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Uday Shankar@FICCI Frames 2016: The real digital challenge

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Good morning.

Honorable Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad Ji, Chairman TRAI R.S. Sharma, Mr. Mukesh Ambani, Ramesh Ji, friends from the world of media and entertainment.

As co-chair of FICCI’s M&E committee, I have had the opportunity to address you for a few years now. I take this as a rare privilege and hence spend some time thinking through what I should say. A few weeks ago, as I was discussing the theme with some of my colleagues, a young assistant of mine - cocky on youth and his recent admission to Harvard Business School stated rather dismissively that there wasn’t anything new to be said as there wasn’t anything new happening in the M&E sector. While it sounded like a cynical assessment at that time it did set me thinking if there was indeed a grain of truth in what he said. On the surface, it does seem that not much has changed in the last several years except for some incremental growth or decline depending on which vertical you are talking about. Cable TV continues to struggle - struggling to improve its business case, struggling to improve its talent & technology quotient and above all to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world.  DTH, that set out to revolutionize distribution, increasingly seems to be intent on locking its destiny inside an isolated box in a networked world. Even the story of digitalization that started 6 years ago remains incomplete. The advertising revolution of the 90’s when a large number of international and Indian brands were built on television screens, doesn’t seem to be breaking new ground in terms of what I call brand revolution 2.0. Content creators, a community that I belong to, generally seem to be caught in a time warp with the same themes playing in a loop again and again –cursed destinies, rebirth and revenge and deference to elders in public while bickering in private, pretty much sums up what rules national entertainment. The quality of news of course, seems to cause only national consternation, with now even our friendly neighbor taking a pot-shot at our news channels!Over all, it seems the more things change the more they remain the same.  So maybe my colleague was right after all.  

But then is the picture really as gloomy as this? Because beneath the surface ofentrenched stagnation, quietly - almost stealthily -there is a gigantic disruption playing out. A disruption that’s shifting the ground from beneath our feet.  

My friends, allow me to recap the year for you.  The creative group to make the most waves last year were 4 youngsters, irreverent enough to take on our entire film industry and then build on that success by putting the entire country under a scanner.  This is a group who has the audacity to have a name so offensive that our news media calls them by their acronym AIB.  Yes, I am talking about All India Bakchod, who are perceived as comedians although this is not a group of people who make imbecile jokes while dressed in a funny manner.  More than once they have set the news agenda for the nation.  They have the gall to take on the combined might of big telcos and Mark Zuckerberg’sFacebook when they felt that the freedom of the internet was being parceled away.  They have used humour to put a spotlight on the state of fire stations in India or for that matter the behavior of the police force. As a group, these four youngsters made more headlines last year than probably all of the creative community put together.

Very recently one of the pioneers of television entertainment told me that she was so frustrated by the frozen state of traditional media that she was going to create a digital enterprise to tell the stories that traditional media has been too scared to tell.  Of course, I am talking about the totally adorable - Ekta Kapoor.  Think about that for a moment – the person who created the archetype of saas and bahu feels the need to break away from these stifling constraints of the medium that she herself created.  Why?  When that happens, we all need to think hard.

Friends, the most talked about launch in Indian M&E last year was not a new channel, or a new newspaper or a new production house – actually it was a mobile app that had the gall to ask consumers to go solo.  A call fundamentally at odds with the concept of content consumption in this country, that believes that the entire family watches TV together in the living room. Well, I am talking about the launch of our very own hotstar.  In just about a year, hotstar has been downloaded over 50 million or 5 crore times.  What is the implication of this?  Consider this – more people have watched the English Premier league on hotstar last year than on television.  Yes, EPL was watched by more people on hotstar than on television.  Even for a mass sport like cricket, in the larger cities, hotstar’s watch time is now starting to reach 50% of television.  I urge you to reflect on the potential of that statistic.   This infant service is already becoming a product of habit in India and now this year, my friends, we have set our sight on creating the first global Media & Entertainment product born out of India, when we take hotstar to the rest of the world in a few months.  The numerous and affluent south Asian diaspora which for the longest time has been frustrated by the lack of access to its favourite content will be able to watch cricket, movies and drama through hotstar.  While I am indeed happy for hotstar to be the pioneer, we are very aware that this is a trend that will get replicated again and again, very quickly.

This colossal shift by no means is limited to television.  At the risk of earning her disapproval, let me share the story of my daughter – she is a serious academic whose job is to analyze the social sector and legislation for a living.  She is always on top of news and opinion articles and yet I have never seen her hold a physical newspaper in her hand.  Her daily dose comes exclusively from the digital universe. Her intake ranges from headlines under 140 characters to ebooks over 14 million characters long. She is a voracious consumer of movies and drama; yet goes to theatres morefor fun than for creative consumption.  Fixed schedule programming sounds as bizarre to her as silent movies to us.  She is obsessed with music but doesn’t own a single CD.  Her near infinite library rests entirely on her iPhone – the same goes for her friends and colleagues who use android devices.

The world has changed.  There is a tectonic shift happening in our industry right in front of us.And yet, what we see in the world of traditional television is just stagnation. And this stagnation has been made worse by the funny denial that all of us seem to be living in. Even though this change is happening faster than anything we have ever seen, our approach towards it seems to be one of incrementalism.

I see an even more obsessive desire to protect the antiquated business models that we have painstakingly built over the years and that technology and the youth are decimating like a bull-dozer rolling over glass bottles.  It reminds me of the story of a Japanese soldier who was left stranded and forgotten on a small island in the Pacific. Many years after Japan had lost the war and the world had returned to normal that lone soldier kept guarding that isolated island thinking he was still protecting the Japanese empire.  Herein probably lies the explanation why print companies found it difficult to make the transition to TV and why almost all the digital successes generally come from companies that did not exist even a decade ago.  This is because these are companies and people who are not chained by their legacy businesses.  Just imagine where businesses like Netflix, Twitter and Facebook were a decade ago and what global empires they have created in this short span of time.

It is pretty clear to me that we are in a battle.  In this battle there are only two options that we have - we can either continue living in denial, hide back in our artificial walled gardens, watching as the bricks crumble down one by one or we can arm ourselves with the sameweapons that our challengers possess, and venture forth into battle, sometimes even against the same businesses that we have created. Change or Perish.

There is one thing however that will continue to be the same: the power of stories. For those of us who had imagined a world where the so called user generated stories would unseat high quality creativity, the answer comes from the Netflix strategy.  Netflix - the most successful content provider in the US, the challenger to the media behemoths of the west has done so on the back of extremely high quality content, so much so that Netflix’s catalogue today represents the absolute best of American television.

However there is a twist in the tale here.  No longer is the story enough, within the commoditized consistency of experience.  Technology and creativity are coming together to enhance the experience literally, almost daily.  Indians long used to a life of having to start all over again if the power went for a minute are rapidly getting used to being asked if we want to resume where we left off?

The new screens have once again highlighted the importance of the story but they have introduced the centrality of the experience at the same time.  Design and engineering can no longer be divorced from the story – this is a radical departure from everything that we were taught all these years.  We learnt this the hard way through hotstar – how small changes even in the browsing experience could lead to dramatic shifts in consumption.  Today I am happy to remark that we at Star probably have more engineers in our team than any other media and entertainment company.  Equally we have more designers and more story tellers than anyone else because those are the three pillars on which we see future M&E companies getting built.  

Clearly, we need to change the lens with which we look at talent.  In this new world neither technology nor talent will be limited by geographical boundaries.  The best engineers are as likely to be in Berlin as in Bangalore.  We already know that best designers and animators for Hollywood no longer need to be there – because they are already in Goregaon and let’s not forget our very own Priyanka Chopra who is the first home grown star of a truly global show.  We are looking at a truly global world.  But this global world has no patience for traditional forms of reverence.  At Star, we are grappling with this everyday – when we inducted culturally diverse talent we had to create space for that cultural diversity to exist. But that’s easier said than done.  Technology going global, talent going global also means adoption of a new tradition.

Recently, I just saw amazon.in selling cow dung cakes online.  This humblest of the humble, the most traditional of fuels, being sold at 350 bucks for a small packet.  To me, that is the real power of the world that we are going into.  Power of the idea that someone actually thought that there is a market out there for cow dung cakes and the fact that that market is willing to a pay huge premium for it.  And the fact that the internet has created a market place where ideas and creativity are the only constraints.

In this context let me draw your attention to the illustrious gathering on this podium today because if India has to make that leap into the new world where everybody can create value for himself or herself by sheer innovation then this group here must deliver.  Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is not just a senior minister of the Union Cabinet – he holds the key to India’s transition into this digital world.  Chairman R.S.Sharma will have to decide how much can he accelerate that leap, and finally the whole country is looking at Mr. Ambani’s initiative called Reliance Jio to unshackle that truly global, truly democratic dream of 125 crore Indians.  Let’s all hope that they do the right thing, for it is in the best interest of this country they all must succeed.

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