Television

'Parentage of Star News lends a vision; we'd convey it editorially':Uday Shankar - MCCS' chief executive

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Star News has always been under a canopy of controversy from the time the Rupert Murdoch-controlled Star group took control of the news channel after divorcing its Indian content partner of five years, NDTV, early this decade. Now, as the channel grapples with increased competition and inherent problems of the broadcast and cable industry, the managers of the channel, Media Content & Communications Services India Pvt Ltd (MCCS), are looking to chart a new road map.

In this interview with Indiantelevision.com’s Manisha Bhattacharjee, MCCS’ chief executive Uday Shankar discusses various aspects of the news business. Sitting in his office at Star House in Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi area, Shankar looks unpeturbed as one tells him that Star News has a distribution problem. He shoots back nonchalantly: “Of course, there is (a problem). We are seized of the issue and are developing a programme to be in touch with the cable industry on a daily basis.”

Some people may take this nonchalance as arrogance, but for Shankar it’s a way of telling his critic that he’s taking the problems head on and not shying away from them, thinking they’ll fade away on their own. A journalist at heart, Shankar has evolved into a manager and is credited with making, along with others and oodles of support from his previous employer Aroon Purie of The India Today group, Aaj Tak what it is today --- the market leader in the news genre.

At Star News, Shankar needs not only to consolidate, but move up the ladder too in a bid to catch up with those ahead. And, he’s slowly realizing that money cannot solve all problems in the broadcast and cable industry. Had that been so, the Kolkata-based ABP group and Star combine would have had a rollicking time in the news market. But challenges do excite Shankar, who has taken to Mumbai like a fish to water after having spent a major part of his life in Delhi amidst politicians and politics.

Excerpts:

What is your take on the TV news market and where is it heading?

The news market in this country has, to use a clichéd phrase, great potential. But, surprisingly, it hasn’t expanded at the rate it should have. Or, what we all in the industry had thought it would. I’ll validate this by saying that even today, with so many news channels (domestic and foreign) abounding in India, the total news market is a mere 7-8 per cent of the total satellite universe.

What has been the reason for this? I feel it has got something to do with the type of news being dished out and the way it’s being done. Despite the fact that I stand the chance of being ridiculed by my colleagues in the industry, I’d say news in India, especially on the Indian channels, has been skewed towards the older male audience.

As news channels we collectively need to create programmes that would be of interest to other family members too, apart from the males.

Is your agenda at Star News to make news channel watching appealing to non-male members of an average Indian family?

Shouldn't that be the aim of any executive of any news channel? You see, the new generation has a different attitude. Today young boys and girls are voracious consumers of information and there is a variety of platforms available to them to catch up with what's happening around the world. Why would a global breed, exposed to international trends, take to digesting or snacking news the traditional way. Or, the way we at news channels think they should. For audiences exposed to the best in the world, we need to come up with programming that satiates this hunger.

At Star News, our aim is to use our parentage to do this --- deliver news and information to an audience that may be residing in India, but expects the best. We would use Star's (read its parent News Corp's) international experience to deliver a classy product to local audiences, which is understood better by the Indian partner, that is the ABP Group. The parentage of Star News lends it a vision and we would convey the same editorially. At least, our aim would be to do so.

Okay, what is this phase II at Star News all about?

In short, going behind the news to give the viewers a real picture. Explaining to them the finer points of news and information without sacrificing on quality or packaging.

We are trying to evolve programming that would interest the whole of society and not just a part of it. It's not that women don't like to watch news or news channels. But their preferences and tastes are different. So, we need to cater to their needs too. That's why, on Star News, we introduced a show that talks about TV shows and serials.

The role of the media, for example, is also to identify villains, suggest solutions and provide a platform for issues to be discussed and debated. We are trying to do this too.

Presently, what's happening? Everybody is caught up in delivering the news as fast as possible. In TV news, speed definitely is the USP, but it has also made everybody fight for breaking news, which, I think, has been trivialised. For a viewer, it really does not make a difference. Breaking news as a driver was part of phase one, which Aaj Tak perfected. But now the time has come to evolve out of this phase and that's what Star News, in its own small way, is trying to do.

Would you agree that amidst this hurly-burly to beat competition, TV news has really failed to evolve as it still fails to set the national agenda, leaving the print medium to do so?

In a way, yes. But that does not mean that television is incapable of doing what the print is doing or has done. If television has its advantages, like speedy delivery of information with the help of technology, it also has some limitations. TV rarely gets beyond the obvious and this is something that needs to be addressed collectively by the electronic medium and not individual channels.

If collectively, we manage to make the news market grow, there will be growth prospects for everybody.

It's said that in India, if the media has to survive, then it would have to take the crutch of politics and political reporting. How far do you agree that politics still sells in in India?

Politics will always sell, but we need to talk about politics that affect the people and their lives. Mere reporting the party politics does not interest the viewers of today much. TV needs to grow beyond this line of thinking that party politics interest people at large. Simply because there's a class of people, a generation that has grown up despising politics and politicians and look at them with contempt.

'Whether an English language channel is next in line, it'd be difficult to commit on that'

So, how is Star News trying to be different in this aspect?

At Star News, we believe if we have to cover politics, then why not talk about the economic mess that Bihar is in, for example? Why not talk about the fact that even after 50 years of independence, a large portion of the Indian population is illiterate?

Again, all such thoughts are laudable, but as far as market share is concerned, Star News lags behind three other channels?

I wouldn't say that market share and ratings do not matter. Of course, they do. But building a TV news channel is a along process and the parents of Star News realize that.

Would it really matter if ratings are obtained by taking actresses, for example, to armymen? We can also do this and get ratings, but we don't want to do it. We want to build a news channel that's a family channel.

A news channel as a family fare? Next, you'll say Star News wants to compete with the entertainment channels...

Of course, we want to be a family channel and don't be so skeptical. By a family channel, I mean that every member in the family should be interested in watching Star News for his or her own reasons. Take, for example, Poll Khol (produced by BAG Films). It's a politics-based programme, but it's done in a way that appeals to almost everybody. It's one of our top rated shows.

Then, during the cricket series we aired a show called Match ke Mujrim. It's related to sports, but looks at cricketing issues from a different angle, even while providing a platform to the aam janata (the hoi-polloi) to air their views on cricket, which is a passion in our country, rather than listen to experts handing down their views after or before a match.

Such programming has the potential of drawing viewers from all walks of life. And, this would give us the market share that you were talking about. For me, market share is all about reach, which is backed by consistency.

You admit then that Star News too is looking at reach and market share like the No. 1, Aaj Tak.

As I said earlier too, I am not against being numero uno. A day would come when that too will be a reality. At the moment, our intention is to consolidate our position and then surge forward.

Moreover, channels have bought placement (on cable networks for better veiwership). As a company, we need to decide whether we would like to spend money on buying better placement.

How much carriage fee has been paid by Star News for being available on tuenable bandwidth on cable networks and is distribution still a problem despite it being looked after by Star?

Carriage fee is a reality that one cannot run away from. I'll also appear out of sync if I say there's no distribution problem.

Of course, there is. We are seized of the issue and are developing programmes to be in touch with the cable industry on a daily basis. We are looking at building relationships with cable operators and this need not necessarily mean that we'd pay hard cash.

We are developing a strategy that would entail working with the cable industry and helping operators at different levels like getting them to identify technology and helping them to understand the global scenario too. It's a series of initiatives.

Why did MCCS take over the responsibility of ad sales for Star News when Star India was doing it?

The MCCS board, which has representation from Star too, felt that ad sales of a news channel needs dedicated selling and a bouquet selling was not yielding enough dividends. No advantage was coming through such a set up.

The MCCS board has its own ideas and it felt that the value to an advertiser (on Star News) could be improved through focused selling.

Let us talk about other things like MCCS foraying into other Indian languages. What do you have to say on this?

The company certainly has some plans, but they are still on the drawing board. English is certainly a language we are looking at. Then there are some other Indian languages too that we are exploring. South India (and South Indian languages) is a viable market, but we don't have much experience in that market, so we'll have to tread carefully.

If you ask me whether an English language channel is next in line, it'd be difficult to commit on that. What I can say is that we'd look at some activity this year.

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