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Tarun Katial | On the binge

How do you run a start-up within a legacy media company? With his experience at some of the biggest entertainment media brands in the country, the CEO is steering ZEE5 with his trademark zeal for technology

Tarun Katial, Zee5 CEO
Tarun Katial, Zee5 CEO

It was an unusual address for a large legacy entertainment company. After navigating the narrow, crowded by-lanes of Marol in Mumbai’s Andheri area, my Uber driver, who had almost given up midway—convinced I was heading to the wrong place—dropped me at the entrance of a WeWork office building.

I wondered why India’s largest broadcast company, the Zee group, would work out of a co-working space. Though it’s not uncommon for big companies to operate out of shared office spaces to save real-estate costs, for ZEE5, the digital streaming content platform from the Zee group, moving to WeWork held more meaning than just saving money.

“It’s a huge mindset shift," says Tarun Katial, the man responsible for steering the 28-year-old Zee group into India’s growing subscription-based, video-on-demand or over-the-top (OTT) market where global giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are already locked in a fierce battle.

Dressed in a casual shirt and a pair of jeans, Katial, 45, greets me in a tiny “device room" where he is busy monitoring several electronic items, from large TV sets to smartphones, checking the picture and sound qualities of ZEE5’s content on each type of screen. Over the course of our conversation, it becomes evident that Katial is as comfortable talking about technology as his favourite series on various streaming sites. To begin with, however, he dives straight into explaining how technology remains a key component in the whole OTT game, and why the company likes functioning out of a co-working space.

“We call ourselves a start-up. We have taken away the frills of south Bombay, and of a lovely building that we have (Zee’s other companies continue to operate out of the building). This is a much tougher place to get to…but it has a strong start-up environment. Marol is the tech hub of Mumbai. (Being here) helps us and people are happy," he says.

Eight months after its official launch in February 2018, the entire team of ZEE5 moved out of Zee group’s headquarters at Lower Parel to WeWork, taking up an entire floor. A little over 400 people, including coders, creative writers and support staff, currently work out of this office space that has every element of a new age company.

The vibe of the space is also in keeping with the kind of talent that the business wants to attract to transform into a “technology-first company", says Katial. “Although we were not a tech-first company to begin with, (with ZEE5) we want to build a technology culture, or rather, a ‘contech’—content meets technology—culture," says Katial. He was the chief operating officer (COO) at one of India’s largest private radio stations, Big FM, when he was roped in in 2016 to set up Zee’s digital business.

Established in 1991, the Essel Group-owned Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (Zeel) owns 42 domestic TV channels across 10 regional languages and another 39 international channels. It is gearing up to launch four more regional channels soon. But it has not been a smooth ride for the group in the past few months. Zeel’s expansion came at a time when the promoter company is facing with an existential crisis. Essel Group had started selling assets to repay its mounting debt. Last year, the promoter family sold 26.41% stake in Zeel to a group of institutional investors, prompting its 69 year-old chairman, Subhash Chandra, to step down from his position. While the proceeds of the stake sale were used to repay part of the promoter debt, Chandra lost control of the company he had founded.

Katial says ZEE5 is “fairly insulated" from the financial trouble at the group level. “It has been business as usual. The board and management have been extremely supportive. They know this is the cornerstone of digital transformation," he says.

ZEE5 went live in March 2018 with four original series in three languages. One of its first original series—Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story Of Sunny Leone—based on the life of adult movie star-turned-Bollywood actor Sunny Leone went on to become one of the most viewed shows on the platform. Since then, ZEE5 has expanded its content. So far, it has produced over 100 original series across regional languages, apart from Hindi and English.

In keeping with the open office culture, Katial does not have a separate office or cubicle. He sits right across an open bay dedicated to his creative team. “It’s about collaboration. Every table is boundary-less. There is no hierarchy," Katial says. Each meeting room is named after a currently running original series on ZEE5. Our conversation moves to a meeting room titled “Hutatma"—a historical series loosely based on a Marathi novel of the same name by Meena Deshpande.

In his 20-year career, Katial has worked with some of the top entertainment media brands in India. Before Zee, he held leadership roles in Star Network, Sony Entertainment Television and Big FM. He was head of channels at Star Network before he moved to Sony Pictures as business head and executive vice-president. He later founded Big FM, where he worked as a COO-CEO for over 12 years. Katial’s content game is strong—he was instrumental in creating some of the biggest shows on Indian television, including Indian Idol, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), Bigg Boss, Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi and Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin. Katial talks fondly of his time at Star, when he commissioned one of India’s longest-running television soaps, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, by Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms, in 2002. That is when he met his wife, Monisha Singh Katial, then creative director for the series.

Though born in Chandigarh, Katial describes himself as a “full-bred Bombay boy". The family shifted to Mumbai when he was in class VIII, after his father was posted there. Katial says his fondness for writing and numbers started early; he even dabbled in writing for newspapers and magazines during his college days. “Data is in my genes," he quips. His father was a chartered accountant, and mother, a mathematician.

Today, Katial often talks like the head of a technology company rather than one running an entertainment platform. Understandably so, as technology is the backbone of this new-age video-streaming business, even more so for a group that is currently in the midst of a massive digital transformation. “Digital video consumption numbers are only growing. A company with a serious amount of content like us...if we are not at the forefront of digital video consumption, we will miss the bus. It is the need of the hour and it has to be done fast and dynamically," he says.

According to a November 2018 report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Boston Consulting Group (BCG), India’s online video market currently has a user base of around 300 million. From just nine video OTT players in 2012, it increased to 32 by 2018. However, the challenges are manifold for this home-grown OTT platform as it tries to catch up with fast-evolving technology. At ZEE5, the core team works out of the Mumbai office but there are two technical support centres, in Bengaluru and Hyderabad. It works with several tech companies on issues like user interface, data analysis and hypersonalization of features and content for audiences through Artificial Intelligence (AI)—personalization being the cornerstone of a good streaming service.

But what sets them apart from competitors? Katial asserts that ZEE5’s focus on generating content relevant to Indian audiences, both in India and abroad, will remain unmatched by its competition. Apart from Hindi and English, ZEE5’s original series and shows run in 10 regional languages—Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Odia, Bhojpuri, Gujarati and Punjabi. It also has access to Zee group’s vast library of content, much of which is already being aired on the platform.

Katial says ZEE5’s primary challenge lies in catering to every corner of the country, given the infrastructure challenges. India’s varied device landscape adds to the complexities, he says. “In India, there are a plethora of device ecosystems, ranging from a smart Jio phone right up to large-screen TVs. It’s not like the US where most people use Apple devices. Here, there are multiple brands and platforms. Different price points also lead to their own complexities. Phones come with low memory, low processing power and low-quality video players," he says.

For ZEE5, unlike competitors like Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar, overcoming these hurdles is crucial as a large part of its target audience is in smaller towns and rural areas. So far, it has over 80 million monthly active users and around eight million daily active users. Katial expects at least 100 million monthly users and 15 million daily active users by March. “So we are coding, transcoding and building content in small bytes so that any phone and player can hold it together. Video engineering is a thick subject when it comes to the OTT game," says Katial. “And that’s really where my interest lies—at the intersection of data and creative content. That’s really why I am where I am."


Apart from ZEE5’s own, which web series are you watching ?

You on Netflix.

Whom do you credit for your success?

My mother and my wife have been my biggest support.

Whom do you admire the most in the entertainment world?

Ekta Kapoor. She has re-engineered herself so many times and has done extremely well for the last 20 years. I have a strong admiration for her commitment to what she does.

What do you consider your biggest achievement?

My biggest achievement is when I look back and see that so many people who worked with me have accomplished so much for themselves. A list of successful shows are not half as exciting as seeing a lot of successful people around me to whom I have been able to contribute in little ways.

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