I've been in media for 30 years and it feels like I'm just getting started: Uday Shankar

Uday Shankar, President, The Walt Disney Company, Asia Pacific, and Chairman, Star and Disney India, shared vignettes of his journey while delivering the AAAI Subhas Ghosal Memorial Lecture 2019

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Nov 12, 2019 9:15 AM

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Uday Shankar

Amidst an audience packed with the who’s who of the media industry, Uday Shankar, President, The Walt Disney Company, Asia Pacific, and Chairman, Star and Disney India, delivered the AAAI Subhas Ghosal Memorial Lecture 2019.

“Three decades ago, when I was starting out as a newspaper journalist, I hadn’t imagined that someday the most distinguished of my peers would be interested in what I might have to say.” But then, 30 years ago, I had no idea that I wasn’t just starting out to earn a living; I was embarking on a discovery of India and that I would get to know this country in a way that probably no other profession would allow me to,” Shankar exclaimed as he delved deeper into his journey so far.

Starting his career first as a journalist and then as a broader media professional let Shankar observe and understand the country deeply, objectively and uniquely. “As I slowly discovered, my profession also equipped me with an ability to impact this country and its people – both individually and collectively – in a way that few professions could have,” he remarked.

The industry leader shared some vignettes of his journey to illustrate this point. Recollecting an incident when he was barely a few weeks into The Times of India, Shankar said his Editor had asked him to do a review of the immunisation mission that the Government of India had launched to vaccinate people against preventable diseases. “Here I thought that a career in journalism would give me a chance to hobnob with the high and the mighty but my Editor obviously had other plans.”

Shankar said his brief was to examine the real impact that the immunisation mission was making on the lives of ordinary people and this landed him in Purnea, a district in the northeastern part of Bihar, where he spent a week trudging through villages crippled by extreme poverty.

And what he saw there changed his worldview forever. “I saw how a vaccine, worth less than what I paid for a meal at the Nirula’s restaurant in Delhi, could make a permanent difference to the future of a child and often a family. And this wasn’t true for only one or a few families… I saw villages after villages and I saw them day after day. On the other hand, I also saw how difficult it was…even with the best of intent...to deliver that vaccine to someone that could change a life. I saw some of the most dedicated and driven healthcare professionals with no expectations of any returns. Of course, there were slackers and even crooks, but I saw an overwhelming number of ordinary professionals who were driven by a sense of duty and a desire to help the helpless. This was all very different from what I, as a firebrand student and activist in JNU, had believed and argued about,” Shankar said.

He noted that the real India was a lot more layered and nuanced and the worst mistake one could make was to try to put it into stereotypes and clichéd ideological categories. That experience went on to become one of Shankar’s critical lenses for looking at India for the rest of his life. “The reality is complex… very complex… whether for a journalist or for a businessman or a politician. The ones who succeed are those who are able to grapple with all elements of the complexities and do not rush to hasty conclusions,” he asserted.

Sharing more about his experiences, Shankar said: “I could go on about the experiences that have shaped my understanding of India and built in me a life-long desire to examine the facts for myself and not be swayed by claimed superior wisdom. But not everyone has the luxury or the facility to dive into facts or situations themselves. That is why they come to us, the media folks – the journalists, the advertisers and the story tellers because they believe that we can help them make sense of their world. They trust us and our assessment and our judgement.”

How critical is that trust was brought home to him one winter morning almost 20 years ago when he was running Aaj Tak, a 24-hour news channel that he had helped launch for the India Today Group. “We had run a news break on Aaj Tak about a school bus accident in Noida. The information was only partially correct. We were right about the accident but the school that we mentioned had many branches and we had mentioned the wrong branch. We recognised our mistake and corrected it within 20-30 minutes. Throughout that day, I was getting calls from a woman who was working for the government. My assistant said she was very keen to speak to me but maintained that the call was personal. Finally, after several hours I returned her call. She thanked me and was very polite but what she told me still haunts me. It seems she was a war widow who was supporting her two kids who went to the same school whose bus we had mistakenly claimed was involved in the accident. The accident had happened near her house. She told me that since she lost her husband in Kargil, she was always fearful of something happening somewhere, due to which she might lose whatever remained of her fractured world. She told me Aaj Tak was her window to the world and at her home the channel was always on because she believed it always alerted her about what lay ahead.

“She said, for a moment, Aaj Tak had brought her world crashing down. For a few minutes, the channel that was her most trusted ally in this fearful world had turned her world upside down...falsely. In a very calm voice, she told me she thought we were always to be trusted and were even infallible, but we broke her trust with that mistake. And that she could never trust us again. For a moment, I thought she was overreacting, after all we were human too. But as her world slowly sank in, I understood what she meant. She had given me the most valuable lesson about the centrality of trust and credibility in our business. While she was talking about news, this is no different in entertainment or in advertising or in any other part of our business. For the last 20 years, her words still echo in my years… and even now she often serves as voice of caution to me. Am I breaking someone’s trust to promote my business or my self-interest. I hope I don’t fail her again,” Shankar said as he opened up.

During the speech, he also looked back at an incident that changed the course of his career in a big way. Shankar acknowledged that even as a newspaper reporter he was smitten by TV. “The year was 1991, and the event was the First Gulf War being telecast on CNN - just my idea of love at first sight! I just wanted to do TV news. One day, my wife said that instead of just wishing that I had an opportunity why didn’t I do something about it. I was well settled, a senior editor at a niche but respected publication called Down To Earth, but my wife’s words had the right effect on me and the next day I quit my job.”

After struggling without a regular income for over six months, during which his wife’s earning was the only thing to go by, Shankar found a job at a news bulletin that Zee was launching. But there was a difficult trade-off – he had to take a salary cut of more than 50 per cent. “A journalist’s salary wasn’t very high anyway, but a 50 per cent cut! That hurt. But I took it,” he said. What followed was a period of incredible financial challenges for about five years, then came Aaj Tak and his personal situation also became comfortable. “Aroon Purie is a fair employer. But this period of struggle was of a series of learnings – personal and professional. However, the most important lesson that I learnt was to follow my heart, hear my inner voice and not worry too much about the consequences when one is convinced that this is the right thing to do. I have followed that ever since... and it has held me in good stead,” Shankar asserted.

Revealing another life lesson that he had picked up along the way, Shankar recounted the time when he had been running Aaj Tak for a few years and was incredibly successful and comfortable. “But a question began to nag me – how much of the success of Aaj Tak was mine and how much of it came to me because I happened to be at the right place at the right time. The only way was to test myself once again,” he said.

Along came an offer from Star News and Shankar took it. “On the face of it, it was a bad decision. Star News was at the bottom of the heap and wasn’t falling further because there was no further depth to fall. Once I took over, I realised that content, which I understood and had been brought in to do, was just one of its problems - its marketing, distribution, sales, morale, leadership and whatever else that you can think of had gone wrong. The problem was that I didn’t know anything about any of this and there was no one else who cared or was willing to help. Star News was as messed up as anything could ever be. All the success and equity that I had created for myself was at risk. I should have run for my life. Instead, I decided to dive headlong and took over as CEO. Everyone thought I was going to break all the previous records for the most disastrous stint as a media CEO. The problem was that even I couldn’t disagree with that forecast. I knew nothing of running a business, let alone fixing a broken business. But as a journalist I had learnt one thing – that when you don’t know something, go to people who understand it better than you. That’s what I did. I went on and hired some good people. People who were good at their jobs but made me look really stupid in that area. Of course, content was my forte. So I focused on content and hiring good talent, and I focused on not being defensive about what I didn’t know. I also asked them many questions… I challenged them to think different. Slowly we turned the tide. Star News moved from the bottom of the pile to the top. It also got me the offer from the then NewsCorp to run Star India. This was by far the most coveted and prestigious job for a media professional. It was a great reward for what I had done so far,” Shankar revealed.

He contended that there were many who found NewsCorp and the Murdochs’ decision pretty shocking. “In all honesty, I too wondered why would I be offered that job? Star then was much smaller but was still one of the biggest media companies in India. At Star News, at least content was my forte. Here I had no such advantage. I had no experience of entertainment content... and even less of other areas of business. I recall discussing this with me wife and my daughter, who was very young then. I asked them if I was taking a risk. Very innocently, my daughter asked me what risk did I think I was taking? She said ‘aren’t the Murdochs the ones who are taking the risk?’ So that was the context in which I walked in,” said Shankar.

What didn’t seem to help matters was that there was an exodus from the company because two of the most formidable former executives of Star were launching their own channels and clearly the staff at Star India had more faith in them than in me.

“First and foremost, from my journalistic experience, I was aware that a crisis could be a tremendous opportunity and what I had walked into Star was a crisis,” remarked Shankar. However, instead of putting a patchwork to quickly fix it he decided to play the long game and do the right things. “A lot of very good and senior people had left. I decided I shall over-index on intelligence, youthfulness and irreverence. I also decided to discount experience. Oxymoronic as it might sound...in my experience... cliched thinking and laziness come with the package called experience. By the way, no one in my leadership had any previous media experience either. But I was convinced that between the people at Star and me, there was enough understanding of media in the company,” he recounted.

This unleashed really powerful forces in the company. “The new talent questioned ways of doing things in media… and the media veterans at Star questioned them. I had set one ground rule: we won’t follow you because of who you are. You have to convince the room with facts and arguments. I asked a lot of questions to everyone and also pushed everyone to question me and others. Challenging and questioning the status quo or the dominant thinking became the culture of Star. That, I would like to believe, is still how it is. Hindi was the most profitable market in entertainment and Star was its leader. Even as our leadership was under pressure from new challengers, we were going into regional markets and once again, with the same approach – to disrupt the status quo in each of those markets, except perhaps in Kerala where we were the market,” continued Shankar.

Another aspect the maestro revealed was what he had learnt from cricket - that in a winning team everyone, including the captain, must have a very clear role and not just to that person but to everyone. “As we were rebuilding Star, it was very clear who would deliver what. Unfortunately, in a winning team, it’s also possible for a person to just do the odd job and get by because the team is winning. Culturally, that is probably more destructive than anything. I have tried to guard against that. Honestly, it can be a big challenge in bigger and successful companies,” Shankar said.
He further pointed out that one would be surprised to know how few content companies have content at their core. “At Star, I have tried to push that several years ago to disrupt Star Plus itself, to challenge Star Plus, to shut down wildly successful shows to try out new story tellers... and above all to tell stories that did not fit in the usually “experienced” understanding of good stories. The best example of that is - Satyamev Jayate. It was a show that everyone thought didn’t belong on an entertainment channel. After all, who in their right mind would advise an entertainment channel to run a show on the Sunday morning slot, discussing delicate social issues with the entire family sitting around? But in the hindsight, Satyamev Jayate made a real impact on shaping our society, and I say this with a touch of pride.”

Then there was sports…famously the graveyard of media companies…but Star decided to get into sports. “We doubled down on cricket – ICC, BCCI and then IPL. No media company had ever invented so much in cricket or perhaps in any one sport as we had. Then we decided to double down on Indian languages. As if that wasn’t enough, we decided to risk our destiny on such sports as kabaddi. It’s worked out well…our sports business is still very much work in progress, as is the sports consciousness in India. But we are surely building one of the most exciting franchises in the world,” Shankar added.

But the next adventure was even crazier. “When India was dismissed as a data dark market and mobile was a device only for talking, we decided to launch Hotstar. Everyone thought that we were crazy…we certainly were. But we believed in this country…it’s surprising ability to leapfrog and we believed in ourselves. With Hotstar, once again we went by our playbook – get the best talent that you could and disrupt the ecosystem. Streaming was still supposed to be a catch-up medium. We decided to put all our live sports on it, we even decided to put our entertainment content on Hotstar ahead of its airing on our channels.”

Shankar also spoke about the advertising campaign that said ‘Get Over TV’. “India’s biggest TV company was talking about getting over TV, and that too, the campaign ran most aggressively on our own TV channels. The verdict was that this time our craziness had crossed all limits, even our colleagues at Star were aghast and upset this time. Maybe we went too far but without that we couldn’t have created the most successful video streaming platform outside of the US and China, that too in a country which was not supposed to be ready for streaming. When we were launching Hotstar, a senior executive at one of the global tech and video giants had warned us – ‘go ahead and try it… you will lose a lot of money and effort and then you will come to us begging to host your content. Don’t worry... we will be kind.’ Now they can’t get tired of hiring our talent… not just one company, any global tech and media company that’s active in India seems to have just one destination to pick up talent – Star India. It is annoying but it is also a tribute to the team that we have at Star India. Thanks to Hotstar, people of this country can consume high quality drama, movies and sports on their 30 dollar mobile phones, no matter where they are. Of course, Jio has been an incredible partner in that journey,” he shared.

“I am in media for 30 years and it feels like I am just getting started. Because the media industry has allowed me to not only understand and experience India in an unbelievable way, but over the years we have become change agents for India. At Star, we don’t just believe in a better India, we believe in our duty to participate and shape that India. Of course, when a company like the Walt Disney Company values and embraces the business we have built, the feeling is immensely gratifying,” Shankar said as he signed off.

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