Star India’s Uday Shankar's Paley parley with Bobby Ghosh

MUMBAI: Did you know that Star Plus’ most talked about social show Satyamev Jayate (SMJ) may have never happened?

Well, Star India CEO Uday Shankar shared nuggets such as these during his one-on-one with Time International editor Aparisim Bobby Ghosh in front of the Paley Media Council - an exclusive, invitation-only membership community for entertainment, media and technology industry executives and provides an independent forum for top industry leaders - at its media centre in New York on 30 May.

Shankar addressed various topics like - the Star India Network's - led by Star Plus - focus on women, the journey of its social cause show Satyamev Jayate and the evolution of Star India.

He began by saying, “We were not okay with bringing the American culture concept into India and so decided to create Indian content for Indian people.”

“Even though our pedigree is News Corporation and 21st Century Fox now, it was very clear that we were not bringing in American culture into India,” he added. Star India completely indigenised the content, because according to them, it was the only way. “Somebody had to own and so it was owned by the parent company, while we were told to go and create a business that was the right business for the Indian people and Indian society,” he said.

Shankar further went on to say that his bosses always encouraged him to pursue the agenda of challenging the status quo. “We address whatever is not right in the country, whatever needs to change for people in the country. We at Star have never thought of going and telling people what they should be doing next. Our job is to focus the spotlight on what we believe needs to be questioned and what needs to be observed closely and questioned. And that’s where we leave it. That’s exactly what we have done with our content. Whether it’s our entertainment content, dramas, reality shows or finally SMJ.”

“When I told my CFO that I was planning to do a show such as SMJ, he looked at me as though I was going totally out of line,” Shankar told the French bearded-bald-headed Ghosh. “I called up James Murdoch and told him about the risk associated with SMJ because of the investment and he told me ‘we would live.’ I needed his blessings to go ahead with it.”

Shankar informed Ghosh that he had met up with Aamir Khan to understand how they could use the power of television and work together to improve society after he did 3 Idiots. “It took two years of his team and our team working together to come up with Satyamev Jayate,” he said. “We thought of taking all the challenging issues like female feticide, and so on a Sunday morning. That was a challenge – to get viewers on-board to watch the show at that time slot. It was of a duration of an hour and a half to do a very, very deep dive into some of the very unpleasant parts of Indian life. Everything about the show suggests that it shouldn’t work. Aamir and I spent a lot of time discussing this and finally we concluded that we are not going to pull our punches neither in the creative expression nor in the format.”

Shankar thought the brand had to mature and take a big leap. And that big leap came with SMJ.

"Satyamev Jayate was the beginning of a journey. In the journey of our purpose we wanted the brand to carry, it had matured to a level where we wanted to make that one big leap and tell people that ok we have been looking intently to implementing stories and characters and we have been giving you messages, subtle messages. India was ready, our viewers were ready and internally Star as a company was ready to take the leap and that’s how came SMJ where we decided that sharply we will, in each episode, focus on some of the things that must change in the country while all other kinds of economic and social changes keep happening. I wouldn’t say that we have taken our corporate social responsibility seriously. At Star, we have now gone a step ahead and we believe that all content that we create is corporate social responsibility,” he said.

Shankar narrated that he had had a meeting with the Minister for Corporate Affairs when the new Companies Act in India was being drafted. “They needed inputs. They were saying that a certain fix percentage of profits should go towards CSR and I said well I am fine to do that, but you must make a note that all media content if it goes on-air is towards corporate social responsibility. If it’s not, then we as media community have failed.”

Shankar told Ghosh that SMJ has had its impact on Indian society. “The sex ratio in India has been under pressure and declining. The gap between female and male kids has been rising. For the first time in 40 years, in the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is, it was reversed by a factor of 24 for each thousand. The state health minister publicly went and acknowledged that every single policy and intervention remained the same. The only external stimulus that had come in was SMJ's episode on female foeticide and he said his officers felt that it was SMJ that gave women the confidence to resist abortion.”

Shankar opined that the SMJ episode on drugs led to three or four governments passing legislations and orders to make sure government hospitals only supply generic drugs. "We are still fighting with the pharmaceutical industry on that episode where we said that labeling of drugs was just an exercise to raise drug prices. If generic drugs were sold and encouraged by governments then prices would come down substantially," he said.

Then he disclosed that four states have gone and set up fast track courts for rape victims following an episode which highlighted and demanded the need for this. "We wanted fast track courts," said Shankar, "because the Indian judicial system can sometimes be very slow and rape victims were struggling with the time it took to get justice. And we got a response from some state governments."

He pointed out that it was strange that while initially there was a lot of interest in the region for SMJ after it was aired, its format has so far been licensed to a production house in China.

On the programming front Shankar revealed that Star does do a lot of market research, but it is not a market research driven company, he explained to Ghosh.  "I see Star as a company which is very focused on observing society and whatever is happening. So if a political movement is going on, if there are concerns that are being expressed informally, then often times the research insights do not really capture them. But we also try and anticipate. We are at a level where we try and stay ahead of those concerns, so meaning that when you are in the business of media, you should be shaping the concerns, you should be voicing and helping people connect their dots to themselves and whether these are dots of aspirations or these are dots of concerns that are holding their aspirations."

He further stated that, television, print, and media in general are heavily encouraging, motivating and proselytizing agencies. He believes that the new Modi-led government is very focused and has the highest representation of women ministers, compared to any government since independence and that is a good thing. “30 per cent of the cabinet ministers are women, so we think this by itself should give an impetus to the whole process of change. Television I think can do a great deal, more than it is doing even now,” he ended.

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