From partnerships with Li Kashing and Rupert Murdoch in the 1990s to now forming a joint venture with Sony Pictures, the pendulum has swung for Zee group’s Subhash Chandra – from a feted media baron to a satrap struggling for survival. But in the real life soap opera that played out in Zee’s boardrooms, the promoters managed to stay on to fight another day. Zee’s rise, fall and survival could make for a thrilling web series.
A native of Hisar in Haryana, Chandra had started out in the packaging business and amusement theme parks. In the early 1990s, he saw an opportunity to cater to an entertainment-starved population that only viewed State-run Doordarshan and entered into a partnership with global media conglomerate Star, then owned by Li Kashing, to launch Zee TV. It was a runaway success. Then when Murdoch acquired Star, the bet was Chandra would take Zee global. However, the relationship soured and in 1998, Chandra bought out Star’s stake in Zee. But over the next ten years, he took the company to over 200 countries, making Zee a household name across Hindi and Indian regional language speaking viewers. Riding on this success, Chandra ventured into new areas including road building, solar energy and other infrastructure sectors as India’s economy opened up.
The diversification proved to be Chandra’s undoing as the Essel group piled up debt. By 2018, lenders were chasing Chandra forcing him to put these assets on the block and sell most of his shares in Zee.
In 2019, under duress from the banks, Chandra’s son Punit Goenka initiated talks with global media companies to sell more stake in Zee Entertainment, though he did not want to give up control of the family’s crown jewel. Comcast, however, wanted full control. Goenka, who unlike his flamboyant dad keeps away from the spotlight, then went to Invesco Oppenheimer, which then held 8 per cent in Zee. Invesco agreed to buy an additional 11 per cent stake and let Goenka continue to run the company. But over time, the investor’s patience ran out, leading to the special meeting of shareholders to discuss Goenka’s removal along with the entire board of directors of Zee.
Twist in the plot
Goenka’s deal with Sony Pictures has been a masterstroke as it has not only mitigated the challenge from Invesco but allowed Goenka to prolong the Subhash Chandra family’s control over their business, despite just 3.9 per cent equity in the company,
This comes even as Chandra’s brother Jawahar Goel is also fighting a similar battle to stay in control of Dish TV. The coming weeks will reveal if Goel too can pull off a similar deal.