Lunch with BS: Jawahar Goel

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3 Nov 2010
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Jawahar Goel is on the phone when I enter his office in Noida.
He motions me to one of the
seating areas of the massive
room. The 56-year-old
managing director of Dish TV
always reminds me of Nirma founder Karsanbhai Patel. Just
like Patel, the first impression
you get is of an unsophisticated
chap. But if, like Patel, you get Goel talking in a language in which he is
comfortable (Hindi), you can have a conversation
sparkling with insights. And the first one comes the
moment we settle down, writes Vanita Kohli-
Khandekar. “Working for Dish has taught me to combine the
entrepreneurial approach with professionals. My
job is to help the professionals perform. I insulate
them from the legal and regulatory bit and also do
the shareholder management. So the CEO gets all
his time for running the business,” he says. Many CEOs, not just in media, would give an arm and a leg
for such a breather. The Rs 1,437-crore Dish TV is part of the Rs 5,028-
crore Zee Group, which is India’s largest media
company. Zee, in turn, is part of the estimated Rs
10,000- crore Essel Group. And Goel is one of the
four brothers – the others are Subhash Chandra,
Ashok Goel and Laxmi Goel – who started the group. JG, as Goel is popularly called, kick-started Essel
World, Essel Propack, Siticable (now WWIL), Zee
News and Dish TV. While elder brother and
chairman Subhash Chandra is credited with the
vision, it is Goel who implements the stuff that the
big brother dreams up. “He is the growth-oriented guy. I enjoy project management,” Goel says as we
move towards the conference room for lunch. To save time we had agreed to meet in his office.
Goel, a vegetarian, eats only once a day at lunch. So
he craves ghar ka khaana or food from his house,
which is what we are about to eat. As I help myself
to baigan ka bharta and chole, I ask him if he
misses not having received formal education. Goel matriculated in Hindi before dropping out of school
when the family business needed him. “Formal
education gives you confidence. But somehow it
also stops you from learning. When you are not
educated you are always in learning mode,” he
says. What, then, does he make of the media industry
today? “As a media owner I can safely say there is
zero interference from the government and political
parties (some state politics apart). But there is also
zero interaction,” says he. This, he thinks, is bad
especially when the government wants the media to play a constructive role and be a bridge to
communicate with people. This could help in
emergency situations like the 26/11 attacks in
Mumbai or while using the soft power of media to
spread the message of, say, communal harmony,
hygiene or traffic sense. In 1984, a US-based non-government organisation
approached the ministry of information and
broadcasting to make a serial that would spread
the message of family planning couched as
entertainment. That is how India’s first soap opera,
Hum Log, was aired in July 1984. “Hum Log was 25 years ago!” says Goel. There have been no such
projects since then. His point is that the government
lacks a bridge or path through which it can
communicate with the industry at one go. Isn’t that also the industry’s fault? Goel has been
the president of the Indian Broadcasting Federation
four times. He is on the board and task forces of
various committees set up by the ministry of
information and broadcasting. So he knows that
the Rs 30,000-odd crore TV industry has been terrible at lobbying. Many of the issues it faces, like
the lack of pay revenues, can be solved by pushing
for a robust legislation that untangles the mess in
cable television. “Why sort it out?” Goel asks. My roti and bharta
freeze midway to my mouth. Goel smiles. He
explains that if you wanted to launch a newspaper
in Delhi today, you would be Rs 600-700 crore
down before you even begin to make some
headway. So, entry barriers are huge. In TV anyone can walk in, get a licence – the process is
mechanical – and start off. The incumbents find it
easier to deal with the structural issues. They
bother new or small players. “These [structural
problems] would be problems in a monopoly or
duopoly market. But in a highly competitive market like this, they work as entry barriers,” he explains. What about the fact that fast digitisation would
unlock at least a couple of billion dollars in pay
revenue? That is when Goel utters his second
blasphemy: “Digitisation won’t work. Tax rates are
too high and compliance [in cable] is low.” For cable
operators who make 100 per cent of their money in cash, digitisation means complete declaration
and, therefore, 30 per cent and more in taxes. So
the man who designed the first direct-to-home
(DTH) system in this country does not think
complete addressability can work till the tax tangle
is sorted out. And that will happen when the goods and services tax comes into force, he says. We are now on to some great ghevar laden with
ghee, a typical Rajasthani dessert. It is time to talk
about matters closer to home. Dish TV has become
the world’s third-largest DTH player at 10.9 million
subscribers, and Goel can take complete credit for
it. From lobbying for the DTH policy to setting up operations, he has been the driving force behind
Dish even before it began operations in 2003. But average revenues per user or Arpu are low in a
hyper-competitive, six-player DTH market. Most of
them are still bleeding. Dish has just started making
operating profit. For this, the DTH policy is much to
blame — it makes exclusive content, key
differentiator for better profits, a no-no. So everyone sells the same channels and packages at
roughly the same price. This means all DTH does in
India is give subscribers a better-quality substitute
for cable. Was non-exclusivity a bad idea? “The
non-exclusivity clause came in an atmosphere
where the government, just after begging for sports feeds for DD [Doordarshan], had announced
the must-share policy,” Goel says. The countries in
which content exclusivity works have a mature
market and a proper regulator. Even they think
there is some merit in looking at this. “Ofcom [which
is troubled by BSkyB] is studying our policy,” Goel says. Ofcom is the UK communications industry regulator.
Speaking of which, do we need one? “It is very
complicated. The thing is that the Telecom
Regulatory Authority of India [Trai, the broadcast
regulator for carriage] doesn’t have enough time to
do this. And telecom [Trai’s main job] is very big. However, one big benefit of Trai has been that our
relations with each other – broadcasters, multi-
system operators and cable operators – have
improved,” Goel replies. This is news to me. Aren’t they always dying to
scratch each other’s eyes out? “Because of TDSAT
[Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate
Tribunal] we now have a specialised court that
handles our problems and most of us have come to
accept its judgements. So the on-ground fights have become more controlled. Earlier there used to
murders and all,” Goel says. Trust Goel to put the whole thing into perspective.
Surely plain under-declaration of revenues is any
day more acceptable than people doing each other
in. That is the cheerful thought with which I leave.
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