Just shy of 47 years by nine days, Uday Shankar sits far more comfortably in his chair than he must have been when he first occupied in it October 2007 as the new CEO of Star India. Being offered the job was no small surprise, yet he took all of 10 seconds to accept it.
Shankar’s appointment had been preceded by the resignation of Peter Mukerjea and Sameer Nair, two big names who had established Star in India. Star India’s performance had been dipping noticeably, however. Star Plus, the badshah of general entertainment, was being strongly challenged. The powers at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corporation, which owns Star India, were worried. Star India had been the group’s highest revenue earner, after all.
The fact that both Mukerjea’s and Nair’s responsibilities, that of running Star India and of programming, were being wrapped into one and being offered to a newbie in television entertainment startled many, even within Star India. Shankar was a journalist, though he had been with Star since 2004, as Star News’ editor. Still, as he says, he was “someone who had not created five minutes of television entertainment ever.”
Thrilled at the idea of “running a company that reached out to 60 million people,” Shankar was apprehensive about two things: “One, there were many horror stories that Star was finished. Would I be able to grapple with that? And two, would I get the support of my colleagues in India and the continued trust of my bosses outside India?”
It was recently announced that Shankar will report to James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s son, and will also oversee Star’s sales and distribution offices in West Asia, the UK and US. A major vote of confidence surely, putting to rest the trust anxiety.
The first test, however, came last year, when Shankar decided to take the tough decision of restructuring Star’s relationship with Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms. “I was recommending that we should wind up the iconic TV shows Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kasauti Zindagi Ke and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. Internally, I had to work on creating a consensus. Rupert Murdoch warned me of the implications but supported me, as did my other bosses.”
Emboldened, Shankar has gone in for a number of other measures. “Television has evolved and moved beyond big cities into smaller towns as cable and satellite penetrates deeper. While people working in television understood the big city viewer, they were out of their depth with viewers in smaller cities and towns. This business was creating content sitting in Mumbai, for the rest of India.”
He adds that as a news journalist, his biggest strength was observation. “For me, the viewer is a living entity, not a concept. That was a critical perspective I brought in with me. You need to look at people, their needs, behaviours and the society in which they live to be able to deliver content that works with them,” Shankar asserts. Beyond that, he’s happy to hand programme and actor choices to experts in the team.
Shankar also emphasised the need for differentiated content, out of the box thinking and taking risks. “You may or many not succeed if you try to be different, but you’ll surely fail if you are not,” he says. “All our successful shows have been different.”
Exactly what competitors are also saying, especially in the general entertainment television space. They agree that differentiated content is the need of the day. Rakhi Ka Swayamvar on NDTV Imagine, Colors getting Amitabh Bachchan in to anchor Bigg Boss 3 and many such initiatives by competing channels are cited as conscious differentiating moves.
Shankar insists he’s concerned about what Star is doing. “Every TV office spends disproportionate amounts of time discussing ratings. I say fix the inputs first. Otherwise, you will never be able to fix output. Why do I need to know what my competition is doing? Then I would only be responding to them. That certainly won’t make me a leader,” he declares.
In an industry where everyone’s watching competition closely, it is unlikely that Star’s team is not watching too. However, Shankar has taken some unusual, even risky initiatives that have worked in Star’s favour. Besides, he expanded Star’s scope beyond soaps and cricket to include movies. “Now we’ve gotten into film content through Fox Star Studios. We’ve already launched Quick Gun Murugan and have announced the launch of My Name is Khan.” Star has also launched new channels in the Bengali, Marathi and south Indian languages.
Shankar speaks today with a confidence born of performance, even though there was some anxiety last year when Star Plus lost its top slot among general entertainment channels to Colors and Zee TV in turns for the first time in nine years. But last year, he insists, while the average television industry growth was in the region of five-six per cent, Star India’s growth exceeded it. “We came up with the best performance in revenue terms in the industry,” he claims. Going forward, he sees his challenge in the potential for creating innovations in the “cable-dark areas of small town and rural India” and in more niche content, as well as opportunities in the mobile and broadband platforms. In the meanwhile, he’s happy that Star Plus has a good two-three programmes featuring in the top 10 weekly list.