Peter Mukerjea, unarguably one of the finest leaders in Broadcast, Media & Entertainment not just in India but across the world, shares memories and thoughts from a distinguished career at STAR, the company that grew under him after years of perseverance, into the largest broadcaster of India. STAR also became virtually the single largest ‘university’ where Peter empowered some of the best M&E professionals who later fanned out to manage major enterprises and continue to invigorate all aspects of the M&E sector in India.
In this conversation, Peter speaks about his belief in ‘building people who actually build businesses’, how the content and the grit of those at the helm during the early 2000’s changed the STAR network, and much more.
We at MediaBrief too recall how, when he launched INX Media as Chief Strategy Officer, Peter always insisted upon hiring the best. ‘If you want to be a company of giants,’ Peter used to say, ‘don’t be afraid to hire people who are better than yourself. Otherwise you will remain a company of pygmies’.
We are delighted to bring you Peter’s excellent chat with another young visionary-in-the-making, Pankaj Krishna, Founder of Chrome DM. Reproduced exclusively on MediaBrief.com by special arrangement with Chrome DM.
In 1993 Peter Mukerjea joined STAR TV as Sales Director (India) in Hong Kong. He moved to Mumbai shortly after joining to establish STAR TV’s advertising sales division in India. In 1996 Peter acquired additional responsibility for the Middle East market. In 1997 he was promoted to Executive Vice President. In 1999 he became Chief Executive Officer of STAR India and served in that position for 8 years.
Peter represented Star TV’s interests as a member of the Board of Directors of television channel ESPN STAR Sports, cable television service operator Hathway and joint venture company Media Content and Communications Services (India) for Star News.
Considered one of the most successful executives in the history of the Indian television industry. Under his leadership, STAR India was transformed from a loss-making operation into India’s most-watched television channel with hit shows such as Balaji Telefilms’ soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kaun Banega Crorepati.
At STAR India, Peter forged and nurtured a team whose members went on to become senior media leaders and experts in their own right, starting with the incomparable Raj Nayak and Ajay Vidyasagar, as also Jagdish Kumar, Sameer Nair, Tarun Katial, Tony D’Silva, Sumantra Dutta, Megha Tata, Yash Khanna, Anant Rangaswami, Seema Mohapatra, Sunita Rajan, Vibhu Sharma and Rajnath Kamath, among others.
Pankaj Krishna (reading from a LinkedIn post by Megha Tata): “Whenever someone has asked me, where I have graduated from, I’ve always said STAR TV, you guessed what I’m talking about right and that was my institution of learning I learned not only what to do but also what not to do and like in any institution of learning there always is that one or two professors whom you remember and have learned the most from, for me one of them was Peter Mukherjee who started as a professor but eventually became the principal.”- Megha Tata.
So you’re the wealthiest man, Peter… That’s what people talk about you….
Peter: I’m the what?
Pankaj: You’re the wealthiest man, Peter.
Pankaj: This is the real wealth, right?
Peter: It is actually seriously valuable. I don’t know about wealth personally, but I think it’s to do with value. And I am delighted, firstly, to be here to be talking to you. And, you know, Monica… Megha…
Pankaj: Now Megha…
Peter: Now Megha, but I still get confused sometimes. But I try and kind of, you know, navigate around that. She has been one of my oldest colleagues at STAR.
Pankaj: Youngest, oldest.
Peter Mukerjea: She has been one of the oldest youngest colleagues of mine at STAR. You know when I joined, she was already there. So I didn’t have the fortune to be able to recruit her myself.
Pankaj: 2000, Peter?
Peter: Before 2000; way back early Nineties. I think her personality fit was so good that there was absolutely no question of her not being a success. She was gonna be something, which she is clearly now, and she’s gonna go on to greater things, I’m sure, in the near future. And so yeah, very kind of her to say these wonderful words.
Pankaj: It’s not only Monica, the reason I said you’re the wealthiest today is because I’ve chatted with a lot of your colleagues who work with you at STAR. And everyone has had great things to say. I met Sumo in Dubai, and he spoke so highly of you. We had dinner. I’m talking about four years ago. Sameer Nair did a Chrome Talkies with me. He now heads Applause Entertainment.
It’s not only the love and affection. They are great managers, because practically anyone who’s a somebody running a media business today, is in all likelihood either from the STAR or The Times ‘graduation schools’ of 2000. How do you build like this?
Peter: I don’t know, I think there’s no hard and fast sort of data and factual kind of methodology linked to it, I think you’ve got to be very fortunate, and in the right place at the right time. You’re going to be looking at people whom you’re likely to hire with a today and tomorrow perspective.
So you look at them in terms of the job you’re looking to fill. I would say, looking at how these people are gonna turn out in say, three, maybe five, seven (years) or maybe longer periods of time.
And you’ve really got to build. When you’re building an institution, you don’t do it from a quarterly or an annual perspective. You say, ‘I’m going to build something which is going to be long lasting and sustainable. People who’re working in that organization will be there for some length of time, right? And with that they’re going to grow; the organization is going to grow.
And ideally, you never want them to leave. But everybody has a sell-by date. Now, you’ve got to try and push that sell-by date by rigor, and you’re going to visualize how far that sell-by date might likely be.
So that, in a way, is what I had in mind when we were recruiting people and building a team. And building a team is, you know, not about individuals. Whilst on the one hand it is, but it is also about how they play as part of a team. How we all kind of integrate, right? How we get on when we’re on the field and off the field.
So using a sort of sporting analogy, I would say, you can’t be a set of individuals working in that team. You are, literally a team which have individual skills. So you’ve got a great wicket-keeper and a great opening batsman? You’ve got a great bonus. But when the going gets tough, all of them… the team… comes together.
Pankaj: I think the biggest challenges we face as entrepreneurs is getting the right people. And we’re here to evaluate between skills, attitude, and education. Broadly, from amongst those, what did you go for when you picked your team? I don’t think education really mattered to you, right?
Peter: Of course it did, certainly to a certain extent, right? I mean, they couldn’t be illiterate. But I think amongst the three, attitude was very much top of the list.
Pankaj: And how do you identify and evaluate attitude in an interview?
Peter: Comes through very clearly during an interview. Absolutely. Or it could be something maybe I’m fortunate to be able to pick out…
Pankaj: You’re gonna help me pick the right people in my company? I can send them on a zoom call interview with you.
Peter: Well I don’t know about Zoom. I’m not very not sure yet whether Zoom necessarily brings out that level of transparency. When you’re interviewing to hire for the long term, I don’t think you should do it on Zoom, which actually I believe a lot of people are doing right now. Because I think you’d leave some stone unturned. Which is not the idea of the exercise, right?
Pankaj: So attitude comes out during the interview. How do you identify capability?
Peter: Look, either they’ve got some past experience, or they’re open-minded enough to be freshers, because that’s where you can mould people in a certain way of working.
So they come to you almost like a fresh sheet of paper, and you can start from there. Whereas if you have something which has already been scribbled on, then yeah, you’ve got to kind of erase that first.
It’s a bit like people who drive in India trying to go and drive in Dubai; you can’t do it. There are rules, and you can’t just go wherever you feel like without any consideration for road signs. So you have to unlearn all the bad habits, and then you can start afresh and take the driving test.
So from my point of view, it was very important to actually get people who were freshers into the business — straight out of college. A couple of them were dropouts. And I think those guys are generally very enthusiastic, full of energy. And they’re really wanting to prove something. Because they didn’t see themselves fitting into a traditional college kind of environment.
Pankaj: So they say you don’t build businesses, you build people who actually build the businesses for you. Practically. I can name a few of them because we work with them. So Sameer went on, he got a lot of a lot of training for KBC. Of course, now, in terms of production, practically everything that’s coming out of Applause is topping the charts. And Megha’s at Discovery…
Was it like the STAR badge that got them into positions, or was it the fact that star was always functioning like a start-up the way it was run? It was always entrepreneurial, how people ran around, the way they worked. And often when you have a strong badge behind you, it gets you another badge. Did that play a role as well?
Peter: I think a badge obviously has value, but it also has a negative value sometimes, because people believe that these guys who have a particular badge also have baggage that they come with, which is sometimes very hard to shake. And not every future employer wants somebody with a big price tag, or to bring a big piece of baggage.
It could be ego, could be all kinds of things. So I don’t think the badge necessarily comes into play. I think it’s about an individual’s personality. Yeah, I think it’s individual skill sets, what they have achieved, what they’ve managed to demonstrate they’ve achieved, and more.
They have to be able to kind of convince whoever their future employer is, that they are capable of cutting the mustard in whatever tasks are set out for them.
And people like I would say, of course, Sameer (Nair), Megha (Tata), Raj (Nayak), Tarun (Katial), even people like Shailja (Kejriwal), Deepak (Segal), you know, all of these guys are just precious jewels. And any organization today that happens to have them on their roster is very fortunate.
Pankaj: I love to hear that
Peter: I think it’s a fact. And you know, they are sort of like the four Andalusian horses you had in the movie Ben Hur. Yeah. I don’t know if you remember seeing that; it may have been a while before your time, maybe.
Pankaj: The biggest challenge we face in small businesses is: how to let go and let someone else completely run the business. So in News Corp, you had all the autonomy, right? You practically ran the business like an entrepreneur. And that itself brought in a lot of accountability. Now, that went well too, right, because most of your managers, they ran everything independently. So how do you ensure accountability happens? And when there are huge sums of money involved, how do you ensure that people don’t go off track?
Peter Mukerjea: There is no formula. Look, I think it can begin to fall in place when you’re hiring them. You must have a sense of their attitude. There are some kinds of people I would simply not hire, alright, and there are some kinds of people I would never touch — not with a bargepole. I won’t go into that right now.
But there are kinds of people I would certainly get attracted to enough to make them an offer. Like those who’d have had something to do with sports, ideally. If they’ dhave a a sporting kind of streak in their in their lives, that would mean they know how to play by the rules. You play within boundaries, you have some basic structure to it. You get through it smoothly. And if you don’t behave or you do something wrong in that sporting arena, well, you fouled. Sometimes, when you go overboard, you’re asked to leave the field. And you’ve got to sit it out for some period of time, maybe a match, maybe two, and then come back in.
I think those are the basic fundamentals that people can imbibe, because when they join an organization, it is not different. So I think attitude is very important. Empowerment? Absolutely. So let people get on with it; don’t tinker with the nitty gritties.
Peter: Yes, it does.
Pankaj: There are those who always report to work on time, leave on time, spend the whole day at work. Probably not the top-end performers? Because even I don’t always have something going on…
Peter: Well, there are horses for courses, no doubt about it. You can’t say everybody who comes out of an IIM is going to be perfect for a particular kind of races.
So it’s critical that you get your hiring integrity right. Very important. And part of that comes with how you compensate people. You give them their expenses on time. You encourage them to be taking their annual leave.
Pankaj: I remember, we were mandated to take leaves…
Peter: Absolutely. We could. And if you didn’t, then there was something wrong. Yeah. I always thought somebody who never took any leave was up to some mischief. Because I’d wonder if he or she would be sort of doing something they didn’t want anybody else to know of, and that’s why they weren’t going on leave. So I think you’ve got to read between the lines when you’re hiring people.
Empowerment comes from that. Integrity, absolutely. No question. And I think we were one of the organizations in the business where integrity played a very, very important role. And if there was ever any situation or occasion when somebody was found to have, you know, doodled on their expenses, if it was a tiny thing, you’d kind of tend to overlook it. But you’d tell them clearly, ‘Listen, you can’t get through doing this kind of thing!’
But if it was anything that was a little bit more severe than that, then there’d be no two ways about it. You just wouldn’t tolerate it and you you’d say, ‘Listen, thanks very much, you know. Off you go.’
So I think empowerment was part and parcel of what you gave anyone whom you made responsible to do a job. You’d do that and let them get on, and then come back to you with the results.
There’s a great little anecdote with Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. I was fortunate to meet him in an airport lounge area, and we got chatting, because my parents were both in the army; and we had an affinity for a while. My parents were doctors, and they were both serving officers in the Indian Army. So anyway, I got chatting to Sam.
And he narrated a little tale to me. He said, when the Bangladesh war was on, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had told him to do something, and would call him every few minutes to find out whether it was happening.
And he said he responded to her, saying, “Ma’am, there’s only one pilot on this flight and that’s me. If you would like to fly the plane, please come and fly the plane. And I’ll get off.’ And that’s micromanagement.
And that’s the philosophy we tried. I didn’t know of this anecdote at the time, but that is exactly what we tried to do – you know, when you give somebody a task, let them get on with it. They’re going to perform it to the best of their ability. So you hope to God you’ve got the right person in the job.
Pankaj: So STAR went on from an acquisition of some $800 million by Murdoch, to the entire News Corp at about $70 billion. A major chunk of that, obviously, STAR had a role to play in. And you were instrumental in building that.
Peter: To some extent.
Pankaj: And KBC would be one of the tent poles?
Peter: Without doubt, I think KBC and a whole bunch of other programs. And it was not just about KBC, it was also about sport in many ways, music.
Pankaj: But the tent pole, the flagship was always STAR Plus.
Peter: Of course, that’s where the largest revenue came from.
Pankaj: And within that was the 9pm slot on KBC, some very interesting numbers. I still remember KBC garnered a TVR of almost 10. Never heard, never happened before, right? And what a TVR of 10 would mean on primetime that all TV TVRs would add up to 40. And this meant that if KBC got a 10, then one out of four people watching TV saw the whole episode of KBC, or two out of four, one out of two, so half of it, or every single one on TV watched at least 15 minutes of KBC. Unheard of numbers.
I think it defined everything that happened at STAR. The way you guys worked, and the monies flowed in, and then expanded, you know, because that’s the time I joined STAR.
Peter: You know, when you say money flowed in, if you say ‘quickly’ it doesn’t sound painful. But it was really hard work. Money didn’t just flow in. It took an awful lot of effort at the coalface to make that happen. You know, advertisers by their very nature, are tight with money; they don’t like to part with it. They want all the freebies they can get.
And I think, you know, the teams that were selling KBC and all of the general entertainment programs at the time had to do, I would say, a viciously hard job. The money just didn’t flow in. I think it’s a myth.
Peter: Well, of course. And, you know, the beauty of a television in one way is that nobody guarantees any ratings. So when you set off the year, nobody says, listen, this show is gonna deliver a four or five or a 10. There’s no guarantee.
However, when you start the year from a financial and a revenue point of view, you start the year with a number, and you say, run this business, I need to get X amount of revenue. So you have to go for that revenue irrespective of how the shows perform.
Pankaj: Your team had to guarantee you those ratings. I’ll tell you why, because if you’ll recall in 2000s, the Top 50 out of 50 shows were star. And somewhere around 2001, it was like 47 show only, and there was panic. And that started right from your office. So there was dominance, there was panic. So that was guarantees of getting the top shows right? Did you really panic, or did you just create the panic?
Peter: Well, there were no guarantees, but of course you panic. You never want to fall off the top of the perch, right? Having got to it, it’s really hard to stay there. And I think there is, you know, an irony in all of this — we’re talking about the same old thing, but 20 years later, and there’s still a sense of excitement to it.
I think all the people that I’ve spoken to since the publishing of my book (Star Struck) have said they’ve been kind of delighted with the sort of walk down memory lane. Lots has changed, lots of water under the bridge, lots of things have happened – companies have moved, company’s been bought, company’s been sold, there’ve been new people, people were fired, people were hired, and all kinds of things have happened.
But when people are walking down the pages of this book, I think at the end of it, they sort of generally feel quite warm and fuzzy… ‘ah, that was enjoyable, I enjoyed reading that…’
Pankaj: Anyone who’s a STAR 2000-2005 batch, when they meet, they talk, and we have a gala time remembering. Those were the times, there was a lot of money. It was an abundance in a sense. Those were good times to invest, and we all invested. We worked really hard. We partied really hard. Offsites used to happen every few months. So those were amazing times. And I think thanks to KBC and a few great decisions, lots of great decisions, to the K series, to a lot of content.
That brings me to another thing. Did you spend more time managing internal affairs — internal operations, to put it correctly — or, as in-charge of business, were sucked more into external relationships, external interferences? As an entrepreneur, we face a lot of that. What was the mix like, for you?
Peter: Well, I can’t remember exactly, now, but I’d say it was about 25% internal.
Pankaj: Okay, so you got Sameer running…
Peter: Sameer and a bunch of other people who are running their own gigs at the time within the business. And you had to be confident that they were able to run with it. And if they had a problem, they’d call, but if they didn’t, they’d just get on with what they had to do.
And Sameer, for example, was a terrific kind of general to have. And my philosophy has always been: you have a dog, you don’t bark yourself, right? So, if you’re going to give somebody the task of running programming, then I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Listen, let’s do something with that producer or with that show’. And I think you let the person just simply get on and, you know, do the best job they can.
Pankaj: So winners party…
Peter: Winners have parties, losers have meetings, and that’s something I learnt from my ex CEO Gary Davey. Yeah. And he completely imbibed that kind of philosophy and injected it into all of us, and certainly into me, and so I tried very hard to keep that going as long as we possibly could. And I think it worked. It worked for us.
Pankaj: Absolutely. And we will party in Goa. You’re in Goa and I will be there too. Wonderful chatting up with you.
Peter: Pankaj, thank you very much!
Pankaj: We’ll meet soon in Goa.
Peter: Look forward!
Pankaj: It’ll be great to see you again, Peter. Thank you so much.