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King Of The Southern Skies

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Four years ago, when a US- returned management graduate began a private Tamil channel, no one could foresee where the 28-year-olds ambitions would take him. Today, at 32, Kalanidhi Maran, managing director of Sun TV, already appears halfway towards achieving his dream of becoming a communications tycoon. He has a network of five channels Sun in Tamil, Udaya in Kannada, Gemini in Telugu besides Sun Music and Sun Movies. And now comes the latest offering, Surya, to be launched as an Onam gift to Keralites in August.

But perhaps Marans biggest achievement is that just a year-and-a-half after its launch, Sun started raking in profits, possibly the fastest takeoff in a television channels history. Today, besides Subhash Chandra Goels Zee, Sun is the only profitable Indian private channel in the country with a turnover of Rs 35 crore. And if its owner is to be believed, Suns ad revenue is going up by 30 per cent this year. And unlike Zee not all this is due to the entertainment onslaught. Neither is it due to the fact that Maran is the son of union industry minister, Murasoli Maran, a connection he understandably downplays. It is a clever mix of programming, reasonable ad rates, efficient operations and mega promotions which have enhanced Suns aura.

Lighting a cigarette from his Benson & Hedges 100s pack, Maran says proudly, Im perhaps the only one making money out of even Our ratings are at times higher than a Rajnikant movie. Launched last year during the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Sun became an instant hit. Says Lalita Venkatswamy, a die-hard Sun fan in Mumbai, Sun contributed in large measure to the DMK victory in the Tamil Nadu elections. With its blatant anti-Jayalalitha propaganda, it had sort of become a mouthpiece for the DMK party.

If Sun caught on much earlier, it consolidated its position during the elections. Today, Sun News averages TRP ratings of 50 points. At Rs 10,000, it is also the most expensive programme on Sun.

Girish Menon, media supervisor, Hindustan Thompson Associates, Chennai, endorses this. As per the cable and satellite ratings on his computer, Suns news ratings for April-end were 30-40, a fairly high TRP. Even though there are a lot of Tamil channels like Vijaya and NEPC fragmenting the market, there is no denying that Sun attracts a whopping number of ads. Undoubtedly, Sun gets a lot of ads even though its rates are competitive, he says.

According to Divya Radhakrishnan, media director, Zen Communications, one reason for Suns success is its reasonably priced ad rates. Depending on the programme, a 10-second spot during prime time varies between Rs 6,000 and Rs 10,000. A similar slot on the Ramoji Rao-backed Telugu channel Eenadu TV costs Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000, while Zee charges Rs 60,000-96,000 for a 10-seconder. The prices help as Sun has a large viewer universe, not just in India but Tamilians in Singapore, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Besides, unlike other channels, Sun never misses your ad spots, she says.

But will Marans Malayalam channel be as profitable as its Tamil counterpart? After all, the only existing competitor Asianet, which entered the market years ago, is still struggling. Although Asianet does carry advertisements, media planners explain that it has only few clients and the ads are at a throwaway price. Maran has no doubts on the matter though. He has a package deal worked out on the lines of a strategy popularised by publication houses. I am offering a bouquet deal to my advertisers they can put in an ad and see it on Sun, Surya, Udaya and Gemini, he says.

Once Surya becomes a profitable venture, Maran proposes to invade the north with a Hindi channel. You cannot stop me, he asserts. As if thats not enough, he has plans to enter DTH operations. I dont want to be a broadcaster alone. I also want to be in the operations sector. In fact, my aim is to have a communications empire, he says unabashedly.

Sitting in his plush office in the Anna Arivalyam building, incidentally the DMK headquarters in Chennais Mount Road, Maran outlines some of his strategies. Like a canny general he doesnt reveal all the cards he holds though. For instance, he is shy of revealing the investments he is making in all these new projects. I am putting in Rs 5 crore on the Malayalam channel, is all he offers.

Right now the priority is to get Surya off the ground. As yet Maran hasnt been allotted satellite space by VSNL for his Malayalam venture. But that, according to him, is a mere formality. He is confident of pushing aside Asianet, a key Malayalam channel.

Look at my advantages, he points out persuasively. Where news is concerned, I already have bureaus all over the country. Since these will supply to four channels, my overheads will be low. I have the largest film library in the country with 2,800 movies. And, I am the only one making south Indian serials which can be dubbed in any of the regional language, he boasts.

He then gives the example of the Telugu channel he acquired a controlling stake in eight months ago. Within six months of taking over Gemini, we have climbed from a rating of 13 points to 66 points, just three short of the leaders Eenadu TV, he says. Meanwhile Asianet is gearing up for competition. Already it has beefed up its news. Says Prem Menon, vice-president Asianet, We have developed the market and are not scared of competition.

Once Surya reaches its target, Maran has plans for a Hindi channel by early next year. I have three options for Hindi start a channel, join one or buy one, he says. Has he already begun talks? Perhaps yes, he says. His lips are sealed on that score.

DTH is another big dream. Im just waiting for the hardware costs to come down. As of now, it will cost Rs 26,000 per unit to be installed which is too steep. The costs are expected to come down to Rs 10,000 or so, he says. Here, the imminent broadcast bill is proving to be a thorn in Marans rosy dreams. Im fighting against some of the clauses. The bill talks of restricting networking. I am the only one with a network right now. Besides, the bill also disallows cross media ventures, restraining a broadcaster from becoming an operator.

An ace marketer, he isnt one to let go of any business opportunity. For instance, when Discovery was entering the country, Maran was the first to talk to them. I wanted to offer a three-in-one package deal of Sun Music, Sun Movies and Discovery to my viewers as pay channels, but obviously it didnt work out, he says.

And he is already turning one aspect of the proposed bill to his advantage. As it is mandatory for foreign companies to enter into tie-ups with Indian players, Maran claims to have initiated talks with several foreign channels. In fact, the boot is on the other foot, they are chasing me, he claims with a dash of arrogance.

Regional channel though his may be, Maran has constantly got an eye on his hardware quality. I visit all the exhibitions in town, he claims. So Sun is the only channel to go fully digital, which it did two months ago. The technology thrust stems from the fact that Maran is pushing Sun heavily in the global arena. Sun is already beamed in Sri Lanka, in Singapore through Cablevision and in Malaysia through Mesat. By the month end, European countries will be able to access the Tamil channel on Radio Asia, which will beam six hours of programming. Sun is already available in the US via Asian Television Network.

Of course there have been minor hiccups on the way. For instance, the internet page which Sun launched with aggressive marketing and fanfare has already folded up. It was difficult since we dont have a hotline with VSNL, Maran admits.

Is Maran biting off more than he can chew? Should he guard his existing turf or march onwards? Time alone can provide the answer.

You cannot stop me...I dont want to be a broadcaster alone. I also want to be in the operations sector. In fact, my aim is to have a communications empire. Kalanidhi Maran, managing director of Sun TV.

First Published: Wed, June 11 1997. 00:00 IST