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Rathikant Basu ushered in a new era for TV in India

I don’t suppose many people recognised the name when they heard that Rathikant Basu died over the weekend.

But there was a time in the 1990s, when he featured in the news quite often, even making it to the covers of news magazines.


And I think it is fair to say that in many ways, he was the father of the satellite TV revolution which led directly to today's OTT boom.


   Basu was a Bengali by birth but a Gujarati through experience. He was part of the Gujarat cadre of the IAS, spoke fluent Gujarati and, when he finally retired, he chose Ahmedabad as his home. Though he had a glittering career in the IAS, he only came to national attention when he became director general of Doordarshan. That was just as Zee TV had been launched and it had wiped the floor with DD.


   Basu led the fightback by turning DD Metro into a commercial channel that took on Zee. Because the so-called cable and satellite universe was tiny in those days, DD, with its massive terrestrial reach, had many advantages that previous DD bosses had not exploited. So Basu took the fight to Zee and won.


   Not everything went smoothly at Doordarshan. Basu and his then boss Bhaskar Ghose, who was secretary in the information and broadcasting ministry, wanted to launch a largely urban-focused Hindi-English channel to be called DD3. This would appeal to people who might otherwise not watch Doordarshan but would watch BBC World (then just launched as a fledgling service) or CNN. Because the news component of DD3 had to be credible, Basu bypassed DD’s own sarkari news division and handed current affairs programming to outside producers. Prannoy Roy’s NDTV, Dileep Padgaonkar, Badshah Sen and a variety of others would provide robust news and current affairs programming, he decided.


   All went well till just days before the launch when someone told Prime Minister Narasimha Rao that Doordarshan was planning to launch a channel where people would be allowed to criticise the government. A horrified Rao cancelled the launch and eventually, Basu was moved out of Doordarshan.


   At that stage satellite TV had made an uneasy entry into India. Richard Li, a Hong Kong millionaire, had started Star TV dedicated to the assumption that all of Asia wanted to watch the same programming. Zee was the only Hindi (and Indian-owned) service beaming to India and Doordarshan was struggling again.


   Then, Rupert Murdoch bought Star from Li, junked the idea of an All-Asia service and decided he would focus on India. Star Plus, the network’s entertainment channel was dedicated to reruns of ancient episodes of such American shows as The Bold and the Beautiful and Baywatch and had minimal market penetration. Murdoch realised that this was pointless and head-hunted Basu to turn Star India around.


   Basu turned Star Plus into an entertainment channel aimed at a slightly more upmarket audience than Zee and introduced some of the news and current affairs programming that he would have put on DD3. It gave opportunities to many new producers and directors, and it paid much better than Zee and changed the rules of the game.


"Star News had been such a hit during the elections that Basu regularised the arrangement with NDTV and ushered in a new era for TV in India."

   I had known Basu since his Doordarshan days because I had briefly anchored a DD show called Question Forum. Now, as he settled in at Star, Basu asked if we could revive the show for Star Plus. We called it A Question of Answers and because it was made by Siddhartha Basu’s Synergy productions, the quality was world class — as far away from the show I had anchored on DD as possible. After we had shot nearly 100 episodes for that show, I moved on to host an interview show called Star Talk.


   I did not deal with Basu on a day-to-day basis but I was always aware of the pressure he was under. Star’s rivals in the industry had put the government up to acting against Basu and the entire Star network. The government even asked Murdoch to sack Basu, though he point-blank refused.


   Through it all, even when things were grim, Basu remained optimistic and as cheerful as was possible in the circumstances. He had learned how to find a silver lining in everything. He once told me a story about a posting in Gujarat where, as a consequence of his Bengali gastronomic origins, he missed prawns. He found one of the few fishmongers in the area who sold prawns and tried to buy some only to be shocked by how expensive they were. But he had an idea. He asked the fishmonger if he sold the prawns with their heads on.


   The fishmonger was horrified. No, of course not, he said. Who eats prawn heads?


   Don’t throw them away, Basu told him. I will buy them from you. He negotiated a very low price which was still an attractive proposition for the fishmonger who earned nothing when he threw the heads away. And it worked for Basu, who like all Bengalis, thought the heads had the most flavour.


   In the face of opposition from the government and Star’s politically well-connected rivals, Basu still tried to find the TV equivalent of prawn heads. For the most part, he succeeded brilliantly. Star Plus became the subject of huge positive buzz and all of us benefited.


   Then, he had what may have been his best idea yet. As the general elections approached in 1998, he decided that Star would start a news channel to capitalise on the interest in the election. NDTV produced the channel —it was India’s first all-news channel —for Star and a new generation of TV stars. Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Vikram Chandra, Sonia Verma and others — was born.


   Star News had been such a hit during the elections that Basu regularised the arrangement with NDTV and ushered in a new era for TV in India.


   Sadly, a year later, Basu was kicked upstairs (he was made chairman) after a coup at Star and Peter Mukherjea took his place. Peter had the idea of making Star Plus 100% Hindi (like Zee) and his head of programming Sameer Nair brought Amitabh Bachchan on board to host Kaun Benega Crorepati and turned Star Plus into the country’s top-rated channel.


   That story is now relatively well-known and Peter is, of course, a household name these days. But none of this would have been possible had it not been for Basu and the role he played in establishing Star Plus India.


   I stayed on at Star (Star Talk moved from Star Plus to Star News and eventually became Cover Story on Star World) but by then it had become a much more political place than it had been under Basu (Peter was also kicked upstairs in another coup). Nothing really worked well there till Uday Shankar took over some years later.


   I lost touch with Basu after Star when he launched his own regional network Tara but I will always have happy memories of one of the most under-appreciated pioneers of the Indian television industry.



Posted On: 19 Mar 2024 10:00 AM
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