Shephali Bhatt
Jun 19, 2012

Profile: Tasked with taming ‘the Hindi GEC monster’

Shephali Bhatt profiles Sony’s Sneha Rajani - a CA ,who wanted to do medicine, but has steadily climbed the TV ladder

Profile: Tasked with taming ‘the Hindi GEC monster’

Tanzania-born Sneha Rajani, EVP and business head, SET (Sony Entertainment Television), part of Multi Screen Media (MSM), admits that friends associate the term ‘wild’ with her, owing to her place of birth, but she doesn’t completely agree. “I might have a bit of a temper but at the same time it’s my upbringing that helps me understand people from different continents,” she says.  She thinks she can relate better with people from England (where she spent more than a decade of her student life) and East Africa, but is extremely passionate about Hindi movies and programming. Seven years in India before moving to England ensured that perhaps.

And this passion explains how she and her team were able to fillip Sony’s viewership rank amongst Hindi GECs from a vacillating four or five on a weekly basis to second place in July 2011 (TAM). That was four months after she took charge. Ever since, Sony has maintained its second or third spot in the weekly tally, except for Week 22 of 2012. She explains, “We were ailing at number 4 or 5. Sometimes even SAB TV would beat us. It was a big issue and we had to be accountable to our shareholders and bosses in the USA. Our non-fiction line up was strong as ever but fiction was down in the dumps. We started off with utilising IPL to promote our shows.” Right after IPL 4, Rajani brought in Bade Achche Lagte Hain, a fiction show that she says ‘caught the nation’s fancy’. It was after the launch of this show that the channel started seeing some big numbers, recalls Rajani.

Interestingly, she never planned a career in the media. Rajani is a certified Chartered Accountant from London South Bank University. So, was she always in love with numbers? “I hated numbers with a vengeance,” she confesses. Rajani always wanted to be a doctor, but her brother, who is also a doctor, advised her not to pursue medical studies. His argument was that her temperament wouldn’t suit the profession and that she wouldn’t be able to deal with the blood and gore. Left at the crossroads, her father suggested that she pursue Chartered Accountancy. “My brother reiterated that I was only average in Maths, but my father was certain that I’ll pull this off. And I did. I cleared the exam in the first attempt itself and ‘accidentally’ became an accountant,” she reminisces. 

Post that, she landed up in the finance department of TV Asia (in January ’93). At TV Asia, she would always make a comment or two about the channel’s programming to the then CEO John Tydeman. One day, Tydeman asked her to switch to programming after the programming head quit. “Finance was too boring and mundane anyway,” she recollects. “TV Asia had a subscription model so the task was to increase that. Since I had a strong sense of what would work with people, I started commissioning shows specifically for the channel. I approached Ekta Kapoor of Balaji Telefilms to acquire shows she was making for DD National,” she adds. She also got Pakistani shows like Dhoop Kinare and Tanhaiyaan for the channel.

Rajani moved to India in 1995 and joined Sri Adhikari Brothers (SAB) as chief executive - programming. Seven months later, she was with ATN (Asia Television Network) as VP - programming. While the former stint taught her how the television industry worked in India, the latter gave her lessons in operating TV channels from a programming standpoint. “I did try to bring some professionalism to both the places; tried to bring in some method to the madness wherein everyone started their day at 1 pm and called it a day by 1 am the following morning. Soon I came to terms with the fact that such a lifestyle is unique to this industry,” says Rajani.
She might come across as a tough nut to crack, but she has had her weak moments. “The first three years of working in India were a pain, to say the least. I struggled hard to get acclimatised to Mumbai’s lifestyle and work culture, but in vain. My friends from London had bet that I would leave India in no time. Frankly, in those weak moments, the idea of losing that bet propelled me to not give up,” she explains.

Soon after she settled on ‘not being a Brit in India’, Sony landed in her lap. And how! Rajani recalls, “I had gone to meet Kunal Dasgupta (former CEO of MSM) in the capacity of programming consultant at iSKYB (a division of STAR India) and he offered me a job. Not just that, he wouldn’t let me go till I accepted his offer. He wanted me to join the very next day, which was 1 July 1995.”  Rajani did give in, but she doesn’t regret it one bit. “I believe Sony is the best place to work at. It gives you the freedom to make decisions,” she remarks.

Rajani was brought on board to launch SET Max as a movie and events channel (12 October 1995). She then went on to get female anchors (Ruby Bhatia and later Mandira Bedi) for a cricket-based show, Extraaa Innings. “Max is like my baby. The umbilical cord has been chopped off, now that I don’t oversee its operations anymore. But it’s still my baby, only that it has got married now,” she says.

The fact that Rajani has been in-charge of Sony for the last one year hasn’t sunk in yet. “With all the cut-throat competition, Hindi GEC is a monster to deal with. You can’t afford to relax for a minute lest someone beats you in this daily battle. I really wish we could devise a monthly ratings system so that I won’t lose sleep every Wednesday morning and Thursday night,” she asserts. As a matter of fact, Sony consciously does not react to numbers on a week-to-week basis. “We make a plan and stick to it. We back it up and don’t change it based on weekly ratings,” she adds.

What’s to look forward to from Sony? “A few differentiated marketing campaigns for refreshingly aspirational new shows, and the next season of KBC,” she reveals. Rajani is determined to keep the second rank. Is there an eye on the number one slot?

“We will strive for it, but we won’t die to be number one as long as we are stable at the second place,” she surmises.

The Flip Side

Age 43

Where do you live? Bandra

What do you do right after checking the weekly ratings? On Wednesday mornings, I read them and go back to sleep. On Thursday nights I check them and continue watching TV.

Watching television includes Cricket, shows on Sony, Masterchef Australia, and news on NDTV

Favourite movies Sholay, Lagaan, Lamhe, Yeh Vaada Raha, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, The Dirty Picture

Favourite holiday spot New York, Cape Town, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam (Tanzania)

If not in media I would direct a film

Dream destination Any beach place, Malibu perhaps

Campaign India