Business Lounge with Ferzad Palia
The man behind VH1, Comedy Central and Colors Infinity on censorship and the virtues of being thrown in at the deep end
Article by Uday Bhatia | Live Mint
In 1998, as part of a vocational course in his first year of college—studying advertising and marketing at the HR College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai—Ferzad Palia interned at HTA Direct, the direct marketing wing of advertising firm J Walter Thompson, or JWT. There, on what he estimates was either his first or second day, he was handed a task that would have stressed out a seasoned employee, let alone an 18-year-old. A multi-city release of print ads for a petroleum client had to go out, and Palia was put in charge. “It was 16 languages and 33 markets,” Palia says. “I didn’t even know there were 16 languages. I had no clue where to start, what to do.” Still, he managed to see it through, and ended up working at JWT for the next six years.
Today, Palia is executive vice-president and head, English entertainment, at Viacom18 (earlier, MTV Networks). This puts him in charge of VH1, Comedy Central and the group’s latest offering, Colors Infinity—all three of which he has shepherded from their inception. He is 35, which must surprise some people, until they find that he’s been working for 17 years. Instead of choosing between college and his job at JWT, he elected to do both. He would finish his classes and then head to office and work whatever crazy advertising agency hours everyone else was. Palia did his master’s in business administration from Mumbai’s Chetana’s RK Institute of Management and Research while continuing to work at JWT, servicing brands from Axe to Air India.
After six years, Palia decided to leave. “The fact of the matter is, advertising at that time just wouldn’t pay,” he says. “Plus, at that age you do want to explore.” He joined CNBC-TV18 as one of their first marketing professionals. Though he was only with them for 10 months, he feels like he did three years’ worth of work in that time. It also gave him his first exposure to TV, to outdoor advertising, to building a brand rather than executing someone else’s vision. It was good training for when MTV came calling in 2004. They told Palia they were launching a new music channel in India: VH1.
Almost immediately, Palia found himself in a situation similar to the one he was in when he got his first assignment at JWT—in at the deep end. He had barely begun to settle in when he got a call from Alex Kuruvilla, then managing director of MTV Networks India, in the second week of December, telling him they had to launch on 1 January 2005. “I was like, launch what?” Palia recalls. The VH1 team had just four members, and Palia was the only marketing professional in it. “It was one of the most chaotic launches anyone has ever seen,” he says. But it was successful, and he earned his stripes in the new office.
VH1 completed 10 years in India this January—quite an achievement, given how minuscule the English music category is within the already minuscule English GEC (general entertainment channel) space, which itself is just around 1% of the larger TV universe. MTV and Channel [V] had pioneered English music on Indian TV in the 1990s but had converted to Hindi by the time VH1 came. Even today, you’ll find English music on TV only on VH1 and 9XO. For the first two and a half years, Palia looked after the marketing of the channel, and was then put in charge of its P&L (profit and loss) and content. When Viacom18 formed a “leadership team” in 2008, Palia, then 28, was the youngest of its nine members. He now has 75 people working under him.
The next English GEC introduced by the group was Comedy Central in 2012. It quickly established itself as the younger, brasher cousin of more staid competitors like Star World and Zee Café. Even more than the shows on Comedy Central—which ranged from M*A*S*H to Saturday Night Live—it was the fast-talking, snarky tone that made the channel seem rebellious and hip. This impression was strengthened when the channel famously landed in trouble with the censors.
The reason was “objectionable” material in two shows aired in 2012: Stand Up Club (“obscene and suggestive gestures and gyration”, “uttering dialogues denigrating women”, according to the official report) and French gag show Popcorn (“holding the dummy legs suggesting the enactment of sexual act”). The Union information and broadcasting ministry ordered the entire channel off air for 10 days in 2013 (the only other channel to suffer this fate was Fashion TV). The channel appealed, and was off air for four days. In November 2014, the Delhi high court upheld the 10-day decision, and it had to stay off air for the remaining six days.
As Mint reported at the time, the channel stood to lose an estimated Rs.60 lakh from this disruption. Yet, when asked about the incident and TV censorship in general, Palia was more philosophical than bitter. “The fact of the matter is, this is a country with so many different cultures. There is no way to please everyone. So you have to be doubly careful not to hurt anyone’s sentiments.” Did the often inexplicable demands of censorship on Indian TV ever get frustrating? “It doesn’t, because when you’re starting a business you go into it with your eyes open on what the law of the land is,” he says.
Viacom18’s flagship channel in India is Colors, one of the most successful Hindi-language GECs currently. Last month, the group launched an English counterpart—Colors Infinity—with a series of slick, much discussed promos. The ads, some of which featured the channel’s “co-curators”, Alia Bhatt and Karan Johar, were an opportunity for Palia to play with the kind of budgets Comedy Central and VH1 weren’t given when they launched (“Whether they say it or not, spending a ton of money, seeing your hoardings everywhere, that’s every marketing person’s dream,” says Palia).
The initial programming suggested that Colors Infinity wasn’t too different from Star World or FX. It included shows that have been running for a couple of years (Orange Is The New Black), though others, like Better Call Saul, are new. Palia is hoping Infinity will be able to tap Colors’ audience in tier II and III towns, viewers who might not be as familiar with the shows as people in the metros.
Of course, it’s the metro crowd that will drive perception for now—and perception is vital for an English GEC. To keep the illegal download-happy viewer interested, Infinity is planning to go “day and date” on both the regular and HD channels—essentially, screening episodes a couple of hours after they air internationally. These “instant premieres” will include The Last Ship, The Player, Blindspot and the second seasons of The Flash, Fargo and others, starting later this month.
With three channels to take care of, it’s no wonder that Palia admits his social life is wrapped up in his work. Twice, half-jokingly, he says he likes to spend his free time sleeping; he has to keep all sorts of odd hours, given that his job involves plenty of talking to executives in other countries about syndicated shows. It also involves a lot of travelling, so he has had “no personal life” for the last few months.
When he does get time, he likes to de-stress with his Xbox, or just meet friends. He’s also discovered a new passion: cookery shows. “I used to laugh at people who would watch food shows,” he chuckled. “Now I keep trying to get home by 8pm so I can catch My Kitchen Rules.”