A Tv Trailblazer Hears The Thundering Herd

A group of dancing men gyrate to loud thumping music, as several women in flamboyantly colored saris look on in admiration. They're actors, shooting a wedding scene in a Bombay bungalow for one of India's most popular serials, Our Wishes Will Come True. By the soap's standards, this scene is quite tame. The program's co-producer, Tony Singh, takes pride in breaking taboos of Indian television. He has dared to let the show's characters kiss--and that's just the beginning. "We deal with things like premarital sex and condoms," he says.

Such steamy stuff has helped Hindi-language Zee TV, the country's first satellite channel, transform Indian television. With the backing of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., three-year-old Zee has broken a government monopoly of the airwaves that had lasted four decades. Zee's success has inspired foreign and domestic rivals that are drawing up blueprints for satellite channels like Zee to beam into India's 15 million cable households. For instance, on Apr. 19, Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks and Philips' Polygram Records announced two new music channels for Asia, including one that targets India.

Besides coping with new competition, Zee faces tensions with News Corp. and is preparing for the possibility of life without Rupert. News Corp. bought 49.9% of Zee from its four private investors in 1993, two years after it was founded by Subash Chandra, the 45-year-old heir of a family-run trading company. Chandra would rather have avoided what he calls "a forced marriage" but didn't have the money to buy the shares himself. He did manage to keep Murdoch from getting his hands on Zee Telefilms, the producer of many of Zee TV's programs.

In many ways, the relationship has been a success. Zee, with $60 million in revenues, boasts better ratings than the English-language channels on Star TV, the satellite service Murdoch bought in 1993. Recently, the two created El TV, a slightly hipper version of Zee TV, and a movie channel. Andrew Carnegie, general manager for Star TV India, calls the alliance "very professional." Yet a former News Corp. executive says there is "a deep mistrust" between Zee and News Corp.

The companies do appear wary of each other. News Corp. last year bought half of United Television, India's largest TV producer, prompting speculation that it was procuring a library of Hindi programming in case it parted company with Zee. For his part, Chandra is in the market for satellite access of his own, should his relationship with Star fizzle. Sources say that Zee had secured two transponders on a satellite, but it was destroyed during launch last January. Zee is now shopping around for new satellite transponders.

Potential rivals are also looking for satellite space and foreign partners. Modi Enterprises, part of a large family-owned conglomerate, is Walt Disney Co.'s India merchandiser, making a venture between the two likely, analysts say. Britain's Pearson PLC group has tied up with the owners of the Hindustan Times, one of India's largest newspapers, to create TV ventures.

SATELLITE SHAKEOUT? Zee is already facing more competition from the government. In 1993, it started a second broadcast channel, DD Metro, which followed Zee's formula of flashier soaps, game shows, and films. It's getting roughly the same audience as Zee during prime time. Zee's chief virtue, says Sunil Karve, senior vice-president of market researcher Pathfinders India, is simple: "Zee has succeeded because it was the first."

Success will be much harder to come by for the new satellite channels. Advertisers don't think there is room for all of the 40 channels being proposed. Cable penetration may not get beyond 20 million, less than half of total TV households. Moreover, India is a country of single-TV households as well as one where several generations of a family often live under one roof. That means most channels will try to attract the same mass audience. There's little room for niche channels to target specific demographic audiences, says Ambika Srivastava, general manager of media services at Lintas India. "The Indian viewer is different," she says. "Here, we have a daughter who wants to be able to sit and watch with her mother and grandmother."

With his two new channels, Chandra is trying to preserve his TV franchise. But that isn't stopping him from leaping into new ventures. An expatriate who spends at least half of his time in Britain for tax reasons, Chandra in January bought TV Asia, a cable channel in Britain directed at Anglo-Indians. Also in January, he entered into a deal with Hughes Communications Inc. to create a mobile satellite phone system. Subash Chandra clearly has more in mind that providing Indians with sexier soap operas.