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Comment: The rise and rise of Uday Shankar

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MUMBAI: From not having enough money to afford even a TV set in Delhi in 1991 when he was a newspaper reporter to heading Star India, one of the most admired Indian media and entertainment companies, for a decade to now being appointed as 21st Century Fox Asia president, it has been quite a journey for Uday Shankar. A well-deserved and rewarding one at that.

Today, Shankar is one of the few professionals from India to get region-wide responsibility for a global media powerhouse. Executives such as Man Jit Singh, who heads Sony Pictures Home Entertainment globally, and Bedi A Singh, who was News Corp CFO for a long time, have preceded him but both are Indians who rose up the ranks in the US.

Shankar has, however, earned his stripes growing the Star India business, which in the first quarter had an EBDITA of $100 million and is on course to hit $500 million in 2017-2018 (in the words of 21st Century Fox (21CF) chairman James Murdoch). The 2020 EBDITA target, as spelt out by 21CF, is twice that, and the Murdochs say it is well on course to be achieved.

When he was handpicked by the then News Corp COO Peter Chernin to take over Star in October 2007 (some say on the advice of the then outgoing company head in India), Shankar knew very little about the entertainment business. All his experience had been in news–whether print or television. He had had stints with several print media publications (his first was The Times of India around 1990) as a political correspondent and last was as one of the founders of environment magazine Down To Earth before the TV news bug bit him.

Shankar took to the TV medium with ferocity—doing stints at Zee TV’s news channel as a news producer, the Hindustan Times promoted Home TV (it shut down quickly), production house Sri Adhikari Brothers, Sahara TV, and then India Today group’s Aaj Tak and Headlines Today, two channels he helped stabilise and grow over the next six seven years. His talent for being a journalist who got things done did not go unnoticed and he was asked to lead Star News, a joint venture with Kolkata-based ABP group, after CEO Ravina Raj Kohli departed.

It was at Star News that he blossomed as an executive—a TV exec to be precise—and caught the attention of Chernin and the Murdochs. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, under his leadership, the Star network has expanded into regional language channels and produces close to 17,000 hours of content each year in eight languages. The route it has taken to get there: acquisition of the South India-based Maa network, Asianet and via launch of channels such as the Bengali-language Star Jalsa.

A journalist with little entertainment content creation experience when he was appointed, Shankar has steered Star into creating TV content that has been path breaking over the past 10 years, dealing with social issues, apart from helping position it as a network that produces classy shows but with a social purpose. So much so that Star India shows command an advertising premium even if the channel is not topping viewership ratings. Even on the affiliate revenues front, Shankar has played hardball.

But one of the boldest moves taken by Star under him—some critics may choose to describe it as foolhardy—was to take on broadcast and telecom regulator TRAI late 2016 when Star India and its affiliate Vijay TV challenged in court the regulator’s jurisdiction over matters relating to copyrights, which effectively has stalled implementation of a new tariff and inter-connect regime announced by TRAI in October 2016. The case is still pending a final verdict in Madras High Court till the time of writing this piece.

Amongst the early movers in the OTT space, Shankar has made Star invest big in customer acquisition and pushed its digital platform Hotstar CEO Ajit Mohan to go out and not only acquire new business, but also devise a distribution strategy that could be sliced and diced as per needs of the geographical markets. So, Hotstar’s distribution and subscription strategy for the US and Canada market, heavily subscription revenue-led, could be quite different from that pushed in India, where making available content practically free to subscriber initially is aimed at hooking the viewer before he’s seduced to the pay model.

Though Shankar is not known to be a great fan of gambling—even during Diwali when in India playing cards with cash is considered auspicious or for good `shagun’—he gambled big on the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) global rights for five years. Star not only played smart, outbidding incumbent rights holder SPN India and some global digital players sniffing at commercially viable Indian cricket rights, but also raised the bar to clinch the hand with a bet of $ 2.55 billion. Raising the stakes flattened competition.

Under Shankar, Star has also ploughed huge investments into creating and acquiring sports properties such as the Pro Kabaddi League, the BCCI national cricket domestic rights, the domestic soccer league ISL in collaboration with Reliance Industries, table tennis, badminton, and many others sports.

The recent promotion of Shankar means he has won the confidence of the Murdochs and the boards of News Corp and 21CF to replicate in Asia what he has done in India, long referred to as a jewel in the crown of the Murdoch media empire. While 21CF has done well in markets such as Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea, scale has been something that’s been missing. Shankar is expected now start building that.

By promoting him to head Asia, 21 CF has also ensured that if a deal with Disney does happen (media reports emanating from all parts of globe say the approx USD 60 billion deal could happen sooner rather than later), it will be—very well could be—Shankar who will be scripting the new Asian story. Currently, Disney has two Asian heads: one for south east and south Asia and the other for north Asia. With him being designated as the boss, the reporting lines too could change with Mahesh Samat reporting to Shankar.

How has Shankar managed this rags-to-riches story in the cut-throat corporate world of global media? Shankar himself gives a hint. Casually leaning against the main exit to the executive floor at level 37 in the South Parel office of Star, housing the leadership team, while escorting out a couple of senior editors of Indiantelevision.com after an interview in September, he was asked what made him tick. The recorder was off and the interview had ended, but what he said was revealing.

According to Shankar, though he considers he has miles yet to travel (wherein he’d continue reading thought-provoking books like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind), his satisfaction comes from the fact that he has managed to assemble a string of high-calibre professionals as heads of various Star businesses who at least specialise in or know better one thing extra about the business than the chief. “This gives me great satisfaction as I know the business is in safe hands,” he said with a poker face.

In the end, one of his mentors, Siddhartha Ray (Delhiwallahs say he’s one of the few friend-philosopher-guides of Shankar), who also happens to be the first GM of Star TV in India in the early 1990s, aptly summed up the X factor: “What makes Uday so successful? He’s a quick learner, good man-manager and an adept environment manager.”

At Indiantelevision.com, we would wish Uday Shankar more wind beneath his wings so that he can soar higher.

ALSO READ:

Uday Shankar becomes president of 21st Century Fox Asia

Star's Uday Shankar on distribution challenges, IPL, FTA vs. pay TV…and much more

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