When Uday Shankar took over as COO of STAR India in 2007, the flagship channel Star Plus was not doing very well in the competitive Hindi GEC space. Now, a decade later, Shankar is the Chairman and CEO of Star India, having infused the company with his innovative ideas, and steering it to pole position as the largest television broadcaster in India. The meteoric rise of Star India can be attributed to Shankar’s acumen and risk-taking ability – be it radically changing the programming right after he took over to bring in refreshed and progressive content, expanding aggressively in the regional space, betting big on sports with huge investments, buying media rights for BCCI and ICC matches, setting the agenda for social change with programmes such as Satyamev Jayate or the recent ‘Nayi Soch’ positioning, technological innovations like Hotstar and acquiring digital rights for the IPL, re-introducing India to Kabaddi as a television sport and creating and investing in various sporting leagues. Most of the well-thought out gambles of Shankar have paid off, and cemented his position as one of the most influential persons in the Indian Media & Entertainment space, even as he continues to innovate and disrupt. Meanwhile, the bosses at 21st Century Fox, which owns Star India Pvt. Ltd, bet big on Uday Shankar and say the company is well on track to achieving its target of earning $500 million in 2018 and $1 billion by 2020, riding on its regional and sports content.
Here, industry peers give us their overview of Uday Shankar’s 10 years at Star India:
‘Rare combination of guts and values makes Uday a unique leader’
By Shashi Sinha, CEO, IPG Mediabrands India
The rise of Uday Shankar from a journalist to the top job at Star India is an inspiring story in itself. There is no one else in the media industry in this country who has seen such phenomenal success. And how Star India maintained the leadership position under Uday’s guidance is also an extraordinary tale. There are very few markets in the world where a broadcaster has maintained its leadership position for so long.
I met Uday for the first time in 2004-2005 when he was still the CEO at Star News. We met at a common friend’s house and I remember having a long discussion with him. He gave me a solid lecture on the importance of values and principles and that stayed with me. There are very few people I know who have such a strong sense of ideology. We kept in touch and met regularly at IBF meetings and Uday would always take the principle stance. Eventually, we became great friends.
There is a famous incident around his appointment as Star India CEO and we keep joking about it even now. There was a Star News party in Delhi and there were 5-6 of us including Uday, Vikram Sakhuja and Pramath Raj Sinha, and the next day, we were all flying together to Goa for Goafest. We reached Goa in the morning and the conclave was in the evening. We had a hearty lunch together and decided to meet again in the evening after a quick nap. But in the evening, there was no sign of Uday. His phone was switched off and he was simply missing. It so happened that Uday already knew that he was getting the top job at Star, but was asked to keep it under wraps. When he landed in Goa, he was immediately called back to Mumbai as Star wanted to make the announcement. The next day, Star made the announcement.
In a nutshell, I would describe Uday as a man of strong principles, which germinates from his journalistic background. These principles remained with him when he became the CEO of Star and I believe that has helped him stay at the top. He reached the pinnacle of success because he took several gutsy decisions after he took over at Star. He pulled back shows like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kasauti Zindagi Ke and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki to introduce a fresh line-up of programming that was much ahead of its time. Some worked, some didn’t. But that’s the rule of this game. One of the biggest decisions he took was when he bought the BCCI media rights. I was so impressed that I called him and told him what a gutsy decision it was. This rare combination of guts and values makes Uday a unique leader.
‘When it is Uday, you know that the best is yet to come, always!’
By Sudhanshu Vats, Group CEO, Viacom18
Uday Shankar is amongst the handful of people that have had a significant impact on me, both as a professional and at a personal level. As someone who entered the world of entertainment after spending years as a revered, top-notch journalist, his ability to question the status quo and take big (and at times contrarian) bets is truly admirable. He has a trademark way of getting things done – and surrounds himself with people who have immense faith in their own ability to take challenges head-on. These are leadership traits that are worthy of emulation. Despite the fact that present-day India is far more sure-footed than the India of the late 80s or early 90s, even today, youngsters find it difficult to deal with setbacks. Many of them wrongly interpret their inability to gain admission into a school of their choice or a small setback in their career as a mark of their own shortcomings. If you chart Uday’s early days, it’s inspiring to see how he dealt with his failure to enter the Civil Services and turned it into an opportunity to enter the world of journalism. I’m sure many young Indians can steer their own lives in a better fashion after learning more about his journey. I have had the fortune of working closely with him on several matters related to our industry and each time, I have taken away a lot from his frank, future-focused, big-bang approach to complex challenges. On the personal front, I have always been impressed by the pride he takes in his own roots. He is a caring and gracious host who pays a tremendous amount of attention to the well-being of his guests – can’t wait to savour a sumptuous portion of litti chokha at his next gathering! When it comes to Uday, you know that the best is yet to come, always. Godspeed.
‘Uday has proven that impossible things can be made to happen’
By Piyush Pandey, Executive Chairman & Creative Director, South Asia, Ogilvy & Mather India
It’s been a fantastic innings from a man who is not supposed to be a businessman. A journalist all his life, Uday comes from a humble background in Bihar. And then he comes and shows an entrepreneurial spirit, courage, and becomes a team-builder to create a network, which is to be envied. He leads with his down-to-earth mannerisms and his knack of experimenting with things. I have had the pleasure of working with him for many years, and the way he re-invented Star Plus, the way he imagined how Kabaddi could be transformed and reinvented from a rural sport into an urban phenomenon, just shows how remarkable he is. It needs vision and involves a lot of risk-taking, and he has gone and proven to the world that impossible things - things that you don’t think will happen - can be made to happen.
Once Uday believes in an idea, he will go the whole hog on the professional front. He would not hesitate to walk into a meeting with Aamir Khan or me or anybody else because he thinks it’s important for us to hear his vision for him. On a personal level, I share a great rapport with him and our backgrounds are fairly similar. We both believe in India.
I’d say that one decade is not good enough, you need more decades from him.
‘Uday’s journey is a case study for those who dare to dream’
By Raj Nayak, COO, Viacom18
I met Uday Shankar 28 years ago, when we were both working for a newspaper called the Sunday Mail. He was a journalist in Editorial whilst I was in Sales & Marketing. Like many of our generation, he too has gone through the grind, but his sheer passion, commitment, hard work and the wealth of experience he gathered along the way has slowly taken him to where he is today. From a reporter to television news producer to the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar entertainment conglomerate is no mean feat. His journey is inspirational and a case study for those who dare to dream.
A tough competitor to have with razor sharp business acumen, he has not only leap-frogged Star TV in India to the next level, but has done so by taking some unconventional and outsized risks. But where others would only see gamble, he has the long term vision of an astute, if somewhat unconventional, entrepreneur – a trait that percolates to the organisation that he runs as well. In an industry defined by dynamism and transience, Uday’s conviction and courage to back it up stands out. He is quick in his decisions and yet has the gumption to fight – a combination that makes him fiercely competitive and a respected industry thought leader. As President of IBF, he has had a huge role to play in pushing the agenda of digitisation and also in the creation of BARC.
On the personal front, despite his tough exterior and a sharp tongue, he has an emotional side to him. He is a true friend. He will always respond to your phone calls, compliment you on the little things in life, wish you on your birthday, et al. I remember, during one of the Goafests, we were chilling over a beer when he received the call of him being made the CEO of Star and naturally I was the first to congratulate him. Similarly, when I joined Colors, Uday was amongst the first to call and wish me and offer me any kind of support that I may need in my new endeavour. We don't get to meet each other often, these days, but we do ensure that we have a customary lunch at least once a year with zero agenda. Just the two of us shooting the breeze, discussing the state of the industry and the nation.
Uday, if you’re reading this, we need more people like you, people who fight like knights and celebrate like kings and bring all together as a statesman par excellence. Here’s raising a toast to a future scaling new heights!
‘He relied on a young boy to make the epic Mahabharat’
By Siddharth Kumar Tewary, Founder & Chief Creative, Swastik Productions
Circa 2009, I was called by Star India to make the epic series ‘Mahabharat’ and to take a brief from Uday Shankar, the person who had dreamt of it. I had accompanied then EVP at Star India, Vivek Bahl, who had liked my work and thought I would be the best person for the job. In walked Uday Sir (that’s what I call him as he commands it), sleeves rolled up as if ready to take on the world. Within two minutes of pleasantries, he came straight to the point and gave me a sharp brief that in a way has shaped the way I tell stories till date. He said that all of us would have seen the legendary series on Mahabharat, but it was more than 20 years since it had aired on Doordarshan. He also said that an entire new generation had come in, that wasn’t aware of this epic story, and the approach was to target this audience. But the big question was - would they watch it? I confidently said we would tell it differently and with technological advances, we would be able to present it uniquely as well... In a trice, he came to his point: “Make it relevant”.
He added that people only do things that are relevant to them, and aren’t interested in the rest. The Mahabharat is a centuries old epic series, retold many times, and whoever did it successfully made it relevant to the time in which it was being told. That’s exactly what he wanted us to do.
This clarity led us to adopt a completely different approach. At every step, every hurdle, he motivated me never to give up, and I didn’t. More than me, he didn’t give up. What followed was years of hard work and facing challenges. Everyone else had given up, and people would look at me and wonder whether I still believed it would ever be on air. What they didn’t know was that I believed in Uday Sir, and finally one day, he called me and to my surprise, asked me to make the series on a much bigger scale than what was originally planned. “We need to give our viewers premium content,” he said, and added, “Even before the viewers hear the dialogues, they should be in awe of the visuals. Let’s make it the biggest series on Indian television.” After five years, we went on air, all guns blazing, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Uday Sir trusted a young boy with no experience to re-create the biggest epic in this country as a TV series. I even told him before the launch, “You are a true leader, Sir. You believed in what I said, especially when I didn’t even have a showreel that could certify the risk.” He said, “Content creation is all about who creates it, and I believed in you.”
Gratitude for everything, Sir. You made me relevant.