Can Murdoch's Star Keep Rising in India?

A laggard for years, Star Plus has 36 of the top 50 TV shows

The Virani family is all aflutter. Son Mihir has reappeared after an absence during which he nearly died. Suffering from amnesia, he has no recollection of his family. Nor can he recall falling in love with the beautiful doctor who nursed him back to health and recently announced she is having his child. Meanwhile, Mihir's wife, Tulsi--the ideal Indian daughter-in-law--is also pregnant by her resurrected husband.

An improbable plot. A bout of amnesia. A love triangle. It's classic soap opera. Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi ('Every Mother-in-law Was Once a Daughter-in-law") is currently the most popular TV show in India, seen by an estimated 20 million viewers every week. The surprise is not that Kyunki is a hit--after all, it deftly mines the disquiet Indian families feel as they confront the globalization of their culture. The real shock is that the show appears not on Zee TV or Sony TV but on Star Plus, the once ailing channel owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (NWS ) Star Plus, the flagship Indian channel of Murdoch's Star TV network in Asia, has lagged for years. Now, it boasts 36 of the top 50 shows in the country. "India is going through a sea change, part old world, part new world," says Anil Wanvari, founder of Bombay-based industry tracker Indiantelevision.com. "Star's programs have hit a chord."

HINDI REVERSAL. It's a remarkable reversal of misfortune. Just 14 months ago, almost nobody watched Star. The problem: not enough Hindi programming. Under a partnership pact set up in the 1990s with Zee, Star had agreed not to broadcast more than half of its shows in Hindi. As a result, its ratings stayed low while Zee's soared. So last year, Murdoch sold the 50% stake in Zee back to its founder, Subhash Chandra, for $300 million. That opened the way for Star's first hit, a Hindi version of the game show that swept America, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Ratings soared, and advertisers bought air time at four times the going rate. To ensure that Star Plus wouldn't be a one-show wonder, Star's India team built a steady diet of soaps around the time slot of Millionaire. And Star's digital technology and slick, Western-style programming left its rivals looking dowdy. Parent Star India Ltd. now expects to turn a profit for the fiscal year ending next June. "There's something about Star Plus," says one admiring ad executive. "It has gloss, glam, and razzmatazz."

All that glam has the competition on the offensive. Archrival Zee is launching 24 new programs, including game shows and soaps shot in the exotic locales Indians love. Viewer response has yet to be assessed, and top advertisers, such as confectioner Britannia, haven't deserted Star. Still, Sandeep Goyal, Zee's CEO, confidently claims: "We'll have Star on the run. In six months, we'll top them." For its part, Sony has four new offerings in the pipeline, including India's first reality show and talent contests. Even state-owned Doordarshan is planning a matchmaking show anchored by a megastar.

Star is working hard to hold on to its lead. It has a dozen new shows in the works and is lobbying for legislation that will allow direct-to-home TV in India, giving Star the chance to boost its profits. In August, it bought 50% of Madras-based Vijay TV, which could give Star a hold in the lucrative south.

Star hasn't won the war, however. Critics say its high advertising rates will be hard to sustain, now that the novelty of Millionaire and the daily soaps is wearing off. Apart from its Hindi movie and two sports channels, Star's other five channels carry mostly recycled Western fare. Besides, Zee's Chandra is looking to sell 50% of his company, and Bombay bankers say AOL Time Warner, Viacom, and Vivendi Universal have all expressed interest. Murdoch & Co. will need to keep Indian viewers glued to their screens.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay

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