STAR India’s remarkable journey started in1991 when it started broadcasting its full channel line-up. STAR India’s trailblazing journey is intimately linked to the evolution of the modern Indian identity.
When the company was launched in 1991, its strategy was to focus on “the top 5 percent of Asian elites who spoke English and had buying power,” leaving out 95 per cent of the Asian market.
21CF acquires STAR TV
Things changed in July 1993, when 21st Century Fox (then News Corporation) acquired 63.6 per cent of STAR TV, buying the rest a year later. In terms of Western media, 21CF was one of the earliest of the rivals to place a bet on India, but homes receiving satellite and cable broadcasts were predicted to explode from 14 million to 53 million between 1995 and 2005, growing from 8 per cent to 25 per cent penetration.
In reality, STAR lost nearly $500 million between 1995 and 1999, largely because the majority of programming was English-speaking content. Some companies would’ve simply moved on but 21CF saw the enormous opportunity in this- localised content.
When STAR was finally able to create localised content for Hindi speakers, the big hits were Indianised versions of American and European content, like the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, called Kaun Banega Crorepati hosted by none other than Amitabh Bachchan, the game show launched in July 2000 and immediately skyrocketed to the top of the ratings charts, reaching 100 million views within a year, according to WSJ.
Meanwhile, STAR News had launched in 1998. In 2003, several competitors lobbied for new restrictions: foreigners could now own no more than 26 per cent of televised news operations, and top executives and editorial directors had to be of Indian descent. The restructuring left STAR News in a bit of a tailspin.
Enter Uday Shankar
Television journalist Uday Shankar left Aaj Tak for STAR News. For Shankar, the game was all about STAR carving out its own unique identity. STAR began building larger stories that had a direct impact on the lives of its viewers. Within a year and a half, STAR had left competition far behind to secure its No. 1 position.
In 2007, Shankar was tapped to run all of STAR TV, shaping the network’s many brands and, in the process, catalysing a coming-of-age for both Indian television and the Indian national identity. STAR broadened its entertainment offerings beyond the typically male-centered Bollywood style of storytelling, developing progressive content focused on strong, ambitious female characters.
21CF has always taken risks in international markets and in 2007, as the company was simplifying and divesting its presence in countries such as Russia and China, it increased its investments in India.
“We looked at markets that we thought could, in essence, really change our lives,” said 21CF CEO James Murdoch, “and we thought India in Asia was really that place with scale, with opportunity, that it could be a huge business, it could really drive growth.” The company believed, and still believes, that India could be the largest and most profitable market outside the United States.
Shining light on social agenda
This maturation of both culture and commercial potential culminated on May 6, 2012, when STAR launched Satyamev Jayate (SMJ), “at a time when there was a huge debate on the role and behaviour of media in India,” according to Shankar. “Media had just got into gathering eyeballs. It was forgetting the larger social agenda.”
Airing on Sunday mornings, typically a family time, SMJ dived deep into societal issues — everything from female feticide to sexual assault to mental illness and gay rights — explaining to “ordinary individuals and citizens of this country how they could make a difference,” said Shankar. Now, SMJ has become a rallying point for a more socially conscious and active India, raising $3.7 million during its first season to support NGOs working to improve the social issues discussed on the show.
STAR Sports turns local
In June 2012, News Corp bought out Disney’s 50 per cent equity stake in ESPN STAR Sports (ESS) and rebranded as simply STAR Sports on that foundation, moving the headquarters from Singapore to India. Following a similar path as the entertainment and news offerings, the sports network aimed to create and cater to a more localised audience, doubling down on cricket while also making investments in soccer and badminton — favourites of the subcontinent.
Then STAR Sports placed an unlikely bet on the ancient sport of kabbadi, giving it a professional, glossier makeover for national television and broadcasting in native Hindi. It became an overnight ratings success, drawing 200 million viewers in its first two weeks on air.
Hotstar and India’s digital revolution
Meanwhile, a kind of digital coming-of-age allowed this transformative content to reach more viewers in India and across the greater Indian diaspora. STAR’s original programming in eight different regional languages, as well as Hotstar, its industry-leading, mobile-first streaming service, have broadened its reach considerably.
After its beta launch in 2015, STAR’s Hotstar digital app has become one of the world’s fastest growing digital platforms and one of India’s leading over-the-top services. The confluence of entertainment, sports and digital distribution platforms has led the company to set ambitious growth targets for STAR, projecting $1 billion in earnings contribution by 2020.
STAR’s impact on the nation and its people
The true impact of SMJ, and STAR in general, on the collective and individual Indian psyche may be harder to measure quantitatively. It is felt on a more core level, certainly by its leader.
“STAR in many ways allowed me to give my own form a final shape,” said Shankar. “And part of it is that my bosses have given me the space to become myself.”
From a closed society; to one offering only English content; to the development of distinctly Indian news, sports and entertainment, STAR India has led a young country in establishing its national identity, at home and abroad.