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Uday Shankar

CEO | 24 Feb 2012

Whatever we do must bring in many viewers and if we bring viewers, we should bring in a lot of money too. I don’t believe in doing anything that loses money, that is just lazy strategy and bad business. But the sad part is that any incremental viewership doesn’t get aggregated right now.

When Uday Shankar took over STAR India in 2007, the task that his bosses (Rupert & James Murdoch) entrusted him with was to build a media conglomerate of the future, or as Shankar calls it, Star 2.0. But in the extremely competitive media market of India, where staying afloat itself can prove difficult, staying ahead is tough indeed. Had the challenge been lesser, Shankar would perhaps not have taken it up at all.

Prior to joining STAR India, Shankar was CEO, Media, Content and Communication Services that operates channels Star News, Star Ananda and Star Mazha. He had joined MCCS as Executive Editor from Aaj Tak, where he was News Director. He began his career with The Times of India.

In this interview with Noor Fathima Warsia, Shankar talks of some of the steps the company took to reach its current position of dominance and some aspects that impact the growth of the industry itself. Excerpts:

Q. Let’s talk about what Star 2.0 is supposed to be...

Star 1.0 was the beginning of Star Plus and the remarkable leadership that came with it. The challenge was to build on that leadership and the company had done great work on that front. But it had begun to sag by 2006-07. My task was to define the next level of growth -- Star 2.0, in a manner of speaking. I would like to see what we have done in the last few years as homogenous growth that has led us to this. Today, our leadership is diverse and across markets and genres. We are prepared at all times to face a challenge in any market. We are defining new trends for this industry – that is what Star 2.0 is about. We are setting the entertainment industry’s agenda.

Q. STAR India has indeed been at the forefront of leading many new changes. What is on the cards this year?

Digitisation, changing the measurement system, getting a fair regulation in place, making sure self-regulation becomes a way of life are fundamental to the future of this industry, and these will continue to be the areas of focus. The way we view it is that while the industry has to be healthy in business terms to succeed, it also needs to maintain its social contract with viewers and society. You have seen STAR at the forefront on all these issues not because we would be personal beneficiaries, but because it is a responsibility that comes as market leaders and also when you are trying to build a business not for an analyst meet or a quarterly call, but a business that will stay for several decades, if not longer. If the ecosystem doesn’t grow and the environment doesn’t improve, then the first to be impacted is the leader. That is something I believe in and that is why we have pushed and will continue to push this agenda, very actively.

Q. We see television innovate in content and marketing, but not so much in advertising. Why is that?

One of the most challenging innovations is in advertising, and not because of dearth of ideas – don’t forget, this is also the network that started the concept of roadblocks and then everyone else followed. The problem is that innovation cannot happen till advertisers and agencies are on board and I find them completely reluctant and scared to innovate. When you innovate, by definition, there is a risk involved. And if a risk doesn’t pay off, it doesn’t pay off. We innovated, and hence took a risk, with Life OK. And so far, it has paid off. That is the beauty of it -- you can calculate and de-risk yourself as much as you can, but there is still a risk involved. Advertisers want broadcasters to guarantee that the risk will pay off – that does not work, and so there is a challenge. But we are seeing more people come and innovate. For instance, Idea just bought into our belief of Life OK and came on board, so maybe you will see some changes in the year.

Q. Was the three-day roadblock on STAR Network for Life OK, dropping all ads and the limited inventory on the channel itself, a commercially viable proposition for STAR?

Was the three-day roadblock on STAR Network for Life OK, dropping all ads and the limited inventory on the channel itself, a commercially viable proposition for STAR?

Q. Channels, including STAR India, drop inventory for competitive reasons too...

It is rare, and not something I endorse. I believe it is too tactical, and we should not undertake such short-sighted steps.

Q. Your move to decentralise content too has been a point of discussion. Do you think that is the way to go in the long run?

Broadcasting has become so complex that it is preposterous to even have the ambition of running it in any centralised manner. That is also not my way of working. When you know it is a 24x7 operation, then irrespective of how important a reporter, editor or producer is, they will have to take a break and someone else will have to take over. I believe in running things like that. I also believe media has been a victim of superstar phenomena, where there is one superstar who is expected to go and fix everything. That does not work. You can’t fix everything and even if you do fix, the fix will not last. One of the reasons why we are in a good position is primarily because of the depth of leadership that we have. I have great deputies. I would like to believe they have equally great people, and I believe most organisations have far more talent than they give themselves credit for. The problem is can you encourage, nurture and give opportunities to that talent? That is something I take pride in – we have managed to encourage that a great deal more at STAR now.

Q. There were reports that you were launching another Bengali entertainment channel...

Not that I know of. Don’t trust everything you read, trust everything you see.

Q. When are we going to see the Aamir Khan show then?

When you work with Aamir, you work until Aamir is satisfied. When you work with STAR, you work until STAR is satisfied. Right now, it is an amazing combination of STAR and Aamir. The show will happen, we are very excited about it. It is a show straight from the heart, and we are letting it take its time. But in 2012, for sure.

Q. How is the STAR-Zee Distribution JV panning out?

Very well. You have to appreciate the fact that the JV was a result of shared perspective, between Punit (Goenka, MD, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd) and me, on challenges before Indian distribution. There is nothing that has happened to change that shared perception. The history of the two groups has been very different -- we have had our own ways of working with different workforces. The transition has hence had its issues that any normal transition would see, but it has been remarkably smooth. There are problems that come up, but like very mature partners, we sit together and discuss the problem and we find solutions for every problem. It is too early to talk about benefits, and this partnership was not done for any tactical reason. We wanted to bring in the efficiencies that can come from a JV, we wanted to push digitisation and we wanted to curb piracy. The biggest achievement would be if this JV can create a consensus against piracy and under-declaration and tackle it.

Q. You have been very aggressive on your digital presence. Do we see you increase your focus on that in 2012?

Digital investment will increase, but I don’t believe digital is a separate stream. I believe in two ports –content and consumer. There is analogue cable, DTH, digital set-top boxes and so on as ways of reaching the consumer, digital will do the same thing. At STAR, our strategy is to make sure that we reach the consumer anytime, anywhere. We also know that there is the right medium for all kinds of content. The content that requires richness of the visual experience cannot be delivered best on mobile, so we would customise content according to the facility of the medium. Our approach is finally to make sure that each time the consumer holds a device that has a screen, he has access to STAR content.

Q. Do you see digital becoming an alternative revenue stream?

Whatever we do must bring in many viewers and if we bring viewers, we should bring in a lot of money too. I don’t believe in doing anything that loses money, that is just lazy strategy and bad business. But the sad part is that any incremental viewership doesn’t get aggregated right now. What TAM measures is fundamentally analogue with some bit of token DTH presence, but digital viewers like Internet and applications don’t get measured. That is frustrating, but eventually it would happen. BARC would come in play. There is a consensus in the industry that the current measurement system is deeply flawed and needs to be replaced.

Q. But conversations around BARC have been around for some time now...

Yes, but this is a country where things take time to change and you have to be patient. Only broadcasters seem to be pushing the BARC agenda and the government is keen on it. Everyone else seems to be holding it back for some spurious reason or the other because unfortunately a flawed measurement system has also encouraged cheap buying. There are clear vested economic interests at play here that are holding the industry back.

Q. On another note, the television industry seems to be attracting big monies again as one saw in the Reliance-Network18 deal. Any views on this?

Money has not been in short supply in the Indian media industry. People have splurged in the past as well. Media is becoming competitive and intense, so people have to put in money, but it is also the business where the social equity and civil interest is paramount. We all should be very watchful and cautious in our conduct. Certain sections, like politicians, have vested interests in targeting media.

Q. Do you expect 2012 to be a big year too?

I think it should be -- 2008 was when Jalsha, Pravah and Colors launched and it was a very big year. After that, 2012 should be a good year. Life OK should be able to do that. Because of what we have done, there would be a renewed push. The only thing that can hold it back is the economy, which continues to be in the doldrums. The slowdown sword is very real and sharp. None of us are truly geared, since we don’t know the scale. We are doing all the right things and at STAR, we are very tough on non-productive expenses. Despite the slowdown, we will continue to invest in content and innovations because it is only the investments that one makes during the slowdown that decide where they landed, when they come out of it.

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