The journey of Star India’s Uday Shankar through his eyes

The ability to take risks is what has defined his career

MUMBAI: He came. He spoke. They listened. He conquered.  That, in summation, defines how the Walt Disney Company Asia Pacific president, and Star & Disney India chairman Uday Shankar’s tryst with members and invitees of the Advertising Agencies Association of India’s Subhas Ghosal Memorial lecture “Why I have been in Media for 30 years” on 11 October 2019 went. The audience - consisting of a slew of senior advertising and marketing professionals - listened in awe, smiled, laughed throughout the Shankarspeak, which commenced around 9:30 pm in the Four Seasons Hotel in Worli, Mumbai. He spoke extempore, no teleprompters in sight, and his speech was fluency at its best, delivered with the confidence of a professional who knows what he has achieved and what he is setting out to achieve.

Throughout his 34-minute speech, Uday constantly referred to the risks he has taken during his entire career. Like the time when he was grappling with being called upon by the Murdochs to head Star India as CEO and he asked his family whether he was taking a chance as he had had no exposure to entertainment or business having been a news man all of his life. To which his daughter quipped: “What risk? If anything, weren’t the Murdochs the ones who were taking the risk?”

He went on to join the organisation, and the rest, of course, is history. Uday spoke about the time when - on being urged by his wife - he chucked his secure job at the publication Down to Earth and relied on his wife’s income for six months before securing a lower paying position at Zee TV. “I took a 50 per cent pay cut,” he revealed. “But I so wanted to do news television that I was willing to go that distance.”

Uday then revealed how he switched to the Star Network when he was called upon by the Murdochs to clean up the mess that was Star News from his comfortable position at Aroon Purie’s Aaj Tak.

“On the face of it, it was a bad career move,” he revealed. “Star News was as messed as it could ever be. All the success and equity I had created for myself at Aaj Tak and before was at risk. The sensible course was to run for my life. But instead I dived headlong into it and doubled down. Within a month I was both editor and CEO. Everyone thought I was going to break all records of disastrous stints as a media CEO. I knew nothing about running a business. But as a journalist I had learned one thing: when you do not know something, you go to people who understand it better than you. That’s what I did. I focused on bringing in good talent and content. And slowly the tide turned. Star News went from bottom to the top of the pile.”

That’s when the Mudrochs spotted him as a potential leader of Star India. While at Star News he, at least, had command over news content, he did not have any experience of entertainment when he walked into Star India. There was an exodus in the organisation as two top-notch executives had left to launch their own channels, taking experienced professionals with them. He once again relied on his journalistic instinct which told him that a crisis could be tremendous opportunity.

Once there, he concentrated on playing the long form of the game of cricket - test match vs the IPL, Uday revealed. His first focus was on hiring good talent. Deciding to discount experience, he emphasised on intelligence and youthfulness and irreverance. The leadership under him did not have previous media experience unleashing a really powerful force in the company. Simultaneously, he focused on getting rid of the slacker culture in Star.

He then went about chipping away at edifices that had made Star Plus a success until then. He dropped all Ekta Kapoor and Balaji shows and dropped the successful Kaun Banega Crorepati and called in new producers to churn out differentiated content like Satyameva Jayate hosted by Aamir Khan to the annoyance of established ones. “Everyone thought we were crazy. Who would put a show like that on entertainment television on Sunday? It was a great decision. It made an impact on society. And it had an even bigger impact on the thinking at Star. Everyone thought that it was going to be my nemesis. But I survived Satyamev Jayate,” he highlighted.

“We are in the business of content. It may surprise you to know how few companies have content at their core. The biggest contribution I have made at Star is that I have tried to push content closer and closer to the centre of the core so much so that the core of Star today is content,” he further explained.

“If no one believes that it can be done, we will take a shot at it. This is a culture we have built at Star,” he says.

The greater risk taken by Uday was the decision to take Star into sports - the graveyard of many media companies. He was not satisfied with the ICC rights, BCCI rights but acquired the IPL rights at aggressive prices as well. “No other media company invested in cricket like Star India did. In contrast to other networks which usually have commentaries in one or two languages, Star expanded it in seven languages which paid off as 86 per cent of their cricket sports viewership come from languages, only 14 per cent comes from English.”

He spoke about Star’s move towards promoting kabaddi as a sport, wherein everyone thought his goose was cooked. “A friend told me the Murdochs had trusted me too much and that the company had too much money. With the best of intentions, he cautioned that both of these are going to end very badly,” said Uday. “However, we are making some money and I have kept my job. Our sports business is a work in progress as is the sports consciousness in this country. We are slowly building one of the most exciting franchises in the world.”

Uday then went on the speak about Star’s next  foray with Hotstar wherein he launched the app in a data-dark market where the mobile handset was a device for talking. What gave him the confidence was India’s surprising ability to leapfrog. Once again, he hired the best talent.  He spoke about the risk he took during the Hotstar launch campaign, which ran across the Star network saying “TV is passe. Get over TV. Get Hotstar.”

He further revealed:  “When we were launching Hotstar, a very senior executive at one of the global tech and video giants warned us that if you try, you will lose a lot of money, effort and time and then you will come begging to us to host your content on our platform. He said that we would still be kind to you. Now, it seems they can’t tire of hiring my talent. Not just one company that is hiring our talent as if it is going out of supply but every media and tech company that’s active in India seems to have one destination to pick up talent  -  Star India. I would make a lot more money if I ran a talent agency. It is annoying but it is also a tribute to our incredibly talented team that’s even more audacious than it is talented. A team that is committed to changing Indian media and content – making a difference to the lives of people. That’s why I am in media for 30 years. And it feels like I am just getting started. Over the years, we have become change agents for India. At Star, we don’t just believe in a better India, we believe in our duty to participate and shape that India. Of course, when a company like Walt Disney values and embraces the businesses we have built, it is extremely gratifying.”

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