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Kalanidhi Maran: A 'Sunshine' story
Sanjiv Shankaran & S Bridget Leena in New Delhi
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April 28, 2006
An overwhelming share of the Tamil cable TV market, an expanding print media business, and a stock market value of over Rs 9,000 crore (Rs 90 billion) for his holding in his TV company after listing this week - but not quite enough for Kalanithi Maran to earn the respect of his business competitors.

The low-profile media baron from Chennai was thrust into the national spotlight this week when Sun TV's [Get Quote] shares made a spectacular debut at the stock market, instantly catapulting Maran into the league of billionaires. Any conversation about Maran, however, veers towards his political connections and the "business environment" that was his launching pad.

Maran's family has long controlled the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Sun's corporate office in Chennai has always been located within the DMK's office premises; and brother Dayanidhi Maran is currently the union communications minister too.

For a Tamil TV channel, distribution is king, not content, say media industry insiders; Maran has a stranglehold over cable distribution in Tamil Nadu, a factor his competitors claim is the real reason for Sun's dominant market share there.

At any given point, 47 per cent of Tamil TV viewers would be watching Sun TV and its sister channels, says Sandeep Nanda, head of research, Sharekhan Retail Broking. An important reason for it, allege Sun's competitors, is Maran's misuse of his distribution clout to stymie rivals.

It is a politically sensitive issue. Recently, Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa tried to pass a law that would allow the state to take over Maran's cable distribution.

But Sun's business is not limited to Tamil Nadu. It's the second largest TV broadcaster in India, with 14 channels in all southern languages.

Also in Maran's possession are FM radio channels, two Tamil newspapers and four magazines. Sun has also received clearance to start direct-to-home (DTH) operations.

The IPO - for the business that operates the Tamil and Malayalam channels - raised Rs 602 crore (Rs 6.02 billion) for new TV channels, FM channels and a spanking new corporate office.

Regardless of the politics involved, Maran deserves credit for being among the first movers in cable TV. While pursuing an MBA in the US, he recognised cable TV's potential.

He got into the business at the age of 27 when satellite broadcasting took off in the early 1990s. In the formative years, he shunned the limelight, keeping his nose to the grindstone along with a select team; Sun grew fast.

Yet, competitors feel he hasn't quite proved himself. One points to Sun's failure to buy out RPG's cable distribution in West Bengal, which would have provided a platform for its Bengali channel. Maran's Bengal plans have since been shelved.

Others feels that Maran's litmus test will be DTH. Without ground distribution dominance, it will be a competition of content. But in this arena too, the Sun story gets entwined with politics. As Maran had once said, much of his success has been based on doing the obvious.

The "obvious" in DTH seems to be political clout; brother Dayanidhi Maran's role as communications minister gets a lot of uncomplimentary hoarse whispers.

When Sun's IPO document was filed with the regulator, a BJP MP sent a letter to the Prime Minister's office raising questions about Dayanidhi Maran's conflict of interest. More accusations have followed in the media about Sun's dealings with Star-Tata combine in DTH.

Politics could prove decisive in more ways than one for Maran. As Tamil Nadu heads towards a bitterly contested election, assorted post-poll scenarios could emerge. The strong political dimension to Sun's businesses cannot hope to escape the impact.

Unpredictability, thus, is wired into Maran's future. Will Sun continue its rise as circumstances change?

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