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There were no plain women in Star TV: Peter Mukerjea

In this excerpt from his memoir 'Star Struck', the TV executive explains his hiring strategy in the early years of setting up Star TV

Peter Mukerjea
Peter Mukerjea (Westland Books)

I wanted Star TV to be seen as the employer of choice in the media industry, at least in India, despite the grief that we were getting from the press, who continued to try and run us out of town at every opportunity. We were, though, simultaneously beginning to become a respected brand in the eyes of our employees, and I believed this was crucial, as it was then only a matter of time before that feeling percolated across to others in the industry, and that would help us immensely with the long-term task of building the Star TV brand in India. As market pioneers, we needed to occupy and retain that position across all fronts—content, ethics, corporate governance, staff welfare.

In the mid ’90s, I frequently visited Bengaluru, also known as India’s Silicon Valley, which was growing rapidly. We needed to have a presence in the city and build a business that could leverage this expanding market. Raj Kamath was our local manager in the city, an obliging chap, and, funnily enough, a spitting image of the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. The poor fellow had initially worked out of his home, until his missus got sick of him, then out of a neighbour’s garage until they got sick of him, then a business centre, and was now insisting that I come to Bengaluru to approve an office space he found appropriate. I sensed that if I did not move quickly, there was a real danger that I would lose Raj, which would have been a shame as he was a bright lad with tremendous passion for his work. He seemed to be tired of the onephone-one-desk mode of operations, and the appeal of working in a start-up was wearing thin. He was also, I’m sure, under pressure from his family, friends and ex-colleagues, and of course his clients, who would no doubt have been needling him about the ‘goofy’, sweat-shop-style company that couldn’t even provide him with an office out of which to work. Maybe not much these days in the Covid-19 era, but back then such things as offices mattered. We could claim that we were first off the block in starting the work-from-home culture, but that would be pushing it. Raj needed to feel and show that he was part of a global media company and not some tin pot operation.

Also, in a large global media company, it was important to be seen to be part of the broader enterprise and not something that had been set up as an afterthought, something temporary that could be easily discarded. Optically, it helped to appear rooted rather than be thought of as a fly-by-night operation. Besides, Raj couldn’t hire more staff as he had nowhere for them to work. Advertisers too are often seduced by the safety and appeal of working with substantial brands so that their own brands benefit from the association. So when we met clients and ad agencies, we needed to convey that we were part of the future of Indian media. Everything we did therefore had to have ‘future proofing’ written all over it, and we needed to do it with speed and integrity.

Raj had found us a small but terrific office on the top floor of a smart building in the business district, and I signed off on it in the proverbial jiffy. Now we needed to staff it. Raj had lined up a handful of young, bright, cheerful potential executives whom I was scheduled to meet. My brief was very clear. We needed to get young people straight out of college, or even school. We didn’t want MBAs, who seemed to have a chip on their shoulder and believed that they could change the world in an instant. We did hire a couple of MBA-laden executives elsewhere in the company for very specific business development jobs, but true to their track record and reputation—and their inability to work in an intensely dynamic business like ours—they soon left, as they couldn’t deal with the ‘work for performance’ culture. Our work culture was clear, and everyone understood that, top to bottom: efforts don’t count, results do.

Star Struck: Confessions of a TV Executive by Peter Mukerjea, published by Westland Books, 296 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
Star Struck: Confessions of a TV Executive by Peter Mukerjea, published by Westland Books, 296 pages, 699

I made it a point to hire young people, the younger the better, because they would be less resistant to change. We prided ourselves for having some of the most courageous people in the media business in India, and many of them were women who have since moved on to take up senior leadership roles in companies around the world, a testament, I think, to our hiring philosophy as well as the individual’s own conviction and confidence in themselves to take on the world and very often their families too. It wasn’t easy convincing them to join us as they had some really good options available to them—banks, FMCGs, reputable advertising agencies—and we had to give them our rationale as to why there was a great career path ahead of them if they were to join us instead. Often, I found myself having to talk to their parents to convince them too, that their offspring in whom they had invested such vast sums of money to get educated had now chosen to join a two-bit media company.

Another advantage of hiring people straight out of college was that we wouldn’t have to waste time undoing earlier bad habits or corporate cultures. We could mould them into our work culture very quickly. We had some basic rules. They had to be single, so they could be dedicated to work and not have to keep running home to the other half and family. They had to be articulate, educated in good schools and should either have been top of the class academically or at sport. Why sport, I was often asked. Sport to me is a great equaliser, as one has to play by the rules or sit it out. And athletes learn early to be competitive but also to handle both defeat and victory.

Having set these basic criteria, I thought it ought to be simple, but the opposite was true. Everyone who fit the bill was nervous about joining TV, as we had been painted to be more like pirates than naval captains. Parents, who have a big role in the career choices of their offspring, thought of Star TV as a company of entertainers and not a serious career choice, which dissuaded lots of good people. It was, sadly, as much their loss as ours.

As Anna Ford, a well-known face and name on British TV for a number of years, once said, ‘Let’s face it, there are no plain women on TV.’ It was a stated mission, then, to adopt the same thinking. There were no plain women in Star TV either. Not one. All strong women with guts and daring.

The broadcast media business and satellite television were in their infancy in India at that time and, as the industry expanded, these very people that we were hiring would be the ones who would have to be at the forefront of change. There were simply far too many households in the country, most of them still to have their own TV, for the business not to grow, and we at Star TV had to make the most of this opportunity. How fast that change would take place depended on several factors: government policy, income levels, compelling content, language, pricing and technology, among others. We could influence virtually all aspects of these changes. With its changing landscape and deeper penetration of TV homes, the move from analogue to digital was all part of the vision and we were, almost unknowingly, pressing the buttons of this change every day with the decisions we were taking. My brief to the teams hiring people in other cities—Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai—was exactly the same.

Excerpted from Star Struck: Confessions of a TV Executive by Peter Mukherjea, published by Westland Books.

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