Sandeep Goyal
Aug 21, 2017

Blog: Return of KBC - The charm endures

The story of how India's largest quiz show nearly started off without a title sponsor

Blog: Return of KBC - The charm endures
Time flies. It is now time for the ninth version of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). Amitabh Bachchan is still the anchor, though media reports would have it that the broadcaster Sony TV did consider alternatives. The short list was apparently down to Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan alongside Amitabh. But the gravitas, and yet the earthy charm, of Bachchan prevailed and he continues to be the face of KBC. 
It was in the end of 1999 that my association started with KBC through a pitch for the Star TV account. I was then President of Rediffusion-DY&R. Let me share with you how it came about, and what happened thereafter. 
Excerpted from Sandeep Goyal’s THE DUM DUM BULLET, Penguin Books, 2004, pages 197-199
Conrad Saldanha was all excited. ‘We have a pitch on our hand: Star TV. I met Peter (Mukerjea) on the plane.’
‘Who else is on the pitch?’
‘I didn’t ask. But how does it matter? Let’s take the brief and give it our best shot.’
‘When’s the briefing?’
‘Tomorrow. Will Rajendra Gupta come with me?’
The brief was a dhobi-list of new programmes being introduced to coincide with Star TV going 100 per cent Hindi. There were at least two dozen in the list, complete with a synopsis each. We set to work.
One of our young language copywriters came up with a very interesting concept. Actually, it was a simple consumer insight, creatively expressed. ‘Ab Star TV, Star TV nahin, Istar TV hai.’ In the Hindi heartland, words starting with ‘s’ are invariably pronounced with an ‘I’ sound as a prefix. So, not Star but Istar. Simple thought, and a logical communication of a firang channel going completely desi ! I liked it.
Just the night before the presentation, I was leafing through a copy Outlook magazine. There I noticed a small snippet about Star TV planning the Hindi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It said Star’s programming chief (Sameer Nair) had accompanied Big B (aka Amitabh Bachchan!) to see the live shoot of the show in London but a final decision on the anchor (actually the Big B’s consent) was still awaited. It seemed like a fabulous idea. So I asked Adrian (Mendonza) to carry a small campaign on this new show too. He worked all night to put together some interesting work.
The ‘Istar’ idea was a hit. Everyone at the client’s end loved it for its simplicity and attitude. I decided now to unveil the Millionaire creatives. My submission was that changing to 100 per cent Hindi content was still an MBA (Manufacturer’s Belly Ache) approach. The channel required a driver, a reason-why for viewers to sample the channel, and then stay on with it. I asked if the Millionaire show was on. The client remained tight-lipped. We showed them the creatives, just in case…
Star TV decided to finally launch Millionaire as Kaun Banega Crorepati with Amitabh Bachchan as the anchor. Since we had shown proactive initiative with the programme, we were assigned to work on the KBC campaign. Star TV also, wisely, decided not to announce the change to pure Hindi through a high decibel ad campaign. KBC would lead the frontal attack for eyeballs.
As it turned out, despite various creative interactions by the agency, Star TV stayed with the worldwide communication format of Millionaire. We would run ads and outdoors very similar to the international creatives. The show started to receive immense PR-mileage much before it went on air. Both as Mr. Bachchan’s comeback vehicle and because of KBC’s unprecedented prize money of one crore rupees.
Despite all the launch PR, and all of the media hype, KBC way back in 1999, still did not find itself a title sponsor. My media head, Divya Gupta and I had discussed taking the sponsorship for the ‘Mera Colgate’ re-launch campaign for Colgate Dental Cream but the deal was still work-in-progress. 
It was finally the official unveiling of KBC to clients and advertisers at The Oberoi at New Delhi. A title sponsor had still not been finalised by Star TV. Coincidently, I met Peter Mukerjea on the flight.
As the CEO of Star TV, he was obviously a worried man. KBC was not only a prohibitively expensive show, it was also a make-or-break for Star TV. Again, as luck would have it, Peter and I were on adjoining seats. We naturally got chatting about the KBC title sponsorship and how not having signed the same would not really look nice at the launch, more so since Big B was himself going to be there at the show. I offered to help by roping in Colgate. Peter said he was aware that the Star team was already in discussions with Rediffusion’s media team on that but our offered price was too low. I said it was better to have a title sponsor at a lower price to start with, than not to have any. Peter agreed but still found the price too low. Through the flight, and over breakfast, we quibbled over what Star TV should be paid for the title sponsorship. I moved a little. Peter moved a little. But there was still no agreement. I nodded off to sleep, waking up just as we were to land. Peter looked at me. Said if I can agree to your price, how soon can Colgate confirm? I said soon as we land. 
I called Vikram Kaushik, the marketing chief of Colgate-Palmolive, soon as we were on the ground. It took Vikram just a few seconds to give his go-ahead. And with that, KBC had a title sponsor in Colgate Dental Cream. Peter was all smiles while I dialed Divya Gupta to firm up the deal with Star’s sales team. 
KBC became the engine and the propeller for Star’s future fortunes. It zoomed ahead of Zee TV, the market leader by far. Changing television history for all times to come. 
To keep its message current and contemporary, KBC has through the years kept its communication message very focused. KBC 1 was all about, ‘Ek crore mein kitne zero hote hain?’ and the time-alarm ‘Nau baj gaye kya?’. KBC Dwittya, the second season of the show doubled the prize money, and the pitch became ‘Umeed se dugna’. KBC 3 was anchored by Shahrukh Khan and the KBC tag-line in communication became, ‘Ek sawaal jo aapki zindagi badal de’. KBC 4 was all about, ‘Koi bhi sawaal chhota nahi hota’ which was twisted around to ‘Koi bhi insaan chhota nahi hota’ in KBC 5. In KBC 6, the focus was more socially inclusive, hence the KBC line became, ‘Sirf Gyaan Hi Aapko Aapka Haq Dilata Hai’. KBC 7 brought on, ‘Seekhna Bandh Toh Jeetna Bandh’. As the Big B accelerated his charm quotient, KBC 8 promised, ‘Yahan Sirf Paise Nahi, Dil Bhi Jeete Jate Hain’. And now KBC 9, is back to simply saying, ‘Jawab Dene Ka Waqt Aa Gaya Hai’. KBC has seen some wonderful campaigns over the years, each of which has enhanced and embellished the KBC brand, bringing it closer to the viewers and adding to its likeability and under-dog magnetism. 
The under-dog story of KBC, actually ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’, was best exemplified by KBC’s first winner Harshvardhan Navathe (19 October 2000) who answered 15 questions on the trot to win the first ever television prize purse of Rupees One Crore. He had been a couple of questions short of the One Crore bonanza when the show ended one evening. The entire country was holding its breath till KBC came alive at 9 pm the next day. Navathe’s win on KBC became a national celebration. I too attended the Star TV reception in his honor. He was as much a super star that day as Mr. Bachchan himself, as celebrities and clients elbowed for space to catch a picture with him. But the true Slumdog Millionaire undoubtedly was Sushil Kumar from Motihari, East Champaran, Bihar in 2011 who won the jackpot of Rupees 5 crores by answering the question, “Which colonial power ended its involvement in India by selling the rights of the Nicobar Islands to the British on Octorber 18, 1868?”. He answered, “Denmark”. I too knew the answer and cursed myself for not being in the hotseat! That is the pain, and the joy of KBC. For 17 years now, the joy and the pain have endured. 
The Star TV persona involved with the birth of KBC are all but forgotten despite having scripted television history. Peter Mukerjea is today behind bars for a murder rap. Sameer Nair, the man who accompanied Amitabh Bachchan to London to see the original ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ show, and then became the producer of KBC went on to become the CEO of Star TV post Peter. He is still active in the content space. Vikram Sakhuja who was the Marketing Head at Star TV is still active in the media space, heads Madison Media. Sumantro Dutta (Sumo) who used to head Sales at Star TV moved on to Dubai. Some of us who were fortunate to be witnesses, if not participants in the making of that history are also around. But Mr. Bachchan continues to bash on … regardless, doling out crores, keeping millions and billions of hopes alive.
(Sandeep Goyal chronicles some of the past, and connects it to the present, in his Blog in Campaign India.)
Campaign India