By Simran Sabherwal
Just two years ago, if someone would have told you that Mahabharat would make a big ticket come-back on TV, kabaddi would be one of the most watched sports and hundreds would tune in to watch a programme on gay rights on a Sunday morning, chances are that you’d also have expected pigs to fly.
But all this and more has happened in Indian television, and among the few people who saw it coming was Star India’s CEO Uday Shankar, who played a critical cog while the wheel was being reshaped. It still is, if we are to judge from his energy and ideas not only as a group head, but also as an industry leader and trend-setter.
Shankar has been a key figure in the move to change the entire TV distribution game in this era of digitization. Star’s amended Reference Interconnect Offer (RIO), according to which Multi-system operators (MSOs) choose channels on the basis of consumer profiles and let them pay exactly for what they want, aspires to set a transparent, disciplined system for all parties.
When sport changed colours
Most sports fans in India would only think of November 2013 as the end of an epoch when batting legend Sachin Tendulkar played his final game, but the discerning few would also remember that the nation’s biggest broadcaster had ‘changed colours’.
It wasn't just a cosmetic make-over, nor a shiny new touch to the logo, but the entire approach to sports changed on November 6, when the front pages of newspapers screamed ‘A Sports Revolution Starts Today’ and ‘Imagine A World Where Sports Comes First’. The campaign heralded a new phase for Star in India, putting into motion its plans to redefine sports programming.
First up, with ESPN out of the equation, the revamped bouquet of channels had the Star sign all over – from Star Sports 1 to 4 in standard definition, two HD channels and starsports.com. That the digital arm was being pronounced in the same breath as TV channels told us how critically Star was taking the online playground. The fraternity was abuzz on hearing of Star’s commitment to the genre with an estimated investment of Rs 20,000 crore.
A year down the line, Shankar has the contentment of a person who’s just made a calculated fortune on a bet. “We invested heavily in the development of kabaddi and hockey. We are doing this because for the longest time in this country, sports broadcasters have been mere cricket broadcasters. We are trying to change India into a destination for multiple sports,” he says.
The big moves towards this were of course made earlier, and Star has been busy since 2012, cornering broadcast rights for sports starting from cricket, hockey and going up to badminton, kabaddi and tennis. The biggest highs have been sponsoring the Indian cricket team’s jerseys, taking over ICC rights until 2023 as also bringing the Indian Super League for football, in collaboration with IMG and Reliance.
Changing the rules of the game
Placing the big bets was just half the job done. The challenge for Star, after procuring rights to potentially massive sporting events, was to give the viewer a new experience. The production values then, from graphics in cricket to camera angles in badminton and engaging commentary in kabaddi, needed to measure up to new standards, and the innovation has just begun.
Expectedly focusing on cricket, Shankar explains, “Star was very keen on those rights simply because the ICC tournaments are platforms for the world’s best to perform. They create great stories and experiences for people and we felt that we’d be able to use that platform. They are for eight years, so they give you an opportunity to stay with the process of innovation and engagement for a long period.”
Cricket may garner a chunk of Star’s Rs 20,000 crore kitty but its investments in non-traditional TV sports have a wise strategy - use the power of cricket to drive reach, sampling and experience of other sports. With high production values, technical expertise, celebrity owners accompanied by marketing blitzkrieg, tournaments such as Pro-Kabaddi League not just scaled TRP charts but also drove footfalls to the stadium. That said, how monetizable are these properties?
With no sponsors on board or advertisers (Fevicol came on board as an advertiser later), Pro-Kabaddi League was sponsored by Star Sports. While admitting “There’s been no money in kabaddi and badminton so far and also in two seasons of hockey,” Shankar says, ”These are plain and simple investments and we are looking at them like start-ups. We are conscious that for a number of years we will have to continue to invest in building these tournaments or leagues and if only these leagues are successful, then we’d be able to make some money. Our outlook is that for at least five years or so, each of these (PKL, ISL, IPTL) will continue to be in a ‘deep investment phase’ and only after that we will be able to figure which one works and which doesn’t.”
For now, while kabaddi has been a sure-shot winner, hockey and football could score higher while International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) plays out. Shankar’s belief is that if the content is innovative and engaging, advertising will follow.
Content Hurdle In Sports
While Star has invested in creating leagues, content remains a big challenge for broadcasters. With most content restricted to cricket, (particularly international series involving India), the challenge is providing continuous fresh content instead of relying on library content. This was one of the main hurdles that Star chose to tackle head-on.
The channel focused on driving people to watching sports daily and not sporadically. This in turn would get the viewer to sample other sports - the logic being that engagement level is very thin unless multiple sports are experimented with. There’s a constant battle to shed monotonous content and never cease innovation.
“The three things are - creating a wider spectrum of sports within the sport, more and more sports, and third continuous and deeper innovation is to improving the viewership engagement and share,” Shankar explains. He adds that creativity must be the differentiator, whether it’s sports or the Hindi GEC space, in which Star has had consistent success. “Our successes, whether in new programming, channels or sports, comes from that sharp understanding of the underlying trends and aspirations of the society,” Shankar says.
The Social Appeal
While much credit is being given to Aamir Khan for bringing back Sunday morning viewing to fashion and setting a new standard of socially relevant programming, Shankar feels his group’s belief systems have contributed to the success of Satyamev Jayate. “We genuinely believe in the power of media to provoke a change of thinking in individuals and society. Satyamev Jayate is a shining example that high quality content can challenge popular perceptions. Driven by Aamir’s persuasive appeal, we were able to get the whole country to come together, publicly share and talk about fundamental issues. We have been extremely excited with the way individuals from across India have been galvanized and are taking action inspired by the show.”
On the soaps front, while many would disagree, Shankar reiterates that the programming is truly progressive. “We are probably the only media company with an internal mission - that of never doing regressive social content,” he declares. Two successful shows that abide by this have been Diya Aur Baati Hum which portrays a married woman becoming a police officer and Yeh Hai Mohabattein, which looks at second chances at life and family for an infertile woman.
Of Disruption and Innovation
Innovation and disruption would be two words used to describe Star in the Uday Shankar era. If Mahabharat and Devon ke Dev – Mahadev brought the appeal of mythology to younger audiences, Star’s recent big-ticket launch, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Everest aspires to be much more.
Set against the backdrop of Mount Everest, it is the tale of a young girl’s desire to climb it. Star has bet big on this ‘very disruptive show’ which it believes will be, in cinematic and creative terms, “a huge leap for Indian television”.
“Everest is a shining example of innovation. In a way, we are portraying similar family equations as other programmes, such as daughter-father and daughter-mother, and how the emotions play out in the household, but these are playing out in the backdrop of Everest and will finally be on top of Everest. That’s what we mean by innovation and disruption,” confidently says Shankar.
The two terms also mean high investment, and this year it has been substantially high. While individual ticket sizes in entertainment are small, Star’s investment in shows such as Everest, Mahabharat and Satyamev Jayate is significantly larger and estimated to be four or five times higher than that of a single GEC serial episode. But Shankar says it’s not about the money. “That’s not how we see it. It’s first about having a great idea, developing a clear vision and carrying it forward, not considering its expenses,” he explains.
On the English entertainment frontier, innovation played out with the introduction of high-definition. With English content being brought in from international markets and most of it being called ‘stale’ for the discerning viewer, ‘Star World Premier HD’ was launched, to telecast shows on the same day as their US premieres. Shankar reiterates that irrespective of language, the vision remains the same - offer the best content in the most innovative way, keep causing disruption.
That said, English content on TV will remain a niche play and it would eventually shift to digital, Shankar predicts, adding that it’s the regional space that must catch up a lot. “Regional channels have been very badly hurt so far by the challenges of distribution, but if the distribution landscape reinvents itself, I think they’d grow far more than they have.”
Lonely at the Top
In the highly competitive and TRP-driven Hindi GEC space, Star Plus has been at No. 1 for 55 weeks at a stretch, leaving the others to fight for the spoils.
However, this year also saw Life OK showing its might and giving other GECs a fight for the remote. Commenting on the ‘two children’ of Star, Shankar says, “The two children should compete with each other and ensure that they are healthy enough to compete with the best in the rest of the market. Our ambition for Life OK is to compete with Star Plus and with all other channels. Life OK has done phenomenally well and has overtaken many of the very seasoned channels. I wish it could compete with Star Plus and I hope it will.”
While TV channels held their own last year, Star’s digital platform starsports.com performed exceedingly well. In 2013, after Star had said that digital was ‘in very early days’ and in a ‘build phase’, a lot changed post the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Teaming up with Times Internet, starsports.com gained much traction during the IPL, with claims that two big playoff matches attracted 2.8 million online viewers, the highest for any sporting event after the Super Bowl in the US. The portal has branched out to offer other sports too, and is constantly exploring to scale up its user experience.
Source: Impact On Net