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Uday Shankar's meteoric rise from Star India to Disney APAC

The 55-year-old now has a phalanx of old-time Disney executives reporting into him

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MUMBAI: The man running India's largest media company - Star India-  has made it to the top in the Asia Pacific region at probably the world’s most admired entertainment company - Disney. Uday Shankar, who once was a reporter with The Times of India, and then went on to successfully lead news channels such as Aaj Tak and Star News, on Thursday added another glorious chapter to his awe-inspiring journey.

Late in the evening of 13 December came the announcement that Uday - as he is referred to - would be taking over as chairman of Star and Disney India and president of the Walt Disney Company Asia Pacific.

Ever since the acquisition of Fox was announced by Disney, many expected Uday  - the blue-eyed boy of the Murdoch family - to get the corner office in the new entity. Doubting Thomases wondered whether the Mouse House would allow an entrepreneurial executive to steer its fortunes in Asia, let alone India.

Uday has, by sheer dint of his risk-taking ability and innate knowledge of how Indian consumers watch television, transformed the Star Network from a struggling channel  (which was under attack from a slew of old and new players) into India’s largest TV network serving viewers entertainment in many languages as well as delivering India’s top passion, cricket, on its sports channels and its OTT service Hotstar.

As much as Uday believes in a free culture which encourages entrepreneurialism thanks to his previous direct bosses Rupert and James Murdoch, Disney believes in extreme systems and processes which is a positive for most companies but that has not worked as well as far as its India operations are concerned. Star India overpowers Disney India by multiples in revenue terms.

Under the new structure, the 55-year-old has a phalanx of old-time Disney executives reporting into him. Among these: Greater China, Japan, and Korea executive vice president & managing director Luke Kang;  Australia and New Zealand managing director Kylie Watson-Wheeler,  and  Middle East senior vice president and managing director Chafic Najia.

That he has chosen Uday over old Disney timers is a clear sign of the confidence that the Disney direct to consumer and international segment’s chairman Kevin Mayer has reposed in him; that he is the man who will do the job and give him a free hand to help shape the Disney-Fox-Star combine into an even bigger money making machine that it can be in the region.

On Uday’s shoulders rests the responsibility of steering Disney – and Star India - to entertain more than half the world’s population – the middle east, APAC, and China account for about 4 billion people. And an estimated $10 billion-plus in revenues for The Walt Disney Co.

It probably is the highest an Indian executive has risen in a global entertainment company. He has his challenges ahead: a merger always means some amount of chop and change and he has to manage that first mainly in India because of the business scale differences between Star and Disney in the country.

But the bigger challenge will be staving off the competition that Disney faces from the rising FAANGs in India, southeast Asia, Australia New Zealand well as from players from China such as Tencent, Youkou, Iqiyi who could very well eat into the huge pie that Disney China has in its studio business there.

In Uday, Disney has a go-getting decisive no-nonsense APAC lead exec who likes to get things done; no task is impossible. Every problem brings with it opportunity. That attitude should serve him in good stead in the years to come.

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