He extended what he thought was an attractive alliance proposition to Zee TV years ago and, rebuffed, tied up with ATN, citing it as the best way to ward off the Zee threat in the south. Thirty-four-year-old Kalanithi Maran today sits behind a paperless desk, heading up, as chairman and managing director, south India's biggest success in the world of television broadcasting, the Rs 250-crore Sun TV Network. He extends one the unusual courtesy of requesting his secretary to hold calls during the one hour that one chats with him. About his life, his achievements, his ambitions.
The son of Union industries minister, Murasoli Maran, Kalanithi Maran was certainly expected to enter politics (Murasoli Maran is Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi's nephew). But he was always interested in starting his own venture and gaining recognition under his own steam. Well, he has achieved a lot.
Often referred to as the Subhash Chandra of the south, he has managed to spread his network through Sun TV in Tamil, Udaya TV in Kannada, Gemini TV in Telugu and Surya TV in Malayalam, to cover the entire southern population. The flagship channel, Sun TV, is the undisputed leader amongst all Tamil channels, with a market share of 80 per cent. The other three channels are also clocking impressive ad revenues and viewerships.
A representative of a competing Tamil channel comments, "Kalanithi's business acumen is great. And it is almost impossible to reach Sun TV's stature even in the long run." The icing on the cake was the World Young Business Achiever 1999 award for creativity, given by World Com in Portugal.
"Looking back, I never imagined that Sun TV would grow to this size," says our man proudly. And proud he deserves to be, considering the struggle he's been through to set up the network.
After completing his MBA at the University of Scranton, USA ("I became the first person in my family to go abroad for higher studies") he returned to India in 1987, despite his father's wish that he obtain a doctorate first. A strong desire to set up his own venture brought him back. As a first step in that direction, he joined the family's publication, Kungumam.
"I started as a circulation clerk and apprenticed in all the departments before taking overall charge," recalls Maran. Three years later, when cable TV was beginning to pick up, he decided to start a video newsmagazine, called Poomalai. Though piracy ate into his profits, the magazine generated good revenues overseas, with Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils favouring it. "The overseas revenues subsidised domestic operations."
In 1992 Maran approached Zee TV with a business proposition. "At that time," he says, "I didn't know anything about satellite channels. Nor did I have bags of money to be adventurous. The only option before me was to piggyback on another network. Mine was a simple proposal: permission to use Zee TV's transponder time when the channel was off-air."
His reasoning was that since Zee was airing its programmes only in the evenings while paying the full day's transponder rental charges, a share of revenues generated through his Tamil programmes should certainly attract Zee's interest.
"Accepting my proposal would have enabled Zee TV to recover a part of its transponder rent." He argues. "I was asked to discuss the matter with a junior official." That official, he adds, asked him why Zee should offer its platform to a Tamil channel instead of a Marathi or a Gujarati channel; he didn't get into the merits of the proposal at all. The proposal fell flat, but that did nothing to douse Maran's determination.
He scanned the market and zeroed on ATN channel. He convinced ATN about the need for a southern base to ward off the Zee TV threat. In addition, given the fact that the people of Tamil Nadu had to silently suffer Doordarshan's monopoly and its Hindi programmes after 8.30 p.m. daily, and sensing good revenue potential in a Tamil channel, both sewed up an agreement. Thus on the Tamil New Year day in 1993, Sun TV was launched.
Taking the rough with the smooth
The sailing was not smooth. Building the basic infrastructure throughout the state for his channel was no small challenge. Those were the days when cable TV operators aired feature films and film songs using VCRs/VCPs, through their cables. "In some places, people were not even aware of cable TV."
The first nine months were spent building the backbone and the viewership. Grouping his 20-member staff into five teams, Maran went around the entire state explaining the concept of satellite TV.
A problem he faced, in spite of ATN's willing alliance with him, was its shuffling of Sun between different transponders regularly, thereby affecting signal reception at the cable operator's level. Then followed his suffering a comedy of errors, when uplinking from Moscow caused tapes to get mixed up and telecast. As if such start-up hiccups were not enough, Maran also had to contend with snide remarks about his channel's objectivity, due to his pedigree, and its economic viability.
Stabilising the ground level operations, Maran sorted out the satellite problems by going in for a relatively new satellite, RIMSAT, and later, Intelsat. From then on, there's been no looking back.
Several ambitious plans now await execution. On the immediate agenda is a 24-hours news channel -- the regional news channel market is estimated to be in the region of Rs 100 crore currently -- and a direct-to-home service in the US.
These two will be followed by the launch of four specialised channels in all the four southern languages, and also a Bengali channel. In addition, the group has applied for an FM broadcasting licence.
All those who raised eyebrows and showed scepticism when Maran launched Sun must surely appreciate his achievements now. "He has an insatiable thirst to excel with his programmes and employ the latest technologies," observes an industry watcher, citing this as a major reason for Maran's success. In fact, many of the current programme formats that rival Tamil channels offer were pioneered by Sun TV.
To cite one instance, it was Maran who brought the giants of the big screen to the small screen, in order to provide quality programmes to his viewers.
The professional, the individual
Radha Krishnaswamy, head of Abinaya Creations, which has been associated with Sun TV for the past four years, says, "For Kalanithi, programme quality and viewer response rank uppermost. He never minces words while giving his views about a programme." At the same time, he's considerate towards producers as he genuinely believes that no one associated with his channels should incur a loss, she adds.
Personal secretary Nafesa recalls a time when Maran had no problems with sitting on a dusty pile with other staffers when the channel's library was being set up. She adds that he is a stickler for time and has hardly cancelled 10 appointments, due to unforeseen emergencies, in the past six years. Yes, our man is short-tempered, but "that is harmless and the anger vanishes very fast," says a Sun official.
People around him say that Maran has never flaunted his family connection in all these years. "That's not in my nature. I used to work in a restaurant to meet my expenses while studying in the US," says Maran.
K. Shanmugam, childhood friend and now chief manager at Sun TV, says, "Basically, he is a quiet person and never boasts his family connections. As a matter of fact, Kalanithi used to commute to Loyola College (where he did his B.Com) by bus. For a long time, not many in Loyola College knew that he was M. Karunanidhi's grand-nephew."
Wife Kaveri Maran, who he met at a friend's place and married in 1991, throws some light on Kalanithi Maran, the family man. "At home, he is a quiet and caring person. He's level-headed; fame doesn't go to his head."
Ask her what she likes and dislikes in her husband, she retorts: "His dedication to his business." Maran tries to ensure that despite his busy schedule, he spends enough time with his wife and daughter Kavya, currently studying in the third standard. "Though I travel a lot, I make it a point to spend weekends with my family."
Father, husband and media baron in his own rights, Kalanithi Maran clearly has his life full. But that has hardly diminished the fire in his belly. He's played lean and mean long enough to understand the danger of sitting on his laurels and relaxing. No doubt, he will continue to create waves of his own, in the future.
Will politics ever attract him, considering his family background? "Politics is not my cup of tea. There are too many politicians in my family," he laughs.