At the AAAI Subhas Ghosal Memorial in Mumbai on 11 November, Uday Shankar, president, The Walt Disney Company Asia Pacific, and chairman of Star and Disney India, explained why he has been in the media industry for 30 years.
Talking about his initial days in the industry, as a journalist, Shankar said, "Three decades ago, when I was starting out as a newspaper journalist, I hadn’t imagined that someday the most distinguished of my peers would be interested in what I might have to say. But then, 30 years ago, when I started my career in media, I had no idea that I wasn’t just starting out to earn a living; I was embarking on a discovery of India and that I would get to know this country in a way that probably no other profession would allow me to. My career, first as a journalist and then as a broader media professional, let me observe and understand this country deeply, objectively and uniquely. That would have been an enormous lifelong bonus by itself. But in my case that wasn’t all… As I slowly discovered, my profession also equipped me with an ability to impact this country and its people–both individually and collectively – in a way that few, if any other professions could have."
He went on to share a couple of experiences during his time as a journalist.
"I was barely a few weeks in The Times of India when my editor asked me to do a review of the immunisation mission that the Government of India had launched to vaccinate people against preventable diseases. My brief was to examine the real impact that this mission was making on the lives of ordinary people. So I landed in Purnea, a district in the North Eastern part of Bihar. I spent a week trudging through villages crippled by extreme poverty. What I saw there was to change my world view for ever. I saw how a vaccine, worth less than what I paid for a meal at the Nirula’s restaurant in Delhi, could make a permanent difference to the future of a child and often a family. And this wasn’t true for only one or a few families… I saw village after village and I saw them day after day. On the other hand, I also saw how difficult it was even with the best of intent to deliver that vaccine to someone that could change a life. I saw some of the most dedicated and driven healthcare professionals with no expectation of return. Of course, there were slackers and even crooks; but I saw an overwhelming number of ordinary professionals who were driven by a sense of duty and a desire to help the helpless," he said.
Shankar attributes this experience as one that has helped him look at India as a country in a different way.
He then spoke about how a partially incorrect story published by AajTak during his tenure with the India Today group also had a big impact on him. The news channel had reported about an accident involving a school bus in Noida. The branch of the school was incorrectly published before Aaj Tak corrected it.
His assistant informed him about a woman who was working with the government and was trying to reach out to him throughout the day.
"After several hours I returned her call. She thanked me and was very polite but what she told me still haunts me. It seems she was a war widow who was supporting her two kids that went to the same school whose bus we had mistakenly claimed was involved in the accident. The accident happened near her house. She told me that Aaj Tak was her window to the world. In her home, the channel was always on, because she believed that it always alerted her about what lay ahead. She said that, for a moment, Aaj Tak had brought her world crashing down. For a few minutes, the channel that was her most trusted ally in this fearful world, had turned her world upside down falsely. In a very calm voice, she told me that she thought that we were always to be trusted and even infallible; but we broke her trust with that mistake. That she could never trust us again. For a moment, I thought that she was overreacting. But as her world slowly sank in, I understood what she meant. She had given me the most valuable lesson about the centrality of trust and credibility in our business," said Shankar.
Shankar stated that these words still echo in his ears and he's wary about breaking trust to promote his business.
He then spoke about his move from newspaper to television.
"After struggling without a regular income for over six months – during which my wife’s earning was the only thing to go by – I found a job at a news bulletin that Zee was launching. But there was a difficult trade-off – I had to take a salary cut of more than 50 per cent. A journalist's salary wasn’t very high anyway, but a 50 per cent cut hurt. What followed was a period of incredible financial challenges for about five years. Then came Aaj Tak and my personal situation also became comfortable. The most important lesson that I learnt was to follow my heart; hear my inner voice and not worry too much about the consequences when one is convinced that this is the right thing to do," he said.
From Aaj Tak, Shankar moved to Star.
The journey at Star
"Star News was at the bottom of the heap and wasn’t falling further because there was no further depth to fall. Once I arrived there, I realised that content, which I understood and had been brought in to do, was just one of its problems. Its marketing, distribution, sales, morale, leadership and whatever else that you can think of had gone wrong. The problem was that I didn’t know anything about any of this and there was no one else who cared or was willing to help. Star News was as messed up as anything could ever be. All the success and equity that I had created for myself was at risk. I should have run for my life. Instead, I decided to dive headlong into it and took over as CEO."
He stated that there were doubters who were of the opinion that his stint could be the most disastrous ever as a media CEO. He decided to fix it by turning to 'people who understood running a business better than he did' and hired 'some good people'.
"Content was my forte so I focused on that and hiring good talent. I wasn't defensive about what I didn’t know. I also asked them many questions. Slowly we turned the tide. Star News moved from the bottom of the pile to the top. It also got me the offer from the then NewsCorp to run Star India. This was by far the most coveted and prestigious job for a media professional. It was a great reward for what I had done so far," he said.
He along with many others wondered why the Murdochs offered him that job and it was only post a discussion with his wife and daughter that he took it up.
"I had no experience of entertainment content and even less of other areas of business. I recall discussing this with me wife and my daughter, who was very young then. Very innocently, my daughter asked me what risk did I think I was taking? She said aren’t the Murdoch’s the ones who are taking the risk? So that was the context in which I walked in. What didn’t seem to help matters was that there was an exodus from the company, because two of the most formidable former executives of Star were launching their own channels and clearly the staff at Star India had more faith in them than in me."
Relationship with BCCI, ICC
Shankar attributes his love to cricket because of the life lessons it gives.
Sharing one such lesson, he said, "In a winning team, everyone including the captain must have a very clear role – clear not just to that person, but to everyone. As we were rebuilding Star, it was very clear who would deliver what! Unfortunately, in a winning team, it’s also possible for a person to just do the odd job and get by, because the team is winning. Culturally, that is probably more destructive than anything. I have tried to guard against that. Honestly, it can be a big challenge in bigger and successful companies."
He then spoke about the show Satyamev Jayate.
"Several years ago, we tried to disrupt Star Plus itself to challenge Star Plus. To shut down wildly successful shows, to try out new storytellers. The best example of that is Satyamev Jayate. It was a show that everyone thought didn’t belong on an entertainment channel. After all, who in their right mind would advise an entertainment channel to run a show on the Sunday morning slot, discussing delicate social issues with the entire family sitting around? But in hindsight, Satyamev Jayate made a real impact on shaping our society, and I say this with a touch of pride."
"Then there was sports, famously the graveyard of media companies. The wisdom was that cricket had peaked. There was value in English and a little bit in Hindi. We doubled down on cricket – ICC, BCCI and then IPL. No media company had ever invested so much in cricket or perhaps in any one sport as we had. Then we decided to double down on Indian languages. We decided to risk our destiny on such sports as kabaddi. The forecast was that our goose was cooked – a friend once told me that I had two problems. One, my company had too much money; and two, my bosses trusted me too much. He cautioned that both of these only end badly. The Star culture is - if no one believes it can be done; we will take a shot at it. It’s worked out well. Our sports business is still very much work in progress; as is the sports consciousness in India. But we are surely building one of the most exciting franchises in the world."
Shankar labelled the Hotstar adventure as a crazy journey.
He said, "When India was dismissed as a data dark market and mobile was a device only for talking; we decided to launch Hotstar. Everyone thought that we were crazy, we certainly were. But we believed in this country. With Hotstar, once again we went to our playbook – get the best talent that you could get and disrupt the ecosystem. Streaming was still supposed to be a catch-up medium; we decided to put all our live sports on it; we even decided to put our entertainment content on Hotstar ahead of its airing on our channels. Then we launched with an advertising campaign that said ‘Get Over TV’. We ran it on our own TV channels."
He added, "The verdict was that this time our craziness had crossed all limits. Even our colleagues at Star were aghast and upset this time. Maybe we went too far, but without that we couldn’t have created the most successful video streaming platform, outside of the US and China. When we were launching Hotstar, a senior executive at one of the global tech and video giants had warned us: go ahead and try it. You will lose a lot of money and effort and then you will come to us begging to host your content. Don’t worry, we will be kind. Now they can’t tire of hiring our talent. Not just one company, any global tech and media company that’s active in India seems to have just one destination to pick up talent – Star India. It is annoying but it is also a tribute to the team that we have at Star India."
He ended his talk by saying, "So, that is why I am in media for 30 years and it feels like I am just getting started. Because the media industry has allowed me to not only understand and experience India in an unbelievable way, but 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."