On Uday Shankar's exit from Disney+Star, a retrospective on his rise

Anyone who follows him will find it difficult to fit in his shoes.

MUMBAI: Back in 2007, when Uday Shankar was picked out of nowhere to lead Star India, the organisation was a minnow. It had been a leader in the Hindi GEC space through its channel Star Plus, but it slipped from that pedestal following aggressive moves by competitors like Zee TV, and Sony. It had a small presence in regional languages; its channel portfolio was limited. Long-running teams and senior managers had left the network, for whatever reasons.

Most professionals asked: “Who Uday?” with the emphasis on the fact that they did not consider him much of an entity when one asked them about his appointment.

When he leaves the organization on 31 December, he will be leaving behind a massive beast present in almost every Indian language, which is a front runner in general entertainment, drives the sports and sports broadcasting agenda in India, is a pay TV powerhouse, has a globally recognised OTT streaming service Hotstar, that is the envy of gold standard streamer Netflix.

To add to that the Star India network also has brilliant pedigree attached to its brand – the name Disney, which is the world’s biggest media firm.

And industry is still asking: “Who? Uday?”

This time, the emphasis is on the shock that they feel about his decision to leave Disney Star India, having made his mark as a media and entertainment industry leader.

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Many expected him to leave on the back of the merger announcement a year and a half ago. Of course, the expectation was that there would be a clash between the rigorous process and the system driven approach that Disney is known for and the entrepreneurial, back-of-the envelope, seat-of-the pants culture that the Murdochs encouraged in Star India and which Uday had gotten used to. But because he stayed put – even as his deputy Sanjay Gupta, digital head Ajit Mohan, strategy and marketing head Gayatri Yadav left – one thought he had managed to meld into the new culture; that he would stay.

Uday filled the executive gaps quickly by bringing in K Madhavan to look after the TV business, a new Hotstar boss in Sunil Rayan, and everyone thought he was padding up to take Disney Star India into its next innings.

His announcement comes at a time when the IPL is having its best year yet with higher viewership than ever before; that too in times of dire stress thanks to Covid2019. The IPL is something which has been very close to his heart; hence he bid the seemingly ridiculously high amount he did when he acquired its rights. Yes, revenues may be a little stifled this year thanks to the clampdown on spends by advertisers. But by any yardstick, Uday and his team have done a fairly good job in bringing in the financial numbers they have.

The channels he runs are in fine fettle – being top of the rung in almost every genre. Yes, there are rumblings that the broadcast sector is a legacy business; digital is going to make it look antiquated. Yes, Covid2019 and subsequent lockdowns have totally upended business and revenue generation plans and accelerated digital adoption.

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The wrongly held perception is that we are counting down to traditional television’s inevitable demise. Which is where many are wrong-stepping themselves, at least in the Indian scenario. If one were to look at the demographics of India, television still has a lot many homes to penetrate. Will these homes leapfrog to broadband and streaming TV? Unlikely. Most experts have said no. VoD is here to stay, but the lean-back comfort that TV provides cannot be wished away.

Uday showed he has the appetite and the aptitude to think big, to think scale.He built a team from ground up. The team listened to him, opposed him, and together they charted the growth of Star. He managed to convince the Murdochs to consolidate management of Star’s India operations into India from Hong Kong, saving them hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. He also convinced them to grant him the independence of Star Sports’ future in India by buying out ESPN’s interest in ESPN-Star, the 50:50 joint venture between the two. He then went about on his sports pursuits, acquiring cricket rights across BCCI, ICC and that of almost every sport and setting up local leagues for football, kabaddi, tennis, badminton and what have you.

He gave the programming vertical the respect it deserves by labelling it as content; he allowed the setting up of a writer’s room in Star, he encouraged the concept of a show runner, something the broadcast sector was loathe to define. He was willing to take risks on content, on branding the network. His channel campaigns were like the broad brush of a painter who knows his craft, and they hit a chord with all of us. At one time he coalesced the messaging around Star India with the messaging of a new India with the tag line Nai Soch (new thinking).

He chiseled the Star network into one which is deeply connected to the Indian ethos with stories and shows that talked about uplifting the Indian woman. He brought in a new narrative and seriousness through series such as Satyamev Jayate, TedX talks. Yes, they possibly did not help lift Star’s TRPs but they showed that it cared, and cares. He made many friend in high places, even with rivals. Zee TV’s Punit Goenka and he were opponents in business, but they often exchanged notes as though they were friends.

Amongst Uday’s biggest initiatives was to give shape to Star India’s digital initiatives after failing on different versions online. With the right teams, technology and investment, he nurtured and grew the streamer, Hotstar,  into one which is driving the local streaming  agenda in India today.

Uday raged against excessive regulation in the broadcast sector, when all his earlier efforts at diplomacy failed with the industry watchdog Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

What does Uday’s departure signal? Nothing much. Except that he is itching to do something different. Like he has been vaunt to do throughout his career – giving up a cushy print media job to do TV, saying ta-ta to news TV to do general entertainment television and running a network. Now giving up a prime executive position to turn entrepreneur.

Most of the executives who left Disney Star India have left to join either digital or investment oriented ventures. It was not as if they were unhappy with what they had going at Star India. They left for better opportunities – Sanjay as Google India MD, Ajit as Facebook India boss and Gayatri as chief marketing officer at Sequoia Capital. As is Uday himself.

Uday, in the press statement issued on his departure announcement said that he is going to partner with a bunch of global investors and pioneers to mentor startups and entrepreneurs “as they set out to create transformational solutions that will have a positive impact on countless lives.”

Rajesh Kamat – the former CEO of Viacom18 – had in the past taken a similar tack, by partnering with Paul Aiello to run media investment funds. But they were focused on media. Going by Uday’s statement, his remit will be wider.

The release also announced that Uday will work closely with Disney direct to consumer & international segment chairman Rebecca Campbell to find his successor. He has three months to do that. Going by the legacy he is leaving behind, finding someone who can match his energy and chutzpah might be a tall order.

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