Subhash Chandra | Former chairman of Essel Group | Money lost: $3.4 billion | Net worth as of December 2019: $660 million (Image: Reuters)
In 1992, Subhash Chandra gave Indian audiences one more source of entertainment via the launch of India’s first Hindi satellite channel in the general entertainment category (GEC) — Zee Television.
Till then, there was only the government-owned Doordarshan. In Zee TV, the country had its first privately-owned channel.
And Zee gave its viewers shows like Hum Paanch, Khaana Khazana, Rishtey, Amanat, Hip Hip Hurray, among others, names that make anyone nostalgic.
Zee - Chandra's biggest bet
The media company was a tough bargain for Chandra. He could only seal the deal by paying five times more to lease a transponder on satellite AsiaSat1, which was owned by Hutchison Whampoa Limited (HWL), a multinational conglomerate known for innovation and technology founded by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing.
Richard Li, son of Li Ka-shing, had first dismissed Chandra's proposal and raised the price from USD 1.25 million to USD 5 million to lease the transponder on his satellite AsiaSat1, which was the only satellite broadcasting into India and China at that time.
What looked like the biggest and an expensive risk at that time for a rice trader, who had to its name only a packaging unit and an amusement park, soon turned out to be a successful venture.
After all, Zee has a strong portfolio of assets, including 37 channels across five categories in India, and 39 international channels. Besides their India reach, they reach about half a billion people in 170 countries.
It was Chandra’s risk-taking appetite and entrepreneurship that turned India as an important television market when no one had much faith in the country. Even Richard Li had rejected Chandra's proposal, saying there was no money in India.
But Chandra proved many assumptions wrong and built a television network that came up with innovative programming, who can forget India’s first cooking show—Khaana Khazana — or musical game show Antakshari.
With Zee, he broke language barriers with regional content and set up one of the most robust international operations amid Hindi GECs, a fact admitted by heads of some of his rival firms.
But then something went wrong.
Why Chandra lost control in Zee?
While the business fundamentals of Zee still remain strong, it is the financial instability of the promoter company Essel Group that is creating problems for the media company.
To fund road and renewable energy projects, Chandra’s investment companies had borrowed heavily from mutual funds and non-bank firms. And for this, shares of Zee were pledged.
Things took a turn for the worse when Chandra's family could not repay the loan and lenders threatened to offload pledged shares.
In January 2019, the total loan of the Essel Group against shares and other securities was around Rs 13,500 crore. And to reduce this debt promoter of the Essel Group (Chandra's family) started selling assets to meet debt obligations and Zee was one such asset.
In July, the Essel Group had decided to sell its 11 percent stake in ZEEL to a financial investor — Invesco Oppenheimer. Last week, the promoters announced further dilution of their stake in Zee by announcing to sell 16.5 percent stake in the media firm.
While the total loan of the Essel Group came down to Rs 7,000 crore sometime in October due to sale of assets, including Zee, Chandra has lost control over the media company.
From 41 percent a year ago, Chandra family's stake in Zee now has come down to five percent.
No more the head, but Chandra remains the heart of Zee
It’s been 27 years since Chandra gave Zee to India or rather satellite television to Indians.
But now things remain uncertain with Zee and its leadership. It was on November 25 when Chandra decided to resign as ZEEL’s Chairman owing to changes in shareholding in the media company.
Although Chandra’s decision does not come as a surprise as promoter stake in Zee has been reducing, it is a disappointment to know that Chandra who is known as father of the Indian television business would not be at the helm of a company that gave India its many firsts from new channels to new shows to new talent.
From India’s first leisure park EsselWorld to first electronic lottery company Playwin, Chandra dabbled with many businesses but one thing is sure he really wanted Indians to have fun.