original series every month. Episodes of original series like The Story(Hindi) and Nanna Koochi (Telugu) are already available to stream; there’s also a series about drug trafficking by director Q, starring Naseeruddin Shah, in the pipeline. “I think maybe six months into the launch is the right time to take a call on whether original content (is working),” Goenka says, “once we have a critical mass of consumers”.

I ask if the content of the digital space might turn off some existing TV viewers of Zee who sign up. “What we cater to on TV is a slightly elder audience base,” Goenka says. “The TV audience will come to Zee5 to do catch-up if they’ve missed out on something.” Though he admits that the “ecosystem” of streaming TV is still being built in the country, he says he would be disappointed if OTT platforms didn’t contribute 10-12% of his total revenue numbers in the next three-five years.

Goenka grew up and studied in several towns and cities—Hisar in Haryana; Delhi; Sanawar in Himachal Pradesh; Mumbai—before being sent to Institut Le Rosey, a boarding school in Rolle, Switzerland. He wasn’t an avid sportsperson, but made it to the school rugby team (his weight worked to his advantage, he says). More importantly, he learnt how to ski, an activity which remains a passion even today. He was, he freely admits, an average student. Back in India, he dropped out after a year from the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics and started working.

“I was always clear from the beginning that I will be in the family business,” Goenka says. His father, Subhash Chandra, Rajya Sabha member and founder and chairman of Zee and the Essel Group, started Zee TV in 1992; it became the most popular TV channel in a newly liberalized India. But Goenka had to learn the ropes first, training within the Essel Group. His first assignment, in 1993, was selling amusement park packages for EsselWorld to schools in Virar, Mumbai. He was assistant to the head of Essel Packaging, the floor supervisor of a factory, and executive assistant to his father for six months. He was then sent to Zee Music Records—a business he soon shut down. “Zee would not do cash dealings,” he says. “Four years ago, we re-entered (the music business) and now we’re doing pretty well, because it’s all moved to digital.”

Goenka was put in charge of organizing funding for Agrani—a programme to launch the group’s own satellite. He helped launch Dish TV, working with his uncle, Jawahar Goel, for a year in Delhi, “living out of a suitcase”. He then came back to Mumbai and ran Zee Sports. In 2005, he was made business head of Zee TV; in time, he was running the content for the entire network. In 2008, he took over as CEO from Pradeep Guha.

The Hindi general entertainment channels (GEC) market in the 1990s and early 2000s was limited to a couple of big entities, which put a lot of pressure on new shows to succeed. When Goenka became content head, he realized they needed to diversify. “I still remember those days where Zee ratings used to fluctuate and the Zee stock price would fluctuate. It was that volatile. I decided to invest disproportionately in regional markets.”

He also created his own working style. His father and he, Goenka says, are “opposite”. “He’s a self-made entrepreneur. His urgency of doing things is different from mine.” Goenka remembers the early days, when he had to argue for time for his diversification efforts to come good. “(My father) can multitask like nobody else. But I bring in the focus on one thing, and get it right.”

One thing he got wrong was entering the movie business in 2008, once he took over as CEO of Zee Entertainment Enterprises (“It was my first big failure”). Within a year, they pulled out of Hindi film production, though they continued producing Marathi films. Over the last several years—coinciding with Marathi cinema’s rise as an art-house cinema leader—they have become unlikely tastemakers, producing critically lauded titles like Elizabeth Ekadashi (2014), Killa (2014) and Natsamrat (2016). In Sairat (2015), they achieved a rare double, a critical favourite and a smash hit.

Their slate for 2018 looks just as impressive: Ravi Jadhav’s Nude, and their first entry into international prestige cinema: Beyond The Clouds, by Iranian director Majid Majidi. They have also re-entered the Hindi movie arena, though they’re stepping more cautiously this time, trying to lead with script-driven, rather than star-centric, projects.

Goenka likes to remain involved with the details of what his network is putting on air or on the big screen. He still takes narrations for new shows or movies, and, whenever he finds time, he’ll watch an episode of a show currently airing and text the department head with feedback. He doesn’t get much time to watch for pleasure—mainly on flights or on the treadmill in the mornings. Game Of Thrones is too much of an investment, he says, but he unwinds with a comedy, anything from The Big Bang Theory to Friends. He avoids watching his Indian competitors. “When I do that, I end up confusing my core audience base with theirs. The Zee core audience base is middle India—the stories, the characters are far more real, they don’t live in palaces, they don’t wear chiffon saris.”

Goenka has a trip to Switzerland coming up, which he’s visibly excited about, because it will give him a chance to catch up on some skiing. “It’s a stress-buster for me,” he says. “It gives me time to think.” He had initially taken up skiing because it was the one sport he could do on his own. “You didn’t need a team. It would just be me, skiing alone.” Nowadays, he still skis alone when he travels abroad, though he says his daughter, 15, is approaching his skill level and joins him sometimes.

The next goal is to make Zee a more broad-based entertainment conglomerate. “In the next three years, we will be the largest media company in emerging markets and the largest media company in India,” he told Business Today in January 2017. He says he’s looking “aggressively” at the live entertainment space. “We haven’t succeeded so far because it’s a highly unorganized and fragmented market,” he says. “Now that the film business is back on track and the Zee5 launch is done, I’ll look at the live business and shape that.”

During our conversation, Goenka—who quit smoking cigarettes five months ago—puffs on a nifty-looking electronic tobacco device called IQOS, which heats tobacco instead of burning it (maker Philip Morris claims it reduces the risk of tobacco-related diseases compared with cigarettes). He is trying to be healthier, watch his diet. He hasn’t taken up a sport apart from skiing, but he works out on the treadmill as often as he can. He took up weight training for a while, then stopped. “I don’t like drastic changes,” he explains. He talks about becoming hands-off when it comes to certain parts of the business, then checks himself. “Well, not entirely hands-off.”livemint

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