Back in the news with the release of his book, ‘Starstruck: Confessions of a TV Executive’, Peter Mukerjea in a candid interview shares his thoughts on the integrity of news in a competitive world, working with the best in the TV industry, his negotiations with Big B around KBC, things he learnt from media maverick, Rupert Murdoch and his reasons for recommending Uday Shankar as his successor
Q] In your book, you have discussed briefly about the TV measurement system, which has come under fire recently. As someone who has been part of the TV industry for over 15 years, what are some possible solutions to fix the problem?
Far be it from me to suggest some possible solutions as there are brighter and sharper minds at work than me. However, when I see the state of play, it does make me a little despondent that in all this time the powers that be have not yet been able to regularise the audience measurement system in the country. There are companies and people around the world who do exactly this in considerably more complex markets than ours and we ought to take a leaf from their book.
For what it’s worth, I believe that news channels should not be governed by a standard ratings system that prompts them to outdo each other by attracting viewers for the wrong reasons. On the contrary, news should be evaluated on a different scale using a qualitative system rather than quantitative.
Metrics like accuracy, bias, independence, depth of coverage, etc. should be the areas of measurement and this cannot be done daily or weekly or perhaps even monthly. This should be evaluated maybe twice a year at best and news channels will be compelled to deliver a far higher level of quality news than is presently the case and they would have to be consistently at it. There is no reason why India cannot turn out a BBC equivalent for the world to respect and find credible.
But for that, one needs to have a will and then the way will come. General entertainment, sports and movies need to be measured more accurately too and technology has a big role to play. Maybe there ought to be an independently funded body who invests in the technology, the hardware and then they have a team who monetise the data by selling the specifics to advertising agencies, production companies, media buying groups, platforms and broadcasters at a price that makes it an independently profitable business.
The way we have it now seems to be a constant tug of war between the three groups that fund everything – broadcasters, ad agencies and advertisers. As I said earlier, there are far sharper people than me to decide this but I would simply say that speed is of the essence to restore some semblance of credibility.
Q] In the book you discuss how you spent days and nights at Amitabh Bachchan’s house discussing the KBC deal, but not much about the deal has been revealed. Could you share some details of the conversations and the final deal price?
I cannot recall the monetary values specifically, but I do remember that the numbers were significant and were ‘telephone numbers’ rather than hundreds or thousands! Some of the aspects of our discussions revolved around a sense of nervousness about moving from the big screen to the small screen, whether the show would work, the effect of being seen as a show host would have on his movie ‘superstar’ image, and the reaction of the fans among other things.
All of these were serious concerns and the host needed reassurances that we would not take him off the show and introduce someone else in his place or remove the show altogether in case it didn’t perform. All perfectly rational concerns. In many ways, these concern areas were as important, if not more, than the monetary compensation.
Q] In one of the chapters you make a strong statement: Nothing I read in the newspaper is true. What circumstances led you to conclude this?
What I’m trying to convey here is that I’m a cynic when it comes to newspaper content. I do believe that often what is available for readers in a newspaper has been put there for a reason and there is a hidden agenda. Now when you consider everything, it makes me wonder why I should believe what I read in the papers.
In any case, newspapers have finally been relegated to the back of the bus in our media consumption habits and in very few cases are seen as a credible news source. Only some newspapers can put their hand over their heart and say they are unbiased or unfettered as they indeed ought to be.
Q] In the last chapter, you mention recommending Uday Shankar as your successor to the global team. Can you tell us what made you believe that Uday can pull off your legacy?
Uday was a journalist first and a business manager second, I always believed. Therefore, his skills in being able to navigate almost any situation were likely to be par excellence, given the way that journalists tend to be good at that.
Also, his Hindi is excellent and given that our main thrust of activity was going to be Hindi general entertainment, it was important that the person has to be my opposite since my primary language was English and content was never my strength. Apart from these, Uday was also known to some of the folks at the company even though he was attending Star News, which was in essence a joint venture.
So he was also, by default, experienced in managing a joint venture relationship and at that time we had several of those with many more to come in the years that followed.
There was a level of comfort therefore in my recommending Uday to Newscorp as there was considerable turmoil at the organisation at that time and keeping the ship steady through those storms was going to take some special skills. Finally, Uday and I were colleagues but were never very close and to do justice to the task at hand, the person should ideally be someone who wasn’t simply going to do things the way I had done, but take things forward in a new and fresh way.
Q] How did working with the world’s biggest media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, for 15 years help you evolve at a professional and personal level?
The man is a maverick in more ways than one. And of course, I would hope that some of his unique powers rubbed off on me somewhere along the way and thus helped me to grow both professionally and personally.
It would be hard for me to be specific about any one such thing but I might venture out on a limb here in saying that when staying at a hotel or dining at a restaurant, I would make sure that I tip the hotel’s housekeeping staff and the table attendant extraordinarily well. I learnt this from Rupert.
It’s probably got nothing to do with my professional life or my personal life but I think that as a human being one needs to respect staff that are not so well paid but nevertheless work really hard to earn a living. Dignity of labour is so important and more so for a fast developing country like India and I wish more people would follow that example as it would make for a better place to live.
Q] The book ends with you hinting that you would love to run a media business all over again. Should we expect some news from you soon about your own venture?
I’m not sure that running a media business all over again is what I said. If I had the chance to do it all over again, would I? In a heartbeat. But of course, the world has evolved and as Matt Ridley famously says, “Progress and success are always relative.” In history and in evolution, progress is always a futile, a Sisyphean struggle to stay in the same relative place by getting ever better at things.
And to quote one of my favourite Hollywood stars, Lauren Bacall who said, “Standing still is the fastest way of moving backwards in a rapidly changing world”. Furthermore, I’ve been inspired lately by Robert de Niro in his role as The Intern, which for me would be a great way to hang with people at the cusp of change in a world full of start-ups.
So I keep urging some of my ex-colleagues and in some cases their kids who are working in some interesting new media businesses to consider me as an intern. We ourselves were a ‘start-up’, working out of a shed-like office with one kettle and one piece of furniture which we all shared whilst the handful of others like Yash and Megha ( nee Monica ) were out meeting clients. That was great fun and yes I’d love to do that over again and build something from scratch. But there are no plans as yet - not even on the proverbial drawing board!