Global news from a South Asian perspective

BY Aman Malik | IN Media Business | 24/01/2016
‘People want to see the world from a South Asian lens. They have never had this opportunity before.’
AMAN MALIK talks to ROHIT GANDHI, who heads a new Zee channel

 (left) Rohit Gandhi, editor-in-chief Zee English, (right) the Zee Network's satellite footprint


Robin Jeffrey, the media scholar, has repeatedly observed that India lacks a global media voice though the world is ripe and ready for an Indian media presence. In July 2014, the Hindu quoted him as saying: “Britain, the US, Canada and Australia all have significant voices that report the world. The Arab world produced Al Jazeera. The French have AFP. EFE, the Spanish news agency, is the world’s fourth largest (after Associated Press, Reuters and AFP). Germany has Deutsche Welle as well as huge privately owned media organisations. China pours money into its global newsgathering and dissemination. Even Russia has a lively and imaginative English-language news service. Where is India?"

The Zee group is now stepping in to fill this vacuum. The brand with more international channels than any other Indian brand is investing a great deal in a global news network which it says will report from a South Asian perspective. The network already broadcasts to 169 countries across five continents, including North America and Europe.

Zee Media  has a suite of international channels including its latest offerings - Zee World and Zee Magic - which are Indian content generation channels dubbed in English and French respectively, primarily directed at audiences in Africa. In the Middle East, it beams several more including two Arabic language ones - Zee Alwan and Zee Aflam. Across the Asia-Pacific, it broadcasts in Thai (Zee Nung) and Bahasa (Zee Bioskop) for audiences in Thailand and Indonesia.   

In August last year, Rohit Gandhi, who had previously worked with global networks like Canada’s CBC and CNN, was appointed the editor-in-chief of the new channel, which will go on air in the next few months. Gandhi spoke to The Hoot about what Zee plans to do and how it is looking to go about it. Edited excerpts:  


You joined Zee in August last year to launch a global English news channel. By when do you plan a commercial launch?

This is not just a television channel for us. This is a complete news bouquet that we are doing. So, it will incorporate all forms of news, it will be multi-platform. It is going to be a staggered growth, it will not all come out on one day. And that staggered growth means that there needs to be integration of a lot of new technology, and there needs to be integration of the mediums themselves. That takes a massive amount of investment in money, time and resources. So, we are in that build. It’s going to be a few months before you will begin seeing us.


But is there no launch date as such?    

There is no point putting out a formal launch date because there are lots of moving parts in all of this. There is no way that we would want to commit ourselves to a date, try to match that date and then find that we don’t have the product at the level we wanted.

Can you explain the sort of integration you are looking at?

See, the world today is digital. The consumption of a lot of the media happens on digital first, television happens later. There is no reason for us not to deliver that digital first platform. And once you have finished delivering digital, television is certainly very home to the organisation I work in… this organization has 10 news channels, seven of them regional, three of them national, this is going to be our international little section. So there absolutely will be television to it. Beyond that, we will still be doing other mediums and we are open to the idea of how we are going to do it, though that’s still part of the plan and I wouldn’t want to divulge that. But the good thing is, there is no pressure on me to deliver a sub-standard product. Until my product is ready, which means, it’s based on the quality of journalists we require, the quality of writing we require, the finish in the product we require, we will not go on air.


How different will the channel be from other international ones like Al Jazeera, CNN or the BBC? Will it be on the same model, largely, or different?

You know, the very reason we felt there was a large market, when we studied it, was the fact that people wanted to see the world through a South Asian lens. South Asians never had this opportunity. We see the world from all kinds of lenses – China, Russia or NHK (Japan) or the European lens or the British lens or the American lens. That means that whenever you wanted to comprehend anything happening internationally, that was the lens we used. For the first time, we have now brought in a lot of good quality talent and researchers from all kinds of schools in the world to build that talent pool we’re talking about for a South Asian policy perspective. And that policy perspective is essential in developing something like this. This is not ‘shake and make’ television news. This news is about making sure we can give perspective to people - why are we involved, why should we be involved, why should we we know what’s happening globally as things unfold, and what do we, as South Asians, need to do.


What level of investment are you looking at?
It takes massive amounts of money, I can tell you that. I can’t talk about the numbers I am going to put into my business. A network is really what its people are worth, and at the end of the day, there will be hundreds and hundreds of people working in the network, and there are lots of resources which are pretty standard for most media. We are working on new technology which means that there is a tremendous amount of money being spent on just putting the technology together.


What synergies are you looking at, with other Zee platforms?

We are all one family so all the synergies that are being built up are being built to synergise each one of those units. Those units will, eventually, be working in a news flow that will benefit one another. We believe in an organisation that is language-agnostic and medium-agnostic, and that’s the future of the media anyway. Media that’s segregated does not have the potential to hold its own going forward.


In how many countries will the new channel have a bureau and how many will it broadcast to?

Right now, we go to 169 countries so the channel will go to all of them. Beyond that, the bureaus will be dozens, literally. We want to have a truly international news operation. We will continue to expand these bureaus, we will continue to make sure that wherever South Asia has an interest, we will reach out to those places.


Have you already identified some places where you will have bureaus to begin with?

We have already identified locations. We will be in at least a dozen countries to start off with.


Can you name some of them?

You know, we cannot give up countries like the United States, Russia, China and Europe. Those are places we cannot ignore.



We will absolutely be in every South Asian country.


Are you likely to have tie-ups with foreign broadcasters, the way CNN does with IBN?

We will never dilute our brand. Our brand is sacrosanct for us and we do not need to partner with anyone. Will we partner with other networks? We are already partnering with other networks to make sure that we can deliver news in a most balanced fashion, in a more holistic fashion. Our partnerships are going to run across platforms, the advantage of us being again, we do not come from a country which are at war, really in an aggressive form. We are not a country where, you know, we have too many conflicts of interest, we are fairly neutral and that’s why our ability to function in many of these countries is very good and more and more people want to collaborate with us because it then gives them access to such a broad spectrum of news platforms like Zee and that, in itself, is a big advantage.


So there will be no brand relationships of the CNN-IBN kind?

See, I don’t see, in a country as large as India, that we need other brand identities to be involved. I think we have too strong a brand identity of our own to ever want to bring an international broadcaster into our mix of things.

In India, channels have invested very little in reporting and focus mainly on studio debates and talk shows. Will your channel be more reporter-driven?

It is a reporter-driven network entirely. Talk shows are certainly not the cornerstone of our network in any fashion. If we bring people on at all, it will be in a curated manner. I think the structure of the Indian television scene is unique to India in many, many ways. I don’t want to comment on what they are or who they are, but certainly we will be a reporter-driven, visual-driven network. It’s more expensive than programming, I agree with you, and it takes a lot more effort on the part of the journalist, but I come from a school of thought where armchair journalism is not an ideal form. It does not provide you the depth, it does not provide you the texture required for good reportage.


How many people are you likely to hire?
It will be in the hundreds.

How many reporters?
At least about 40 reporters.


Zee news was into English news and then went completely Hindi over time. Why do you now want to get back into English news?Well, I wasn’t part of Zee back then. I know that there was some form of English news but I don’t even know what that form was. This opportunity came to me primarily from discussions with Zee. They came to me because I belong to the international news space and they came with the idea of ‘let’s do something here’. I don’t want to compare things now with what was then but I think there’s scope now. It is a very small market. The challenge of this market is that a lot of the programming happening is through advertisers and all of it is sponsored programming. Now, creating a network which is truly credible and pretty non-commercial, is not an easy task, we all realise that. But, at the same time, we want to build a network at another level with credibility, which people can see is neutral.


Internationally, will you have a marketing setup?

Absolutely, we’ll have it in those geographies.


I am asking you this specifically because of the way Al Jazeera America had to close down…

Al Jazeera America and Al Jazeera International are two different things. Al Jazeera America shut down because the Americans basically would not take a network which had the perception of a Middle East bias and that in itself was a driver. The international part will stay and run, but again the rest of the world will still have that perception. Luckily, we do not come with that perception, we do not feed into that bias. South Asians have never been known to try to push a bias internationally, so I think, luckily we in the South Asian world have a great opportunity.


Will you also be hiring some foreign journalists?

We already have many foreign journalists working on our team.


Even from countries like Pakistan?

From all kinds of countries. My deputy is Amanda Clarke, she’s worked with me over the last 20 years. She became an intern with me when I was at CNN International. I have my former boss, George Hoff, who was a former managing editor of CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News. We’re hiring all kinds of nationalities, because, at the end of the day, if it’s world news, it needs to be told from the perspective of a world journalistic group.   




The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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