Tarun Katial, the CEO of ZEE5 India, is a leader for all seasons. The capacity at which he has held responsibilities across several media – including radio, advertising, television and OTT industries (Big FM, Star Network, Sony Entertainment to name a few) – have proved his ability to adapt, foresee the potential of markets, handle crises with composure and lead by example. With several global honours and awards validating his stature, his 23-year journey in the media space has been nothing short of monumental. LetsOTT.com takes the pleasure of conversing with this business icon…
How does it feel like to lead a streaming platform business in this hour? Has the very nature of the business (digital) been an advantage?
That’s the advantage of running a digital medium, it’s just that you don’t have the physical touch with people. For instance, many leaders and companies are getting accustomed to technologies like Zoom for hosting meetings now, but we (ZEE5) have been working with it for the last two years. Every single executive of ZEE5 is accustomed to Zoom. We have been ahead of the curve, literally, because we work with development partners across Israel, Ukraine, Poland (to name a few) that makes it important for us to stay connected (with/without lockdown). Zoom has been a very integral part of our daily lives for a while. It really helped us adjust to this work atmosphere rather quickly. Most of our work happens on the cloud. Cloud computing and cloud infrastructure is the way we work – the physical workspace was more for collaboration, brainstorming.
Has this been your biggest challenge as a leader? A crisis (health) of this magnitude isn’t something that any business is prepared to handle!
Throughout my career, I have had many challenges. I have seen the 2008 economic slowdown and various ups and downs over the years. However, the nature of this challenge has been unique, but it also presents a unique opportunity to digitally transform your organisation to be able to provide entertainment for users. It gives us a chance to add purpose and value to their lives. The significance of online-on-demand entertainment in this scenario has become so huge that it has pushed us to provide users something meaningful, keep them in a good mental framework – which is truly the need of the hour. Diversity in content, collaborative experience (family viewing) and having a means of engagement is invaluable at a time when we can’t step out of the confines of our homes.
How difficult is it to keep your team motivated at this hour? Has productivity been an issue?
I think our team has adapted to the work-from-home reality well. Our HR team and us meet them at a private channel called Hello Zee. We have department-wise conversations with senior leaders to understand how our team is dealing with the situation. We do meditation and yoga together and a host of other activities to keep ourselves motivated. To be honest, our productivity as a team has enhanced in this phase – it has got to do a lot with our understanding of the collaborative tools, our ability to adapt, use cloud.
You had once mentioned that ZEE5 functions like a startup. Has it got to do more with the work atmosphere?
Precisely! We like to stay in the startup mode, basically in bringing the energy, passion and commitment to our work. It helps us be dynamic and youthful in the way we think and be agile – we must take note of these aspects when we behave and operate like a startup.
ZEE5’s biggest advantage has been the aggression with which it has produced originals across multiple languages. Are you enjoying the fruits of your vast library and focus on regional language content now?
Hindi and the many regional languages have been our focus from the very beginning. We truly believe that India lives in its languages – a reason why the UI of the application too is available in almost 14 Indian languages (probably more than what could Google provide) in addition to voice search, helping users discover content with ease. Today, when India needs abundant video entertainment that resonates with them, the diversity is of great value indeed.
Cutting down on data consumption and reducing the burden on the cloud servers are topics of paramount significance for OTT platforms now (which ZEE5 has handled with poise). How serious is this issue and what’s the way forward?
The building of fiber infrastructure will be the key. I think we’re all realising the need for it now. Yes, we’re supporting the efforts of the government so that our content takes lesser bandwidth. Not only are we reducing the top bitrates, but we’re also bringing more technology in transporting and importing our content and making it more adaptive, changing video pipelines to be able to support in these unusual times. We’ve realised that work-from-home and bandwidth sharing/usage from home are going to be a long term reality. There’s a tectonic shift that has happened – it’s almost irreversible.
There has been increased interest about the acquisition of films that were set for a theatrical release and are now opting for a direct-to-OTT option. Are many proposals coming your way? Is pricing the real issue?
Many such opportunities have come our way and we’re evaluating the propositions. There is a great chance to partner with content creators and give a platform for stories. The pricing remains an issue and it’s an outcome of many factors – precisely quality, the supply-demand ratio and the ability to negotiate it in terms of the library we have. We have also had independent creators who’ve come up with proposals about the content they could create within four walls. We’re excited to show it to the audiences.
ZEE5’s collaboration with AltBalaji took many of your industry counterparts off-guard in the previous year. It has been a rare instance of two top brands uniting for a common purpose…
The collaboration with AltBalaji has been very fruitful, especially the association with Ekta (Kapoor). They’ve built a good set of brands and a library that has given more exposure to our content. Some of the shows have done exceedingly well in terms of the viewership – Cold Lassi Aur Chicken Masala, Mission Over Mars, Mentalhood (to name a few) have been great with the quality and have appealed to our users very well. Gandi Baat has also been a success story. The combined audience for both brands (ours and AltBalaji) is a definite positive.
What are the advantages of running an OTT platform backed by a satellite channel, especially when it’s a brand as big as ZEE?
The most obvious advantage is that you have access to a library, the live products from the network – 14 languages with movies and general entertainment content that drops in every day. It’s a priceless add-on while working with a satellite, it ensures greater affinity with users, characters, storylines.
Don’t you feel that the increased dependence on a satellite platform for the acquisition of movies could be a limitation too?
It’s not always a limitation. We acquire the movies for the satellite and the application together. The overlaps work to our advantage while we also independently acquire movies for the digital space. We’re very mindful of the user, his/her profile, their tastes.
Your stint at ZEE5 since 2016 has coincided with the immense growth of the OTT market in the country. Did you foresee this enthusiasm for OTT content?
I’ve been lucky with my career decisions. I’ve always made shifts to newer media at the right time. I like to experiment, that’s probably my inherent quality. Moving from advertising, satellite channels to a private FM and now the digital streaming space has been a great learning curve. The post-Jio era with the proliferation of data and 4G among Indians gave me the confidence and the vision that a digital service would be the best way to utilise such an opportunity. I am really thankful to have been a part of this (ZEE5) team.
Will it be a challenge to add content to your library in the coming months?
We have a good amount of content planned for the users for the coming 2-3 months. But, of course, it will take a longer duration to usher in normalcy and producing content in the future.
Do you think the theatrical experience would become a thing of past?
Just because I work for an OTT platform, I wouldn’t want the theatres to suffer (laughs). Every business has its importance and every form of entertainment has a role to play in the world. I do hope that we recover quickly from this phase and see the revival of the theatrical experience.
Tell us about a few promising viewing trends on ZEE5 that have managed to put a smile on your face…
People are consuming content through the day and not only in the prime-time hours. Premium content consumption has gone up significantly, subscription renewal rates have been much higher. A lot of content on the platform is moving towards television too, a trend that I’m happy about.
How do you see ZEE5 and other similar businesses going about their work in the immediate future?
I believe artificial intelligence will have a lot of say in the functioning of (our) a company. Machine learning, automation would become an integral part of our lives. Our (ZEE5) efforts are directed towards creating better user experience with lesser bandwidth and the commitment to keep users engaged with our in-flow of content will be high. It’s a challenge to be futuristic, you need to keep looking at the consumer, the trends, their needs, creating new cases.