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Strong Signal
Kalanithi Maran has built Sun TV into one of Asia's hottest media outfits and made himself worth more than $2 billion in the process.
[Image: 1130_p036-maran_398x309.jpg]
These are tumultuous times for media moguls in most parts of the world. In the terrible ad market large chunks of their revenues (and fortunes) have vaporized. One bright spot off the beaten track is found in Chennai, where Kalanithi Maran is India's undisputed leader of regional broadcasting.

He has delivered soap operas, game shows and movies to viewers south of the Vindhyas, a mountain range in central India, that other big broadcasters had overlooked initially. While they mostly camped out in business centers like Mumbai and New Delhi, beaming Hindi and English fare to a national audience, Maran early on saw a market to be reached in other languages, foremost in his native Tamil.

The South has turned out to be a gold mine for him, and for good reason. The four south Indian states in which Maran's Sun TV Network operates account for almost one-fourth of India's population and a third of all homes with TVs. Prosperity has also come to the nation's hinterland.

All of this helped shield Sun from the sudden slowdown that hit India's media and entertainment business late last year. In the last fiscal annum ended in March, Sun's revenues were up 19%, to $225 million, with a net profit of $80 million. Sales and profits were both up 21% in the latest quarter. "Being a market leader really pays off in a downturn because advertisers tend to flock toward the biggest and strongest media platforms. We gained because our market is not as fragmented," acknowledges Maran, all of 44 years old.

His collection of 20 satellite television channels and 46 fm radio stations has seen its share price double in the past year. Sun has unseated media baron Subhash Chandra's Zee Entertainment Enterprises, which is a national player and twice Sun's size in revenues, to become India's most valuable listed media company, with a market capitalization of $3 billion. Maran's 77% holding has pushed him up four notches on our ranking of India's wealthiest, to No. 20, with $2.3 billion. (Zee's Chandra, with other listed and private business interests, is higher.)

Sun has consistently reported operating margins of over 70%, twice the industry average, say analysts. Earlier this year Hong Kong research firm Media Partners Asia named the company Asia's most profitable broadcaster, ahead of its biggest rivals Zee and Star, the satellite broadcaster that's part of American billionaire Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

The sterling performance has a lot to do with Sun's business model. Rather than spend on expensive programming, it sells airtime slots to content producers, charging them a fee. The deal includes a slice of commercial airtime that producers can sell. Sun insists on an exclusivity clause so these producers can't work with its competitors.

Farming out content has turned out to be a good ploy. In October, 21 of the country's 100 highest-rated TV programs were from Sun's stable. Zee had only 16. In Sun's home state of Tamil Nadu all 10 top-rated shows this year belong to Maran, according to Tam Media Research. "Sun has a smart formula that works very well. It's in the producers' interest to deliver good-quality programs that will attract advertisers. And Sun itself is not overdependent on any one producer," says Salil Pitale, who heads the media practice at Enam Securities in Mumbai. (It has done investment banking for Sun.) Having the best producers tied to Sun, he adds, creates a big entry barrier for potential rivals.

A competitor who teamed up with Star early this year pays Sun a compliment: "Their business model is what has given them leadership. They derive their momentum from it, and it also protects them from market volatility," says Rajeev Chandrasekhar, "But we see value in producing our own content." His Star-Jupiter Entertainment leads in Kerala but lags behind in the other three southern states.

Despite a seemingly invincible market position, Maran isn't complacent. Indeed he watches ratings closely. Producers whose shows have poor ratings are dropped. Says Ronnie Screwvala, chief executive of media company UTV, one of India's leading producers of Bollywood films: "Maran knows how difficult it is to retain that number one position. There's a lot of pressure internally. These guys are constantly challenging themselves." UTV produces eight daily shows for Sun, including two of Sun's top soap operas and the just launched Tamil version of Deal or No Deal.

Maran, a gadget freak who watches his own channels at home every evening with his wife, Kavery, his college sweetheart who sits on Sun's board, admits that competitors bring out his killer instinct. "I don't take competition lightly. Big or small, we nail them down before they can grow in size," he declares. Of late he's poached senior executives from Star TV and Zee. These new hires, he says, are meant to take Sun to "the next level." That may well mean traveling north to his rivals' stronghold.

Maran's achievements are sometimes attributed to his political ties. His granduncle M. Karunanidhi is the powerful chief minister of Tamil Nadu and head of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in the state. His late father, Murasoli Maran, was industries minister in New Delhi. Younger brother Dayanidhi got reelected in May's federal elections on a DMK ticket and is the union textiles minister.

But Maran points out that the opposition party was actually in power when he started Sun TV in 1993 and again when he took the company public in early 2006. His family's political party has been in power only about half of the 16 years. Plus he hasn't always gotten along with his relatives.

Although he grew up in a family where "politics was discussed over breakfast, lunch and dinner," Maran has never been smitten. Says he: "I had absolutely no interest in it." Besides, his granduncle and late father had other passions that seemed to pass to him. Before their political careers took off, they wrote film scripts and produced movies.

With his father's blessing, Maran went to the U.S. for an M.B.A. degree at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. He was struck by the multiple channels available on American TV. Back home the only channels were state-owned with staid and boring fare. He returned to India in 1987 and joined the family's small publishing business that included a weekly women's magazine.

He was itching to do more, but TV broadcasting wasn't open to the private sector. He saw an opportunity when "video magazines" in cassette format hit the market. In 1991 he launched Poomalai, a monthly news and current affairs title aimed at Tamil speakers. But piracy dampened its prospects. "For every videocassette that we sold to a video library, 200 pirated versions flooded the market," he recalls. So he marketed it overseas, targeting Tamils who had fled to Europe from neighboring strife-torn Sri Lanka.

The venture's success emboldened him. By then changes were afoot in the television business. While terrestrial broadcasting remains state-controlled, the government began allowing satellite television, paving the way for Zee, India's first such Hindi channel, to launch in 1992.

So the next year, at age 28, Maran started Sun by raising $86,000 through a bank loan guaranteed by his father and his own savings. He also got some money from his granduncle's family, who took a minority stake (which Maran later bought out). The original team of 25 people included a number of Maran's college buddies from Loyola College in Chennai, 20 of whom are still with him.

At first Maran approached Zee to give him an afternoon slot on its transponder. Maran recalls that he couldn't get an appointment with Chandra and was directed to a junior executive who rejected his proposal, saying it wouldn't work as there wasn't a big enough audience for Tamil programs.

Undeterred, he struck a deal with ATN, a smaller channel then competing with Zee, for a three-hour slot. There were plenty of skeptics. "I was told that it wouldn't last a month," Maran smiles. But given his video magazine experience he was confident there was a vacuum of regional language fare, especially in South India where Hindi wasn't as widely spoken.

The hunch proved right, and before long ATN had agreed to give him the prime-time slot. Even so, it was a logistical nightmare because satellite TV broadcasters weren't then permitted to uplink directly from India. (When the rules were liberalized in 1998, Sun was among the first to uplink directly.) ATN was linked to a Russian satellite that required shipping the program tapes to Moscow 20 days in advance. The tapes were often played in the wrong order. But viewers back home, weary of state fare, tuned in.

Since cash was tight, he latched on to the idea of selling airtime slots to program producers. He also started buying TV rights for South Indian films, which weren't very expensive at the time. Today Sun has a movie library of more than 10,000 titles and has lately gotten into film production; it is shooting the $32 million (production costs) sci-fi fantasy Endhiran, billed as India's most expensive movie to date, starring South Indian superstar Rajinikanth and Bollywood diva Aishwarya Rai.

Another hurdle was getting Sun into people's living rooms since there was no cable distribution network in Tamil Nadu through which to relay the satellite programming. Sun's sales team reached out to video store owners with a view to converting them to cable operators. "Most of them didn't know what a satellite dish was," remembers Maran. "Now a cable connection in Tamil Nadu is referred to as a Sun connection." The Sun-owned Sumangali Cable Vision is the leading cable network provider in Tamil Nadu.

Today Sun is applying the same diligence and grassroots approach to rolling out its direct-to-home (DTH) service, which is a joint venture with Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan's Astro All Asia Networks. While others concentrated their distribution using big electronic retailers and have their own installation teams, Sun Direct has taken to appointing electricians and operators of phone booths as its dealers and trained them to install the set-top boxes. Not only is this more cost-effective, but Sun can also do almost twice as many installations per day as its competitors.

Sun Direct was the third entrant in this segment after Chandra's Dish TV and Tata Sky, a joint venture between Tata and Star, but it is quickly catching up. (All the direct-TV entrants have to provide all networks and channels; subscribers then choose from a menu of packages.) Tony D'Silva, who heads Sun Direct, claims that Sun is adding subscribers at a faster rate than its rivals and that it has dislodged Tata Sky to occupy the second spot. The estimated market is huge: 37 million homes in India have TV sets but no cable or satellite connection. There's also the potential to convert existing cable connections to DTH.

In their race to install, DTH providers, including Sun, are incurring high upfront costs and losing money. Raghvendra Madhav, Astro's executive director, who sits on Sun Direct's board, says losses thus far are part of the business plan. It now has 4.5 million subscribers and expects to break even once it has 7 million customers. Maran himself is unfazed. "This is a long-gestation business, and we're battling giants," he says. DTH is also one of its first forays into the North, along with an fm radio business.

Indeed, Maran is often asked when he plans to take his broadcasting business northward. Enam analyst Pitale says that is inevitable. "The markets in which Sun operates are finite. It will have to grow beyond them," he observes. Maran concedes that if Sun stays where it is, it will stagnate. Yet even as struggling channels approach him wanting to sell out, Maran is in no rush. His next move will once again be in the South, though in a completely different industry. Maran is closing a deal with Star Aviation, which will likely lead to a new regional airline out of Chennai. Says Maran, "We'll definitely cross the Vindhyas. It's a matter of getting the timing right."

By The Numbers: Tuned In
The number of Indian TV households is rising, as is the time spent watching TV, but Americans still watch more.

India vs. U.S.

India: 1.17 billion
U.S.: 307 million

Households with TV Sets
India: 123 million
U.S.: 115 million

% of Households with TV Sets
India: 60%
U.S.: 99%

Daily TV Viewing among average households
India: 2.33 hours
U.S.: 8.21 hours

Sources: KPMG; The Nielsen Co.

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