'We would like to take news out of the clutches of prime time and inculcate the habit of anytime viewing' : Uday Shankar - Star News officiating CEO, editor & director of news

With the exit of Ravina Raj Kohli, Uday Shankar is now firmly at the helm of affairs at Star News. Shankar, who is now officiating CEO, editor & director of news, is a journalist to the core and has been associated with the innovations that catapulted Aaj Tak to its pinnacle of glory in its heyday. And is now keen to bring in some grassroot changes in the way news is presented on the channel that's the joint baby of News Corp and Ananda Bazar Patrika. An economics post graduate from JNU, Shankar, who has had stints at The Times of India, Sunday Mail, India Today, Sahara and Aaj Tak, believes in leading from the front.

He says he sees himself as the chief coach, a mentor who is around any of the 24 hours to give his team a helping hand. He has been a political journalist, has specialised in resource control as one of the founding editors of Down To Earth and now, seven months into Star News, is a seasoned man-manager, shepherding and guiding his flock of reporters. "Star News is my family in Mumbai," says this essentially Delhi man, who puts in over 12 hours of work in a typically seven day working week.

"While there are some general principles of communication, every story is different, and has to be treated differently and every day is a unique day," he tells's Aparna Joshi in a freewheeling interview.

What are the concrete plans you are putting together for Star News now?

Star News had a very good beginning, considering the fact we were the only channel that was truly just a year old, without any history of broadcasting. I think Star News has done a remarkable job, considering all the other teething troubles we have had, too.

The fact that we are very firmly in people's minds is a very encouraging sign. That's because, from the very beginning, Star News has always tried to be different, including the selection and presentation of news and types of shows. In the short term, we want to build on that, we will move into some areas of news that need to be exploited. We would like to examine rather than just report news...

We would like to raise the questions that come to people's minds when they watch news. That itself can change the way news is done.

People watch news channels because they are curious and they want the curiosity answered. We want to articulate questions in viewers' minds and answer them...I think that's a big challenge.

What will then happen to the element of entertainment that is seeping into all news channels these days...the Page 3 element, the glamour quotient?

I think all publications these days are catering in two ways to their viewers or readers - one is, giving them what they want, and the other, to gently influence viewers' tastes and suggest what is good for them.

While we don't want to sit in judgement over what they should want, we would like to point out the other side to them too. We want to be a channel that parents would recommend for their children, a complete family channel, because we project the right values, we help inculcate a sense of good values, and we make a differnce to the people's quality of life.

Have you identified any specific time bands that you would like to target?

TV news in this country has been a victim of prime time viewing. And that is a carryover from entertainment channels, hence the concept of morning and evening prime times. Increasingly, offices, workplaces, are having TV sets with a news channel on. News is something that has the potential of being viewed 18 hours a day, except those six hours when you go to sleep. We would like to take the news out of the clutches of prime time and inculcate the habit of anytime viewing.

"I think women are not being targeted enough and they are a very important segment of domestic decision makers"

So, out of home viewing will be a major part of it?

Yes, out of home viewing will be a major part of it. But there are a whole lot of people who are at home too.

I think women are not being targeted enough and they are a very important segment of domestic decision makers. News impacts their quality, but the sources of information is quite limited in this country than the sources of information for men.

But are women avid consumers of news?

I don't see any reason why not. If men like news, why wouldn't women? I also think that men watch news more because of the manner in which it is presented, the selection of news items that brings in the men. Even among men, it is only the older demographic that seems interested in news - the 35 plus, that's the standard news viewer.

So, how do you make the 18 plus guy watch news channels?

It has to do with the selection of news and presentation style.

Is that what is scheduled for change now?

Yes, we would like to.

Do you have a team in place for the proposed changes?

I think I have the youngest team in the business. You cannot target a young viewer and get a bunch of older people to do it.

Doesn't experience count in the business of news collection?

It does, but people will rise with experience on the job. What you need is to be in sync. If I am catering to your requirements, I need to know you, your likes and your aspirations.

I am all for a younger team. I think it's much easier for a younger team to cater to a younger audience as well as an older audience than vice versa.

You have just hired a whole new bunch in the editorial.

It's part of a regular, ongoing induction process. But the Star News philosophy is that we want to hire our own people and train them, apart from some critical people at the top. But generally we want to train them young, so that the news room is always full of energy.

What's the Star News team like today?

With the induction of the two dozen recruits now, the team is around 80. Counting the production people and everyone else, we are around 272, the leanest team in the business.

"The impact and reach of a news channel is not going to be determined by week on week ratings. If a news channel picks up an entertainment format and uses it to spike the ratings, what use is it? At the end of the day, you are not building the news"

You had mentioned in an interview with last year, that anyone leaving Aaj Tak would carry the stamp of that organisation. Have you done so yourself?

That was one of my biggest fears when I joined, that I would be carrying my thought patterns over with me. That is why I took some time off and thought over it, figured out the key elements of what marked Aaj Tak, and then I decided that I would not follow any of them. All of them are very strong, very powerful. I decided I would not repeat any of them.

That must have been a difficult decision.

It required a lot of inner discipline, yes. I shall be frank with you. Every now and then, I have had to make a conscious effort with my team not to repeat anything. It's been seven months now, and I have moved on. I like to move on. I don't get bogged down by the past. I am the kind of person, who, when everything is moving fine, still likes to experiment with something new.

How do you plan to carry forward properties like 'Poll Khol' that were launched as part of the elections coverage?

Poll Khol is still doing very well. Poll Khol was part of the channel's philosophy, to be the people's voice. There were certain constraints when doing straightforward news reporting. With satire, we could take a little bit of liberty. We could echo all the sentiments and questions that arise in people's minds when they watch big personalities in action. It's perfectly in line with our policy of asking tough questions on behalf of the people.

Will you be experimenting with newer genres like 'Poll Khol' for the coming assembly elections?

Yes, we are toying with the idea. I don't like doing anything that's similar to what I have tried earlier. But yes, we would like to expand that Poll Khol space further.

One of the biggest advantages of being headquartered in Mumbai is that we have been able to correct the Delhi-centric approach to news thus far. And that is what gives us a big advantage over everybody else for the coming assembly elections.

How much do you believe in the ratings one-upmanship that most news channels seem embroiled in constantly?

I am glad you asked me this question. The impact and reach of a news channel is not going to be determined by week on week ratings. If a news channel picks up an entertainment format and uses it to spike the ratings, what use is it? At the end of the day, you are not building the news. While the sales and marketing guys can fight the market share wars, I think the time has come for all news managers to take a step back and start looking at strengthening content. I personally don't view the ratings as the sensex and I don't encourage my team to do it either.

I come from a background, from a channel where the market shares were initially very high, went down and them came up again. News rooms should function towards creating an impact on the viewers rather than on the market share. Once you get the viewer attention, eventually market share follows.

So, how do you view the entertainment based shows on news channels? Are they good audience hooks?

I do not know whether they are good audience hooks, but I would be extremely wary of putting out shows like that. My definition of news is something that makes an impact, by influencing the quality of life of people. I am happy to do entertainment news, because entertainment is a big part of people's lives. People also need relief from the drudgery of life. But I am wary doing shows which are an inbreeding sort of phenomena, where the same set of people are covered at parties every night, and to the rest of the country, it doesn't make a difference. 99.99 per cent of the people watching have never been nor will go to these parties. So, for curiosity value, once in a while, it's fine to cover these events. But it won't be a part of Star News philosophy to do it all the time.

Is there a new channel, possibly a business news channel, coming from the Star News brand anytime soon?

We are a part of two media giants in the news business, so naturally we are looking at launching more channels, but I cannot give a definite timeline right now. We want to be the most trusted and widely watched news channel. We want to be the preferred choice, not because of market share, but because of viewer impact.

How much does the print experience help?

Oh yes, it does. Unlike what people say, I don't think there is a fundamental difference between print and television journalism. The only thing is that, in print, you have only the word to rely on, with the aid of pictures. On TV, you have the words, the moving pictures and the sound. It's just that the packaging tools are different. I have worked with all media, newspapers, magazines, and the experience has held me in very good stead.

How did the career shifts happen?

I like to do different things, try out something new. When the opportunity to do science, technology, environment, development issues came along, I plunged into it. I am also not terribly smitten by brand names.

And I had a very good time there, basically because I was writing on issues concerned with the quality of life, on how to improve the quality of people's lives, without jeopardising it in the long run.

I traveled a lot, reported a lot. I saw India in the real sense, and unlike mainstream publications, was able to spend a lot of time researching and studying my subjects before writing on them. I worked closely with Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, who spearheaded the effort.

Now that you are heading a mainstream news channel, do you feel handicapped by the lack of liberty in tackling subjects to an equal depth?

I am essentially an experimentor. Without sounding pompous, I like to be reminded of Newton's statement that I often feel like a child on the sea shore, chasing sea shells. I love different experiences. I toyed with print first, then when television happened, I was fascinated by the medium and used to spend a lot of time watching TV after work. The potential impact of TV used to excite me.

So, does that mean it would be difficult to pin Uday Shankar down to one medium, one organisation for too long?

No, one needs to settle down some time in life. I spent close to five years in Aaj Tak. I really enjoy TV. I hate to sound pompous, but I believe TV is my calling. I was also the editor of India's state of environment project, popularly known as the Citizen's Report, the most prestigious documentation till date on the environmental resources of the country.

I am essentially a communicator. One of the limitations I found at the end of my Down To Earth innings was that it addressed a niche audience and there were millions out there who did not have access to it.

And then, perhaps, there was this secret dream that I should be able to launch a channel myself. But I think TV is still in a nascent stage here. So, to return to your question about whether TV is shallow, it is not, it's just that each medium has its own hallmarks, and secondly, it's also evolving. Unlike print which has a 200-year history in the country, TV is still very young. If you keep that in mind, then the achievement of news channels in this country is phenomenal.

They have become so competent in terms of technology and production values, they can be compared with the best in the world, they are also alive to their social responsibilities. Though our distribution is largely urban-focused, the amount of reportage from rural areas is much higher than anywhere else.

But there is much more to be done, given the power and potential of Indian television, and given the kind of competitiveness that's come in. You are now going to see a lot of change.

The nature of news I am doing today is completely different from what I was doing three years ago. Three years ago, we didn't have a single outdoor satellite van, no one in this country had. Aaj Tak was the first to bring in two of those three years ago. Now, everyone has at least 20 of these. Three years ago, there was hardly any live news happening. Today, there is hardly any non live news happening.

I think we have just entered phase two of TV journalism now. Everybody is realising, that being a me-too does not help. People are beginning to find their distinct identities and niches, and everyone will soon have a unique value.

TV journalism is going to be very exciting in the next few years, you will see a huge difference.

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