Special: Uday Shankar

By Prajjal Saha , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Media Publishing | June 28, 2010
Uday Shankar was the man in the hot seat, when STAR was going through troubled times. In this freewheeling interview, he talks about the recovery and the reinvention of STAR

Uday Shankar's appointment as chief operating officer, STAR India in 2007 surprised many in the industry. A veteran print and television journalist, who studied economic history at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, he had shifted to the business side only in 2004. He was rather an unconventional candidate to head the country's largest entertainment company. Within a few months, however, he was named the CEO.

Shankar has had the opportunity of launching many brands such as Aaj Tak, Headlines Today, Sahara's television venture and STAR News. In his career, he has played the role of both a defender as well as a challenger. Probably this was the quality which helped him navigate STAR Plus through choppy seas, when the country's No 1 channel had slipped to the No 3 position (Week 15, 2009) for the first time in nine years.

Now, with STAR Plus nosing its way to the top -- though Colors and Zee are not too far behind -- Shankar seems to have lowered all the raised eyebrows. In this chat with afaqs!, the man reveals that he has no intention of slowing down or taking it easy. Excerpts:

afaqs!: How did the transition from news to GEC strike you when you took over?

Shankar: The huge scale of operations in entertainment vis-à-vis news was surprising but what shocked me more was how unprepared the entertainment genre was. I say this because till about 2-3 years ago, the entertainment industry was running with the mindset of ten years ago.

The industry is measured on revenue it garners which is valid to a certain extent but this advertising revenue is further dependent on several other external factors such as the advertising currency, the size of the advertising universe which is also related to the size of the economy and disposable income. And the industry wasn't prepared to address these factors.

Secondly, I was aware of the impact news has on people's lives, but I was surprised to find the intensity of the impact that general entertainment has on the lives of people and the similarities that existed in both genres.

afaqs!: News channels are expectedto show a certain restraint. Does this apply to a GEC?

Shankar: Responsible behaviour is often confused as homogenous, non-creative behaviour but it doesn't mean being staid and non-innovative. Creativity is about experimentation. But if it is used for short-term cheap tactical gains and has no larger social explanations then it needs to be checked. Self-regulation is better than any official and unofficial cultural policing.

News reaches out to a few members of the family, while entertainment reaches out to a much larger number and its impact is much greater. But we should be subjected to a fairer review. Creative growth will not happen without experimentation.

afaqs!: Since March, STAR Plus regained its No 1 status. When you look back, what went wrong and what was the kind of pressure you faced?

Shankar: STAR Plus is like a precocious child who has been topping since nursery school. After that, if he tops the board exams, it is not an exceptional event. Instead, if he comes second in one test it becomes a big deal.

Yes, STAR Plus was under attack and we were all under pressure. But this pressure wasn't from our top bosses, instead it was from within the company. When a company is used to excelling in whatever it does, people become uncomfortable when something goes wrong. The advantage I had was that I have played both the defender and the challenger in my news stint. Defender, when new channels came up and challenger, when I joined STAR News. Experience has taught me that these battles are not lost nor won in a day. These are long haul battles where patience and focus matter.

afaqs!: STAR Plus did well for years, but didn't experiment. Was that a reason for its decline?

Shankar: Yes, that was one of the key reasons. When you are so successful you don't feel the need to experiment or change. Media is a 24-hour treadmill which requires daily delivery. It's like being on a Formula 1 track, there's no time to step back and evaluate. STAR Plus was successful and everybody - including itself - started following its own model. Ideally, STAR should have changed the model, but didn't because it was working.

afaqs!: During the stormy days, what helped STAR keep the battle going?

Shankar: I saw a discomfort in the team because STAR Plus had ceased being the leader. That was a big motivator. STAR hadn't come to terms with it so we fought back. Anguish was the biggest driver.

But there were a series of other successes - Jalsa, Pravah, the English leadership and STAR Den. So, there was never this feeling that nothing is working for us. Everything else was encouraging and we thought 'if only we could fix STAR Plus'.

afaqs!: But there must have been some pressure from advertisers who, more often than not, tend to hate what they call 'the leader's arrogance'. How did you handle the situation?

Shankar: That's the biggest mistake one can make -- be consciously arrogant when at the top and be consciously supplicant when on a decline. I am cognisant of that. The talks were tough, but advertisers had faith in STAR and none walked away. Besides, this challenge was limited to the Hindi GEC leadership not other genres.

afaqs!: You have moved ahead and taken pole position, but the gap between STAR Plus, Colors and Zee is still quite narrow…

Shankar: I think the dogfight will continue for a while. There's no reason to believe that STAR has all the answers and others do not have any. However, with a robust, consistent plan, we will come out on top.

afaqs!: Balaji and STAR Plus were almost synonymous once. What went wrong?

Shankar: I don't think anything went wrong. The environment had shifted in terms of content and the relationship had to be reset to suit the environment. Balaji did a brilliant job of building STAR Plus' leadership. What Balaji needed - the margins, high cost investments - at that time could not have been provided by any other channel. Similarly, what STAR Plus needed couldn't have been done by anyone apart from Balaji.

Then multiple opportunities arose in the market and because of fragmentation in the Hindi and regional space, STAR Plus' market share was under pressure. An exclusive relationship became unaffordable because it came with a premium. Both Balaji and STAR got the opportunity to have new partners which was contractually not allowed, leading to frustration. So we needed to take a fresh view of the relationship. It worked and now we are back doing a new show.

afaqs!: What made Colors so successful?

Shankar: Colors followed the basic discipline of programming and launch, came up with new ideas and stories. Colors' success is even more remarkable because a few channels launched prior to it were not so successful. In this business, success or failure is evident in the first few weeks of the launch itself and Colors managed it.

afaqs!: What was more threatening? Zee's comeback or Colors' launch?

Shankar: This is like asking which enemy is better. When I came in, Zee was resurgent. I have enormous respect for it. The fact is that it stayed for many years as No 2 in the shadow of a giant and yet grew. I have to take Zee more seriously because we compete in many other sectors. But with Network 18, the competition is only in Hindi GEC. So Zee is a far more formidable player.

afaqs!: What has the industry learnt from the failure of 9X and Real?

Shankar: This is an industry which is focused on not learning from others' mistakes. It enjoys learning from its own mistakes. That's sad. On one side, there is 9X and on the other, Colors. One can see the difference in strategy and discipline.

afaqs!: In this industry, quantitative research gets far more weightage than qualitative. How has it affected the business?

Shankar: Hugely. TAM does a useful job. It helps create the currency for commercial negotiations between advertisers and broadcasters. However, merely looking at quantitative research does not give you any insight to qualitative data. This industry doesn't do even a fraction of the qualitative research that it should. That is, why when something is successful, people blindly copy that idea without examining the core behind that success. The clones also affect the viewership of the originals.

afaqs!: Even STAR did not invest monies in qualitative research…

Shankar: STAR has started doing a lot of it. I am from a non-entertainment background. Our COO, Sanjay Gupta, is from FMCG and telecom. Many of us came from varied backgrounds. We had questions which were not answered by quantitative data. We revamped our research team. The insights - our understanding of the viewer, marketing strategy, content, communication and packaging - led to the reinvention of STAR Plus.

afaqs!: When you joined, did you decide to disrupt and change or carry on the same way?

Shankar: I like trying new things but I am not a violent disruption guy. Violent disruption is usually less productive than calibrated disruption. I had a fair amount of exposure to STAR and knew that a few things needed to be changed. But I wasn't going to walk in with a sledge hammer. I can be accused of going slow on a few things but I'm satisfied.

afaqs!: Did you face any resistance in STAR when you - an 'outsider' - took charge?

Shankar: There were two key people who had been with the company for long -- Peter Mukerjea and Sameer Nair. They had shaped the company and the team in a big way.

I came from a very unconventional background and a much smaller company. Though my bosses gave me an appointment, I knew I had to earn my licence from the team. It took me some time to do that. Moreover, unlike in many other cases, I did not bring my own team with me when I came in.

Also I did not pretend that I was ready to run this company or that I had all the answers. I still remember my first meeting with the senior management team when I told them that I do not understand anything about entertainment programming, but that I understand consumer behaviour as both news and entertainment are beamed on the same TV, in the same household through the same cable. That instantly made my team comfortable.

afaqs!: What was the brief given to you?

Shankar: To retain STAR's place of eminence in Indian broadcasting. My understanding was clear - that Hindi will always be big but STAR has reached that stage of evolution where it can't limit its growth to Hindi. It had to metamorphose into a network. Today it is the No 1 network in viewership, advertising and subscription.

afaqs!: Has the dependence on STAR Plus decreased over the years?

Shankar: Of course! Today, the non-STAR Plus channels deliver 50 per cent of revenue and profits. Regional and English contribute hugely to that.

afaqs!: STAR Jalsa and STAR Pravah have been fairly successful. What are the learnings from these markets?

Shankar: It's about understanding your viewer, experimenting, being conscious of the fact that the society is changing rapidly and that you cannot go with a set of fixed set of notions. Emotional triggers are universal and creative people need to recognise those triggers. We pick up format shows from around the world and they work in India. But we are uncomfortable about picking up an idea from one state and try it in another language within the country. But we have picked popular concepts from Bengal and tried it out in Maharashtra.

afaqs!: STAR One, lately, has become a copy of STAR Plus. It had a distinct positioning...

Shankar: It was a sound strategy but we lost confidence in it too soon. That, perhaps, was a mistake. But we are experimenting. There have been shows which have worked well, but we need more. We are okay with a lean second channel since you can't have two high cost propositions in the same space. We will re-build STAR One without increasing the cost just as we did with Channel V.

afaqs!: There has been talk about STAR's interest in print. Anything moving on that front?

Shankar: Globally, News Corp is one of the few companies that continues to believe in print. As the literacy and disposable incomes grow and affluence trickles down to smaller towns, print, especially vernacular, will continue to grow.

Management and editorial are our strengths and we should be able to contribute to that. If there is a compelling partnership opportunity I'll present it to my bosses and they will consider it.

afaqs!: Where will STAR's growth come from?

Shankar: Localisation and regionalisation have just begun. The biggest challenge is that the delivery platform is not geared. Cable is just not there. Distributing niche content in an analog environment is impossible because cable doesn't have the bandwidth. Running niche content only on advertising revenue is not viable. DTH's bandwidth is also getting clogged. If we solve the distribution problem, we can unlock investment in content in a big way.

As GDP grows, the volume of advertising revenue to will rise. That is what will support the mass delivery channels.

For niche channels and local offerings, advertising can only be a smaller segment, most of the revenue has to come from subscription.

afaqs!: You are now reporting directly to James Murdoch. Why has the reporting structure in the organisation changed?

Shankar: The reporting structure change was the fall-out of a larger re-calibration exercise. STAR India used to report to Asia, but over the last 10 years its growth has been more dynamic compared to the rest-of-Asia business. And it was felt that STAR India had reached a level of maturity both in terms of size of business and management ability and that it should be treated independently and invite the direct focus of the promoters.

afaqs!: Was a new logo and look necessary?

Shankar: Qualitative analysis over eight months showed that we needed a new positioning. It amounted to a complete re-invention of content and positioning, but how do we communicate that? That's when we decided to change the look. It is more like a tool to convey the larger change.

In the Indian context, red is is the colour of life, festivities, family, marriage, positivity and energy. We tested it and red emerged as the most compelling colour that people could relate to. Besides, the fact is that red looks great on broadcast.

(Additional reporting by Sapna Nair)

© 2010 afaqs!