"Zee created a language, Hinglish-a combination of Hindustani and English," said Meenakshi Madhvani, Zee TV's VP-marketing and sales. "It is the Hindustani today's generation speaks."
Dozens of new rivals are flooding in, further exciting the three-channel satellite network, 50% owned by News Corp. India supports as many as 40 cable and satellite channels, including Sony Entertainment Television, MTV Asia, The Discovery Channel and TNT and The Cartoon Network, and may support 80 by yearend.
Early this year, India's state media company, Doordarshan, will start Doordarshan International, targeting Zee's Asian and Middle Eastern viewers.
Zee is dropping its cavalier attitude toward advertising. It previously used only small promotional print ads but is now breaking a major TV, print and outdoor campaign by Ambience Advertising and Folklore Communications.
Zee TV reaches an estimated 125 million viewers-80 million in India, where Zee reaches 96% of cable and satellite TV homes. It also reaches 10 million viewers in Pakistan, 10 million in the United Arab Emirates, 2.5 million in Bangladesh and more in Asia and Europe.
Zee is negotiating to add channels in the U.S. and South Africa.
The company's popularity lies in its appeal to a broad Hindustani- and Urdu-speaking middle class audience in South Asia since its launch in October 1992. While Doordarshan churned out dull, socially worthy programs, Zee offered the first game, talk and phone-in shows.
India's Business Standard newspaper reported that Zee has 37% of India's prime time TV viewership, compared with Doordarshan's 28%. Zee airs seven of the 10 most popular programs; and every week, gets an average of 1.4 million letters.
Zee offers more flexible ad breaks -running spots at any point during programming, rather than following more structured breaks-and was the first channel in India to put sponsors' names on programs.
Viewers tune in the "Philips Top Ten" music hits; "Close-Up Antakshari," a quiz show about show business sponsored by the Unilever toothpaste brand; and "Lux Kya Seen He," Hindustani-language film clips sponsored by Unilever's Lux soap brand. A :10 prime time spot costs $1,500.
Major advertisers include Proter & Gamble Co., Nestle, Cadbury India, Pepsi-Cola Co. and local marketers like cosmetics marketer Lakme.
"I think Zee is pretty innovative," said Vivek Bali, Procter & Gamble India's manager-business development and marketing services. "It is receptive to ideas, responsive and the quality of transmission is very good. They've done a lot to promote their channel."
"Zee offers greater selectivity of target audience than a mass channel like Doordarshan 1," said Arvind Sharma, managing director of Chaitra Leo Burnett. "There are a number of products where there is a significantly better match between the key brand consumers and Zee viewers." Such products include Coke and MasterCard.
RISING AD REVENUES
Zee's ad revenues were $15.6 million in its first full year, ended March 31, 1994, and tripled in the second year to $47 million. The ad revenues forecast for the year ending March 31, 1996 is $60 million.
"I think they have grown a bit too fast and therefore need to take care of some basic client-servicing issues," said Rajeev Bakshi, VP-marketing and sales at Cadbury India.
Zee needs to respond better to advertiser requests, from improved and faster audience ratings to more information about price and programming changes, said Executive President Kunwar Digvijay Singh. With A.C. Nielsen Co. and Information Resources Inc. entering India, the country's haphazard TV audience measurement system is likely to improve.
Advertisers even get annoyed when Zee cancels popular series characters when actors demand pay hikes.
"In terms of programming," P&G's Mr. Bali said, "that is the only area where they have to consistently maintain their quality and not make too many changes overnight."
ZEE TV DATA
Leadership: Subhash Chandra, chairman; Kunwar Digvijay Singh, executive president; Meenakshi Madhvani, VP-marketing and sales.
Agencies: Ambience Advertising and Folklore Communications, both Bombay.
Recent successes: Energized India's TV market with lively programming, created new opportunities for advertisers.
Challenges ahead: Competition from dozens of new international cable and satellite TV channels.