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From Zee to Meta — Subhash Chandra’s new universe

Even as Subhash Chandra puts out fires created by mutinous creditors wanting repayment of thousands of crores of debt, he is already thinking of his next empire. India’s first media baron may be set to lose control over Zee Entertainment Enterprises, after helming it for 30 years, yet he is not sad. “I made a mistake, I have to accept it, and if I have some mettle in me, I will be able to do it again. There is no dearth of opportunities in this country and at this stage of my life, I am not in it for the money. My motivation is to create something new,” says Chandra.

The next big bet
The industrialist has set his eyes on the Web 3.0 revolution, specifically metaverse, to script his comeback story. But Chandra calls it “Mayaverse” — a testament to his ability to devise entertainment concepts that cater to the masses. From pioneering 24-hour regional entertainment, an OTT offering for the tier 2 and tier 3 markets, Chandra plans to set up movie theatres equipped with virtual reality headsets all over the country, and to bring immersive movie viewing experience to the everyday consumer.

Chandra is very clear that he wants to venture into the media business again, with a particular focus on new technology, thus reinventing himself for the second time. In his media interactions, Chandra has laid out four key areas that he will focus on — Zee Digital, which is Zee group’s digital publishing arm, Metaverse, his international news channel WION, and lastly Zee Learn.

In many ways, Chandra has been a pioneer in the Indian entertainment space, where the risks he took paid off big time. The then rice merchant, Chandra launched India’s first satellite entertainment channel in 1992, betting big on the growth of TV. With a $5 million payout, Chandra outbid established media houses in the ’90s to launch India’s first private satellite channel. Zee became a 24-hour entertainment channel within a year of its launch and remained the market leader up to the 2000s even when other channels had been launched in the interim.

A nascent space
Now, again, Chandra is early in identifying the business potential in the metaverse — his ideas range from immersive cinema viewing to mentoring young entrepreneurs to develop new use cases.

But unlike satellite television, which was a technology that was around since the 60s, the metaverse is still in its infancy. “What Metaverse or Web 3.0 is right now, is what the Internet was in the early ’90s,” Jehil Thakkar, Partner at Deloitte India, explains.

Thakkar believes that although the use cases may show promise now, it’s hard to predict success or failure. As was the case with the dot com bubble; entire business models will be quashed at the precipice of innovation before viable use cases emerge decades later.

Also, it may be too early to use metaverse in media and entertainment at scale, “Not only is it a matter of building out software and the whole ecosystem, you also have to think of the cost of building whole venues and hardware at low cost to really offer these services at scale and capture the market. While metaverse is the buzzword, how much of a scale opportunity it is, how profitable it will be is yet to be seen,” says Thakkar.

Digital publishing
Chandra’s success in the digital publishing space could also prove to be challenging. Chandra has big ambitions in Zee Digital, which he thinks could give him capitalisation, valuation and growth. Chandra plans to grow his 300 million unique user base on Zee Digital to a billion in the next two to three years, earning through data monetisation.

However, digital publishing is becoming crowded “The buzz in this market has come down from a funding perspective,” said an industry veteran. “Execution will remain key here for companies to be able to grow and monetise in this space. One core market that still remains untapped here is the digital publishing of regional content. Chandra’s experience here could prove to be advantageous,” says the expert.

“Chandra has built a media business that caters to Bharat and he can build future products that cater to the masses as well. Chandra will bring his experience building a successful business for Indian consumers (especially Bharat) and he understands the consumer psyche well,” says Anuj Kapoor, Assistant Professor of Marketing at IIM Ahmedabad.

Industry watchers agree that Chandra is on the right track as he jumps onto the future technology train, however, being the first mover will not be enough to pave the path to success. “You live in a time where funding is more accessible and established entrepreneurs cannot even predict where the next innovation comes from. Now revolutions in the product come from the most unobtrusive and unassuming players. Chandra will have to change his thought process entirely,” says Sanchit Vir Gogia, Chief Analyst and Founder of Greyhound Research.

“Moreover Essel must be ready for investment cycles that are decades-long and change their thought process around how quick these innovation cycles need to be. It is important to recruit people that have a substantial understanding of technology,” said Gogia.

But experts acquiesce that Chandra’s vision has potential. By setting up WION, India’s first international news channel, Chandra’s business is crossing borders into developed markets where monetisation is easier and ad cents are plentiful.

Emerging from the pandemic, Chandra’s brick and mortar education company Zee Learn is also likely to grow. “Markets such as K-12, international K-12 and pre-school have immense growth potential in India, any player in this space is likely to see significant growth as a result,” says Dr Avantika Tomar, Associate Partner at EY-Parthenon.

“Chandra has had a long-standing relationship with VCs such as Blackstone which bolsters his fundraising potential. Chandra understands regional content, he understands distribution. With all of this, he certainly has the potential to remake himself successfully, it all boils down to how he executes it,” Gogia concludes. The Hindu BusinessLine

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