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Uday Shankar to Step Down as Chairman of Star India and Disney India

Editor, TRANSFIN.
Oct 13, 2020 6:11 AM 4 min read
Editorial

In India’s media industry, Uday Shankar has over time attained (rightly or wrongly) a legendary status.

As President of the Walt Disney Company Asia Pacific and Chairman of Star India and Disney India, he commands considerable clout...not only in the satellite TV sector, but also in sports broadcasting and online streaming.

Which is why news that Shankar would be stepping down from his roles at Disney and Star after thirteen years at the helm  surely surprised many across the media landscape.

This development does however grant us the opportunity to reflect on just how powerful and vast Star India is - and on Shankar’s role in building India’s largest media company.

How Did Star India Begin?

First off, Star India was never a “Indian” firm. Its parent company - Star TV - was founded in 1991 as a pan-Asian English-centric entertainment channel. It had operations across the continent.

Then, in 1993, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. orchestrated a $525m takeover, creating what the New York Times called possibly the “first truly global television empire”.

But back then the acquisition didn’t make much sense to many in the industry. Telecommunications was still nascent in India (and much of Asia), the majority of the population didn’t know English and didn’t own a TV, and economic liberalisation had just begun.

So there were many doubts regarding the profitability of this deal. (In fact, Murdoch saw his stock get downgraded to ensure that the deal pulled through.)

And sure enough, Star lost c. $500m between 1995 and 1999. It seemed for a while as if the naysayers were right.

 

The Turnaround

The problem, News Corp. And Star executives soon realised, was not that very few Indians owned television sets (this number was rapidly growing anyway). The real problem was their one-size-fits-all Anglo-centric approach to tap the Indian (and Asian) market.

After all, when Star TV was launched its stated mission was to focus on "the top 5% of Asian elites who spoke English and had buying power". This audience could be niche and lucrative, but when you’re dealing with a country with over a billion people, such a strategy would be akin to missing the forest for the trees!

So what Star needed was an approach tailored to the needs of the Indian audience. And that’s exactly what they crafted and pursued.

 

Heydays

The late ‘90s were the turning point. Star shifted focus from English to local languages. Its first batch of local content was Indianised versions of Western shows, such as Kaun Banega Crorepati?, which reached 100 million viewers within a year of launch in 2000!)

Content creators also targeted female viewers and showcased storylines revolving around female leads through Hindi soap operas. The most popular among these being Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii.

Star News was launched - India’s first 24x7 news channel. Also, Channel V took off - India’s first music-only channel. So was Radio City, India’s first private radio station.

As you can see, a lot of firsts! The turn of the century was when the Indian TV industry came of age. And Star India was an intimate part of its growth and evolution.

 

The New Millennium

The first few years of the 2000s were relatively challenging. New Government regulations placed curbs on the degree of foreign investment and ownership of televised news operations. Top execs and editorial directors were now required to be of Indian descent. The restructuring during this period took some toll on Star India - particularly on Star News, whose partnership with NDTV ended during this period.

But Star and its channels pulled through, emerging more powerful than ever before. The company also began expanding into non-Hindi demographics in India by launching channels in regional languages like Bengali and Marathi and through a series of acquisitions, including those of Vijay TV and Asianet Communications. 

 

Enter, Shankar

Uday Shankar furthered the company’s foray into local-language programming when he joined in 2007, turning Star India into a content powerhouse and making it one of Asia’s pre-eminent media firms.

Another focus of his was Star’s consolidation into sports programming absorbing ESPN India within Star Sports and gradually launching a series of sports-based channels across the country. For its expansion, the mantra was the same - “vocal for local”, for the lack of a better phrase. And while predictably concentrating on regional languages and cricket, they also had other big hits like the Hockey India League and the Pro Kabaddi League, which garnered 200 million viewers within two weeks.

Then came the OTT revolution - and Shankar embraced it, allowing Star to have a head-start. Hotstar was launched in 2015, raking up 10 million+ users in only 40 days. As of April 2019, Hotstar reportedly had a whopping 300 million users.

The same way Star India’s satellite-TV business boomed as millions of Indians were introduced to televisions, its streaming business boomed as millions of Indians made use of cheap data rates and affordable smartphones to connect to the internet. This trend has escalated in 2020 on account of the COVID-19 pandemic and work-from-home culture.

 

What Next for Uday Shankar?

Shankar will reportedly pursue an entrepreneurial career next where he would ‘support and mentor India’s young minds to create transformational solutions with funding from global investors’.

He will remain in his position until December 31st, by which time a successor would be named.

As for the reason for exit, insiders claim that Shankar figured with Star’s current soaring success in all forms of media from television to streaming, now seemed like a good note to end on. The other factor may be a change in culture post-Disney’s acquisition, bringing a certain bit of conservativeness to Murdoch’s cowboy legacy and entrepreneurial freedom that Shankar was used to. Either way, the truth may be somewhere in between.

FIN.

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