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Uday Shankar

CEO | 17 Dec 2010

“You can’t be a leader and be modest. But I do feel that generally, we all should be modest. If you’ve got good upbringing, some modesty should be there in you, but leadership is about confidence, and about communicating that confidence. It depends on who your audience is and who is listening to that communication. It may very easily be the case where a confident assertion is misunderstood for arrogance, and sometimes while communicating that confidence a knock on your head teaches you a lesson. So it’s always good to trip once in a while. I don’t think we as a Star Plus team are more modest or anything. It’s about being more agile. Leadership cannot be taken for granted. And that is where the agility comes from.”

When he left Down To Earth magazine for his first TV job, he took a 60-per-cent salary cut – radical, coming from a man known today in the media fraternity for his astute business sense. But Uday Shankar, CEO, Star India, has never hesitated to step off the beaten track. One of the most respected broadcast CEOs of today, he is credited immensely for bringing his company’s flagship channel Star Plus back to the No 1 position in the GEC marketplace – the result of a lot of things he did right; from setting up the leadership team for brands across the board, to rebranding Star Plus, to increasing presence in the regional market and expanding Star’s folio to different areas, like home shopping and speciality channels.

And while he may no longer tote a jhola, the JNU alumnus says he can never stop being a journalist. His star keeps rising but his feet have never left the earth. As the industry votes Uday Shankar IMPACT Person of the Year 2010, he tells exchange4media Group about his strong grounding in journalism, how he got into television, his relationship with the Murdochs, his biggest influences and what he thinks about the Indian news media, controversies (yes, Niira Radia!) and issues.

In conversation with exchange4media, Shankar speaks at length about STAR’s journey and his journey within STAR, the competition, his relations with the Murdochs and more...

Q. How has it been for you post the rebranding of Star Plus?

Pretty good! The most important thing is that the refreshing happened only with Star Plus, but the impact is felt on the whole company – and on the broadcasting ecosystem. After the rebranding, I see that our self-belief is much stronger. Second, the perception in trade as well as in the viewer’s mind is very positive – it states that Star Plus is a leader and at the same time has the capabilities to protect its leadership.

Q. Is Star Plus now a lot more modest since it’s been beaten once?

You can’t be a leader and be modest. But I do feel that generally, we all should be modest. If you’ve got good upbringing, some modesty should be there in you, but leadership is about confidence, and about communicating that confidence. It depends on who your audience is and who is listening to that communication. It may very easily be the case where a confident assertion is misunderstood for arrogance, and sometimes while communicating that confidence a knock on your head teaches you a lesson. So it’s always good to trip once in a while. I don’t think we as a Star Plus team are more modest or anything. It’s about being more agile. Leadership cannot be taken for granted. And that is where the agility comes from.

Q. Did you expect you would get as much as 415 GRPs?

No. I didn’t make an assessment. I usually do not make an assessment of how much the final product will total up to, and I didn’t think we would get that much. I was confident that it had panned out very well, the feedback was very good and it should do well for us, but I had no idea.

Q. If you were asked to re-do a news channel assuming the government allows you to invest in foreign companies, would you consider that?

100 per cent! We would definitely do that.

Q. And how would it be different?

In this country, television continues to be and will continue to be, for a few decades, the most important tool of social empowerment. And that is the direction in which we would like to go. Ideally, one would like to create a channel which once again becomes the role model for news broadcasting in the country both in terms of content agenda and in terms of the connect it can create with the people.

Q. Just as Nandan Nilekani was invited by Manmohan Singh to look at UID, if you were asked to help spruce up Doordarshan...

I am untouchable. I work for a foreign media company. The government wouldn’t want to publicly talk to me.

Q. But just in case, hypothetically, would you?

It would be very tempting. But it would be a huge challenge because unless the promoter itself wants the company to be successful, how would the company ever be successful. And I don’t think that government wants a successful, meaningful, lively broadcasting network.

Q. In the past we’ve had two of your predecessors who were superstars at Star. And after they’ve moved on, they have just not done anything as much.

Firstly, I don’t think they were superstars. I think they are still superstars. Both Sameer (Nair) and Peter (Mukerjea) are extremely bright people. I admire them a great deal. At some stage people are entitled to do an experiment. And those experiments may fail. So I don’t think it takes away anything from either of them or anybody else who has done it. What I like about them is that they didn’t collect their gratuity and sit down. They decided to do something - and it didn’t work out. It always happens. I have done many things which haven’t worked out. So that’s ok. But if your question is, will I go and do that? The answer is no.

Q. You wouldn’t?

No, I wouldn’t. I don’t think I am entrepreneurial enough to go and do that kind of thing. Star has also spoiled me by making access to resources so easily available that it would be difficult to go and do an enterprise which is a start-up on shoestring budgets and have to struggle for it. To do good broadcasting you need to invest well in content. Last year when we decided to do it, my company backed it fully.

Q. You have always been fairly entrepreneurial in your approach.

I’m not afraid of risks. My life has been a story of going out of my comfort zone. So that gives you a certain tolerance for risks. I’m not afraid of that, but to be a entrepreneur requires a certain missionary objective to get somewhere in life. I’m not sure I have that in me.

Q. Has your work style been influenced by anyone specifically in the past? Any of your bosses?

The way I look at a problem, very heavily by Anil Agarwal. My personal journalistic standards are influenced very heavily by my first editor Sumanto Sen. One thing he told me long ago: that your corruption begins the day you stick the company brand on your motorcycle or car. And that is why, till date, I’m very proud to say that I’ve never used a single brand sticker on any of the vehicles that I had. His value system is something that I admire a great deal: Stand by your team, take ownership of mistakes, don’t be afraid to speak up about what you believe in.

Q. What about other people whom you’ve worked with - Aveek Sarkar and Aroon Purie?

I think Aveek is a great person. His fundamental belief in heterogeneous journalism is very impressive. He doesn’t think that there is just one way to do things. He allows multiple approaches, and is very comfortable. Aroon Purie is an amazing man. I have never seen anyone who can see something and reinvent it so completely. When you go and first tell him something, he would often not get very excited but when you went to him with a specific proposition, he has this infinite ability to completely reinvent it to make it very successful, very spectacular. It’s been a great learning to have worked with both of them.

Q. How has it been with the Murdochs? There were murmurs that they were not too happy with the performance of Star India when the chips were down.

If they were not happy, all it needed was a phone call from somebody in their office and I would be out. No truth in any of that. Two things: we couldn’t have done the turnaround of Star Plus and the whole growth of Star India in the last couple of years. That has happened. Taking the channel from about 10 per cent total share of market to more than 16-17 per cent. Also, the Asianet acquisition. None of this could have happened if they were not backing me very aggressively. One of the most cherishable memories of last year has been the fact that neither James nor Rupert got involved in things very much. Not once did James call me and ask what the hell are you doing. He knew that we were working on plans and he was very patient. Even the rebranding: We first thought it was going to take much less time than it eventually did. When we were first working on it, we felt it won’t take more than two to three months. But then we realised it would take more than that, and it became eight months. And every time I told James that it would take some more time, he was remarkably patient. I’ve worked with a lot of owners in this country, and I know about all of them. When your flagship has come under such heavy fire, you’ve lost your No 1 position, it has severe revenue implications… yet, the kind of patience they showed was extremely reassuring. So what it did for me personally, and for my senior management team, was that we were not worried about a certain call from London or New York which adds so much pressure.

Q. What is the one thing which you would like to re-do given the opportunity?

Two or three things with respect to the whole portfolio: One, being a little more aggressive in the regional rollout. We have done a lot. We have done Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra, Maharashtra and Bengal. It looks pretty good. But we could have gone deeper in regional. Second thing on Star Plus – we could have done the rebranding sooner. That was locked in our contract with Balaji. So we should have dissolved the contract sooner than we could. That would’ve avoided some of the pain that we had to go through.

It’s been a dream run for me. We’ve taken this company to the next level from being a company which was very good, but primarily Hindi broadcasting company. We’ve laid the foundation of a company from where it can build itself for the next 10 years or so. We’ve taken it regional. We’ve taken it into new areas like making films.

Q. Any worries on the horizon?

No unique worries for Star, except complacency setting in again. That worry continues to be there. But the biggest worry comes from complete lack of vision from the government and that’s beginning to choke down the whole model of broadcasting.

Q. You said the whole complacency setting in again. Which means there was complacency the first time around…?

Yes, there was. Let’s be charitable to the team when you’ve been the leader for so many years. What happened, happened! Star Plus had been the leader for nine years. And not just a marginal leader; it defined the whole category. There was Star Plus from 1- 10 and then there was everything else. And the other thing that happened was a couple of channel launches soon after.

Q. For instance, the Sony bouquet - they have the comedy positioning for SAB. The bouquet itself is very strong. Plus there is the IPL to prop it up.

IPL is a different property all together. You could put it anywhere. I hope this year we’ll be able to take Star One to the next level.

Q. Would you look at comedy at all?

Not as a channel. Comedy as programming, yes. One of the changes that we made was, in our drama, there is a lot more comedy. So something like Sasuraal Genda Phool is full of comic moments. We’ve done it in the past. But not as a channel. Star One needs to find its place. It was meant to be a general entertainment channel and it should be. And there is space for it. It hasn’t been successful primarily because the senior management focus has been disproportionately on Star Plus. And secondly, it has always been internally whacked in comparison to Star Plus.

Q. That’s something that only you can turn around.

Yes, hopefully. It’s very difficult. When you have Star Plus in your portfolio and they all are in the same building, it is very difficult to give any sense of motivation and success or acknowledgement to a guy who works on Star One.

Q. What is your interaction level with the Murdochs? Is it often enough?

I report to James. He is my immediate boss.

Q. Once a month?

It used to be a lot more frequent: Once every few days when he came on board. Slowly it has become much less. The last time I complained to him that I was speaking to him after six weeks. We understand each other a great deal more, and News Corp as a company and James in particular have a very non-intrusive culture. If they know that you know what you have to do, and if they get the sense that you are up to speed on your tasks, then they just let you be.

Q. In terms of autonomy, you have complete autonomy right? Say, for instance you need to purchase a big-ticket movie...

As long as it’s within my budgets, yes. Complete autonomy.

Q. This has been a huge year for you in terms of the autonomy of Star India; the way Star India is now structured, your reporting line to London as against Hong Kong, the return of Star Plus as a leader and regional channels doing well. Everything looking up… any specific thing that you attribute the success to?

I’m a believer, so I always attribute my successes to the gods I believe in. Even as there was heavy shelling going on for the last couple of years, the one thing for which I take a lot of credit is the team that I managed to put in place. So starting with Sanjay Gupta and a whole lot of other people, in all those critical positions, not necessarily the big-ticket positions, but business critical positions, we’ve managed to put in a lot of good people. A very good person in HR, a very good COO, good people in sales, in programming, research, marketing, etc. This allowed me to be able to do things. If you have an idea, you will not be constrained by the challenges of execution. All these guys are very good in execution. That’s one. Two, this company is very leadership-hungry. That was the message that came last year. People with nothing to do with Star Plus would be genuinely distressed about Star Plus not being No 1. So when we went with a plan to the team that we had to do these things, it would help us to get to our objective, everybody jumped without another word. And the number of people who got involved and contributed to the whole rebranding process is truly worth a case study. You can’t be a leader if the whole company is not hungry for leadership. I now realise why a lot of companies do a lot of things right but do not get to No 1 position, and why some companies get there. It’s not about five, ten, fifteen people – it’s about everybody.

Q. Where do you see the growth coming from in the future?

The big challenge for not only us but companies like Zee and Sun is the fact that the growth will only come if the industry grows. And at the end of it, it’s a very small industry - Rs 10,000 crores advertising revenue across the country for TV. Subscription is effectively nothing.

Q. You have three major interests in subscription in the distribution business with Hathway, Tata Sky and StarDen.

StarDen is more from the broadcast side. Hathway is one of the leading players but it’s an MSO and the MSO model is under pressure because of analogue.

Q. In the last interview with us you mentioned you wouldn’t have done KBC. But the show has done fairly well.

It did fairly well for the channel on which it is. It wouldn’t have added to what we were trying to achieve with the rebranding project. We’re very happy with what MasterChef has done. It has established us in the right direction. We are a channel that does different things. And MasterChef was a move in that direction.

Q. Are you planning to do a second season of Sach Ka Saamna?

Yes, we’re keen to do a second season of Sach Ka Saamna.

Q. What time will it be aired?

11 pm.

Q. Are you okay with the 11 pm slotting of shows?

I do not believe that our audience and our family values are so fragile that one show can destroy the ecosystem. I think it is complete rubbish. However, if they’re concerned that not all shows should be shown at all times then I totally accept that. And if it is established that the 11 pm slotting works because that’s when the mature audiences watch, then I do not have a problem with it.

Q. So according to you the government ordering Colors to slot Bigg Boss to 11 pm was the right decision?

No, it wasn’t. I have a problem with government ordering. And I have a problem with government ordering in an arbitrary manner. I also have a much bigger problem with the inconsistency of the government’s approach. Last year when we did Sach Ka Saamna, the government said that it is only for mature audiences. I ensured that the show is taken to the 11 pm time-band. I also promised that we will not run promos and repeats in other time-bands. And despite that, the government proceedings continued against Star Plus. Suddenly a year later, the government comes and voluntarily asks a channel to push its primetime show to 11 pm. I don’t understand what change in the last one year happened for the government to become more moderate. So, I have a problem with this complete ad hoc approach of the government. What qualification does the government has to decide on these things? What scientific knowledge does the government possess to take such decisions?

Q. Industry associations such as IBF haven’t been able to help much. At one level you have a Bigg Boss which is unfortunately facing the brunt and on the other level you have an Emotional Atyachaar which is going scot-free just because it’s not a high-ranking show.

And it makes we wonder why. You’re right when you said that the industry associations haven’t been able to bring in an enforceable consensus on these issues, but we have made a lot of progress. As we speak, we have submitted a draft to the government for self-regulation and the government is very keen to move in this direction. If that happens, it will be a breakthrough not just for this country but generally for content as a whole. That we haven’t managed to get a consensus among the members is a matter for concern. The amount of short-term tactical temptations that broadcasters suffer from, not just in a way of content but in commercial matters, in branding, in strategy etc., is generally a matter for concern. When it happens with your content it erodes your social contract that you have with the civil society.

Q. The news channels keep airing clips of Bigg Boss… having been a news broadcaster at one point in time, how do you view this?

I think there is no justification for that. You just cannot do that! Besides everything else, forget about the content that you may be carrying. We have to stand for intellectual property rights. We cannot disregard them. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this - half the time the content is run, is aired without any consent from the IP owner, be it the broadcaster or the producer. And that’s not helping. If we stand for ethical behaviour in everything and if the core proposition of news is about just, ethical behaviour, how can you deviate from your own conduct?

Q. Are you able to instil that in Star News? Obviously, you have a stake in Star News.

We have a stake but we have no operational influence, as you know. The government doesn’t allow that.

Q. You mentioned that you get bored very fast. What would be your next high?

Difficult to say. I don’t think that far ahead and I’m not very good at that. I’m good at bringing in total focus, total attention and total energy to what I’m doing. It’s indeed a challenge in the regular broadcasting model. When you have run Star India you’ve rendered yourself unemployable for two reasons: First is the freedom this company gives you; freedom that I get from my bosses to run this company in exactly the way that I want. I don’t think any Indian media company would give managers such kind of freedom. And the second thing is the respect that this company has for content. We don’t believe in anything other than content. We believe that if you fix content, everything else gets fixed.

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