Anniversary Special #20YearChallenge: Peter Mukerjea’s Halycon Days
The gargantuan success of Kaun Banega Crorepati and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi alongside the rising clout of Star News had made Peter Mukerjea the biggest name in Indian television when we featured him on the cover in August 2000. “What does the future hold for Robert Murdoch’s blued-eyed boy?”, our writer wondered rhetorically in the story.
Excerpted from MW August 2000
Peter got to India in 1993. He came here to a one-room office with a fax and a phone, as he remembers it, with the responsibility to set up STAR TV’s Advertising Sales business in this country. Cable television in this country was still a fledgling industry, and the media buyers were not convinced it had a future. Doordarshan was still the God of TV, and all cable pretenders were viewed with condescension, if not suspicion. It was, as Peter puts it, a little ironically, a difficult time.
He came back to India, partly because there was a job available, partly because he wanted to see what the hell was going on, at the turn of the last decade. He spent some time in Delhi, again at O&M, and as he puts it, ‘didn’t really enjoy it very much’. In those days, stuck away in Jhandewalan, Delhi couldn’t have had much to offer. He went off to Hong Kong on a whim, with a ticket he paid for and a packed suitcase, to see what he could come up with. He got a job at DDB Needham, and was Regional Group Account Director when Richard Li asked him to come work for him, at STAR TV. The day he joined, he was told that Richard Li had sold STAR TV to Murdoch. While he was still wondering whether he had a job, and what exactly it was, he was asked to come back to India, to Bombay this time, and he’s been here ever since.
The last seven years, a time of great social and economic upheaval in India, have seen Peter’s star steadily rising. In 1997, he became Executive Vice President, and in ’99, he became Chief Executive. In the course of a conversation we had in his shiny new corporate office in Sakinaka in Bombay, I asked him whether it was all ambivalent about the role cable TV had played in the last 10 years in India, something he had seen close-up, as a purveyor and as a consumer. Was he at all leery of the effects all this new openness had had on the fabric of Indian society? As a parent, was he happy at the new attitudes out in the streets, in schools, in the clothes that kids were wearing and the things they were aspiring to?
He didn’t even blink. Absolutely not, he said. We, the broadcasters, fulfil a need for entertainment. This openness isn’t necessarily bad. Things will find their level. And the news, Peter? Is that entertainment too? Yes, he replied. It is. That’s all TV is, it has no social role. And yet, when we’d met earlier, over the beers, he had mentioned to me that it was something he had given some thought to, over the years. One can’t help it, he had said. This visual medium is so powerful, it begs questions of itself. So why, when the tape recorder was on, did he sing a different tune?
A friend who follows the media business for a daily in Delhi wasn’t surprised, when I told him about this. Peter’s very savvy, he said. “He doesn’t follow the media around, like Kunal (Dasgupta of Sony) or Subhash Chandra (of ZEE), but he certainly knows what to say, and when. And he’s not going to say anything to you which may in any way be prejudicial to STAR’s interests in India.” And of course, he’s a marketing man, and personal opinions have little place in the moving of a product. Cable TV itself, the resurgence of STAR Plus, the runaway success of Kaun Banega Crorepati…all these are products that must be packaged and sold and that is what he does.