The Making of Star India: Vanita Kohli-Khandekar's book on Rupert Murdoch’s Indian TV foray is a must-read
Vanita Kohli-Khandekar’s The Making of Star India is a detailed treatise of the news baron Rupert Murdoch’s greatest adventure as well as the tale of India’s tryst with television
In a day and age where the audience is spoilt for choice in terms of viewing options, few would believe that once upon a time, there was only ‘one’ channel when it came to television. For those of us who remember the days when Doordarshan was synonymous with TV, the arrival of satellite channels was nothing short of revolutionary. Although for Indians, the ‘satellite revolution’ truly arrived with the launch of Zee TV, for nearly a year before that Star TV’s bouquet of shows such as Remington Steele, Tour of Duty and the soaps The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara had changed the definition of television.
Vanita Kohli-Khandekar’s The Making of Star India (Penguin Random House, Rs 699) is a detailed treatise of the news baron Rupert Murdoch’s greatest adventure as well as the tale of India’s tryst with television. In many ways, The Making of Star India also chronicles the story of a billion people who, post-1991 economic reforms, were poised to become the world’s biggest consumers.
The early 1990s, the time when Murdoch’s News Corporation paid more than $800 million to buy Star TV from the Hong Kong-based billionaire Richard Li, was far from rosy for the Australian-born media mogul. News Corp faced near bankruptcy towards the end of 1990, and this was also a period when the company ran up a debt of nearly $7.6 billion. Murdoch had to sell $700 million worth of stock in the company to appease the banks, which brought down his family holding from 43 percent to 35 percent. The jury was divided about News Corp’s fate, and while some believed that a visionary media baron like Murdoch might be able to turn the tide, most were of the opinion that the company was in a financial hole it couldn’t escape. Had it not been for the two unlikely successes of Twentieth Century Fox, a company owned by News Corp — Home Alone and The Simpsons — the going would have been tougher.
Although Kohli-Kandekar’s book does not cover Murdoch or News Corps’s backstory, to read it in the light of that knowledge makes the experience more fulfilling. The reason Murdoch’s decision to buy Star TV became a globally discussed event was, of course, because anything that Murdoch did was big, but more importantly, it doubly confirmed the market’s speculation that News Corp. could be using the investment spree as a foil to hide operating losses. As a media specialist who has tracked the Indian entertainment business for a long time, Kohli-Khandekar captures the mood of that time perfectly.
Reading The Making of Star TV emphasises that the oft-repeated idiom — ‘timing is everything’ — is not only true, but also the one factor that could make all the difference. How we know Star TV today is a result of a handful of decisions, primarily Murdoch’s, that changed the course of television in India. It was Murdoch who asked the producers of Kaun Banega Crorepati to make the prize money a crore instead of a lakh, as originally planned. He also instructed them to make the show an hour daily instead of the half-hour weekly. At a time when Star TV and Zee were going through a patchy phase that eventually led to their parting ways, the then Star TV CEO Rathikath Basu was in the throes of planning a news channel and spoke to Murdoch for his approval. Basu needed a sum of $50 million for five years to collaborate with NDTV to launch Star News that would become India’s first private news channel. All Murdoch told him was that he didn’t need to speak to him for that kind of amount.
Right from its dicey beginning where the ‘foreign’ brand behind Star TV made it difficult to get clearances, to infusing local flavour into a global brand with the launch of Channel [V], India’s first indigenous music channel after MTV departed, The Making of Star India reads like a fluid thriller and packs in much information about the battle for the air-waves and a market that lay untapped for years. The part where Kohli-Khandekar charts out the journey of DTH in India (both Star TV and Rupert Murdoch bet heavily on the technology in the 1990s and had to suffer losses due to the policy paralysis) brings out how broadcasting rules in India were fiddled around with for so long.
Thanks to her ringside seat as a journalist covering media, Kohli-Khandekar’s account has many personal anecdotes about the much-discussed movers and shakers of the early television explosion such as Rathikanth Base, Shashanka Ghosh, Peter Mukherjea and Sameer Nair. She also throws light on how Star TV shed its foreigner tag and transformed into a global superpower with revenues of over $2 billion. Reading Kohli-Khandekar’s book in the aftermath of HBO’s Succession, a show about the battle between an ageing patriarch and his children to gain control over the family-owned international media conglomerate, which is allegedly inspired by the Murdochs, also added to the intrigue of the portions concerning James and Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s sons, in the book. Covering the time when it was just another contender to Star TV’s runaway success being discussed in the News Corp boardrooms in the US, The Making of Star India is a must-read.
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