Uday Shankar, a former journalist, became chief executive of Star India in 2007 and has beenwidely creditedfor turning around the private TV network, whose ratings had begun to flag in the years before he took over. In 2009, he approached Aamir Khan, the Bollywood star, about hosting a TV show, which went on the air in May as “Satyamev Jayate” (Truth Prevails), and has quickly gained much praise and some criticism for how it has covered important subjects like female foeticide and the sexual abuse of children.
Mr. Shankar is one of the most outspoken media executives in India and has been blunt about the problems of the TV industry in particular. In a recent interview to discuss Mr. Khan’s show, he spoke about why Indian television networks do not take on the big issues affecting the country and why many seem to be struggling financially.
Q. How did “Satyamev Jayate” come about?
A. We were looking to do things differently, and by then we had already worked with a large number of Bollywood superstars – Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, we had signed up with Hrithik Roshan. One, so we had worked with all these people and we had not worked with Aamir and obviously I was keen that we do. And two, I also thought if the man brings the same sensibility of doing something very different, very compelling and yet very meaningful to TV, it would be very interesting, and it would be very close to our own positioning of “Rishta Wahi, Soch Nayi”[Same Relationship, New Thinking].
He started working with a few producers. We met several months later, and he had an outline of the idea and then I liked it. It was very different. It was totally out of the current definition of entertainment content.
Q. Why now? Why couldn’t this have been done several years ago?
A. It could have been done a long time ago. But you should also see the evolution of Indian TV. Since TV has become so ubiquitous in this country and it has become so big and so successful, people often forget that it’s still in its infancy here. We are talking about 2012 and TV is barely 20 years old — the first private satellite signal started in 1992, and then for a long time, for at least seven or eight years, it was a fledgling business. It’s only in the last 10, 12 years that TV has started thriving.
Hence, I think, necessarily you have to go through that journey. First, the entertainment that people were starved for — that was seen to be the job of TV. People were doing that. The dramas came in and the dramas had their power, and people got hooked to the dramas so there were more dramas and similarly other forms of entertainment – reality shows and talent hunts and stuff like that. And they all had their appeal — the novelty factor and the fact that nobody had seen anything like that.
And also there is another element here that gets overlooked. I think policy here has played a very big role in not allowing this kind of thing to happen. The government made this very unscientific, forced and arbitrary decision of separating news and entertainment. They said that you will have to take separate licenses, and in such an early stage to do that — it was totally politically motivated — the effect of it was there was a very watertight segregation of entertainment and nonentertainment content, or what we call news or nonnews content.
As a result of that, institutionally, internally, you did not have sensibilities which could cross-pollinate. That may have played a big role.
It was primarily done to keep the foreign broadcasters out of news. That was the whole intention of segregating that license. And that happened, I think, in 2003, but since then it just became you know a completely watertight category. So companies like Star, Sony, Viacom, who are so-called foreign broadcasters because their parents are overseas, they got out of news. But they were also the key broadcasters who were setting the agenda.
Q. Do you worry that some may try to say you are violating the terms of your entertainment license by broadcasting a show that could be described as dealing with current affairs?
A. The show is not news at all. I don’t think the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has told anyone to do that. There is no such concern here because it’s not news at all. It’s just a talk show, people’s experiences are being shared. It’s not like other people haven’t done shows like this. Even when you do very entertainment kind of show — a music show or a talent show — the participants come in and they talk about their lives.
Q. How has “Satyamev Jayate” done relative to your expectations?
A. The fundamentals look all very strong and robust, but the concept so different from the regular fare that the viewers had got used to that there was always an element of risk. We went into it with our eyes open hoping that the show would do very well but prepared that it may not do so well. So that’s the honest truth.
The show has done well, but it’s not an easy show to do. The amount of research, the amount of work that goes into it makes it a fairly expensive show. The response from the advertising community has been surprisingly positive — no complaints on that score. Overall, we think the show is a viewer success and the show is a commercial success too.
Q. A couple of years ago I heard you issue a call to arms to the Indian TV industry about its troubled financial health. Do you think the industry has sorted out its problems?
A. It’s still a work in progress. One big change in that direction is digitization. People often do not realize how big a catalyst for change it’s likely to be, not just for distribution or subscription, but its ability to trigger localization of content is going to be revolutionary. Because bandwidth of cable is so limited that if you wanted to create content for let’s say western U.P. [Uttar Pradesh], the economic model doesn’t work for it because the cost of distribution is so high. If digitization happens and every cable operator can deliver 500 channels, then the cost of carriage becomes much less.
Q. But in much of India, isn’t the problem that there are too many channels competing for a finite number of viewers and advertising rupees? For instance, there are probably more than a dozen 24-hour news channels.
A. I don’t think the problem is over competition. If you see a country of 1.2 billion people and the number of channels, it’s actually not that many. If you go and see the number of channels in the United States, India doesn’t have too many channels. The problem is sameness of content.
Look at the size of the Hindi market. It’s a huge market with 500 million people. Why shouldn’t there be a dozen channels? The problem is that each of those dozen channels are giving the same news at all points in time. That’s both a creative, strategic issue as well as a business issue.
Most of the channels are not making any money. They are losing money and hence their ability to invest in content, their ability to invest in strategy, their ability to invest in talent is really limited, and because you have poor talent, poor resources, you are either replicating content or creating very poor content.
Source: NY Times?