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suntvIn the late eighties, a scrawny young man returned to India from the US having completed his MBA from the University of Scranton. He had lights in his eyes, fascinated as he had become by television in the US during his management freshman and graduation days.

But television in India was a domain restricted to only state-owned Doordarshan. For a while, he dabbled in the print media that his family owned but the lure of the moving image proved too strong. So, he did the next best thing: he started producing a video magazine in Tamil.

Kalanithi Maran had bigger ambitions; he wanted to start a TV channel in Tamil; not just a TV channel; TV channels in the various south Indian languages. With that goal in mind, he approached the then-emerging TV baron Subhash Chandra whose Zee TV had caught the imagination of the nation with edgy fast-paced general entertainment programming.

The young man wanted a slot (one in the afternoon) on Zee TV’s service to start his own TV channel; but a Zee TV executive saw no merit in the plan and turned it down. He never got a chance to meet the goateed Chandra. It was to prove to be a colossal mistake. However, another cable TV operator–Siddhartha Srivastava–who has the distinction of launching the first Indian private TV channel (not Subhash Chandra as many commonly believe) called ATN was more giving and provided him with a slot.

Kalanithi cobbled together his savings and also got his father the late Murosali Maran to guarantee a bank loan for him. The same 25 friends who were working on the video magazine–Poomalai (which was by then plagued by piracy) and the cable TV programme Tamizh Maalai–stood by him and drew up the programming for the to-be-launched channel.

Thus, Sun TV was born on 14 April 1993 beaming off the wobbly Russian satellite called Gorizont. The programming was primarily film entertainment-based. Kalanithi and his team had to work hard to build cable TV distribution infrastructure in the state, coaxing shop owners to become cable TV operators and set up headends and distribute Sun TV so that it could be seen by Tamilians who had little else to watch in the comfort of their homes.

His efforts bore fruit: cable TV operators soon thereafter popped up all over Tamil Nadu, courtesy consumer demand for the channel. Both fuelled each other and, by 1996, Sun TV was notching up revenue of Rs 450 million with a penetration of 86 per cent in the state. Apart from Zee TV, it was the only other channel that was sporting a black bottom line at that time.

Kalanithi went about fulfilling his dream to have a southern Indian language network, just as Chandra was expanding his Zee Network. The aggressive young entrepreneur launched Udaya TV in Karnataka in 1994, took over Gemini TV soon thereafter and Surya TV followed. There has been no stopping him and, today, the group runs 33 channels and another nine are being added. His portfolio covers the genres of entertainment, news, comedy, music, movies, kids and classic.

Along the way, Kalanithi appears to have shed his inhibitions of foraying outside his comfort zone of the south–Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. For some time now, the Sun group has been gestating Bengali and Marathi language channels. Six to eight months from now, the two are slated to be launched and teams have been hired in Kolkata and in Mumbai. Hectic parleys are going on to decide the programming, the positioning, the distribution and marketing of the two channels.

Kalanithi also owns 42 FM radio stations, the second-largest Tamil-circulated daily newspaper in India Dinakaran, and five other magazines, DTH platform Sun Direct and the Sunrisers Hyderabad IPL cricket team. Then, there is the cable TV network SCV, which has presence in Chennai. The Sun group made an ill-informed dash to acquire and run an airline SpiceJet, which Kalanithi found challenging to do and quickly did a volte face and sold it to Ajay Singh who has since been doing a better job. And then there is the network’s new OTT offering Sun Nxt.

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