UDAY SHANKAR, CEO of Star India, is IMPACT Person of the Decade (2004-2014) for being an outstanding leader of people and business, driver of social change & pioneer of reforms in the broadcast industry.
Uday Shankar, CEO of Star India, is an intrapreneur, if there was one, bringing to every role the acumen, leadership and visionary qualities of an entrepreneur and having the foresight to invest in businesses of the future.
Shankar’s has been an unplanned journey from journalist to CEO, with stints at the Times of India, Down to Earth and Aaj Tak before taking up the reins at 21st Century Fox-owned Star India in 2007. Known for consistently taking big but calculated risks, Shankar has today made Star a leading media business in India, turning conventional entertainment programming on its head with his agenda of social change and betting big on sports entertainment, with an investment of Rs 20,000 crore. His focus is not only on international properties such as broadcast rights for International Cricket Council (ICC) events, but revival of sports like hockey and kabaddi in a big way. James R Murdoch, Co-Chief Operating Officer of 21st Century Fox, recently said Star’s India business could eventually top operating profit of $1 billion a year.
As a champion of reforms in the industry, Shankar, President of the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), aims to change the TV distribution game in the era of digitization. With firm belief in the enormous potential of the media sector to drive social change, Shankar believes the industry has only scratched the surface of all that is possible. Shankar talks of life and business, his passions and aspirations, and undying love for the news media.
“It began with being a role model for my brothers to follow...
Uday Shankar, the eldest of three brothers, had to live up to his father’s expectations of ‘setting the right example for the younger ones to follow’. Starting with a leadership role as normal and incidental as that, he says he was “lucky to be managing a unit within two years of becoming a journalist”. As Features Editor at Down to Earth and Centre for Science and Environment, the young and inexperienced Shankar had a bunch of equally young and inexperienced people that he was supposed to lead. “I learnt how one should behave as a leader from the founder-director, Anil Agarwal,” says Shankar, reiterating his respect for his mentor and role model.
His tremendous success story - from journalist to CEO of a large media organization- is the stuff of legend in media circles. “First of all I must de-bunk the notion that it was part of a plan. It just happened,” affirms Shankar, “I know my community looks up to me very fondly and I find that flattering. But I must say that when I set out as a journalist, it wasn’t because I wanted to be a CEO. I just wanted to be a good journalist and my ambition was probably limited to being an editor someday. Luckily in my case, I became editor very early in my career, first in Print and then in TV. One thing led to another and here I am as CEO of Star India.”
“I value my curiosity; it helped me get where I am...
What might have helped the transition are a few personality traits that Shankar himself reflects on. “One is my curiosity - it is one attribute that I value the most. It has allowed me to learn something new every day and every minute - so as a journalist I was learning how businesses are run and managed; when I made the transition from news to entertainment, I was prepared because I was ready to learn new things. Because I am curious, I am never satisfied; there is always a question in my mind, so that has helped me invent and reinvent myself every now and then,” he says.
He also gives credit for his success to learning from people he deeply admires: “CSE was a very satisfying part of my life. I learnt a lot. I worked with a truly amazing mind called Anil Agarwal. I learnt enormously from him - the power of reasoning, logical reduction, research, etc., and how to use all of that to make a compelling argument. My high point would be a word of appreciation from Agarwal every now and then. They were few and far between, but it truly meant the world...”
Shankar also gives credit to Aroon Purie, Chairman of the India Today Group, from whom he says he learnt “the importance and power of details”.
“The Murdochs took a big risk with someone like me...
Shankar believes the bosses at 21st Century Fox took a risk betting on someone like him, with no background in entertainment, for Star. “Just knowing Rupert Murdoch is a privilege. He has the remarkable ability to pick up people and leave them free to do what they want to do, it is entirely up to you how you want to use that freedom, and that is exactly what he did with me. He also believes in the power of content. Rupert Murdoch and James R Murdoch are two people I admire and respect enormously. In a business as different, difficult and culturally rooted as media, they have gone and built successful enterprises across multiple continents. James is one of the most clear-headed visionaries that I have come across and both he and his father trust people and recognize that you can go wrong and you will make mistakes. The kind of trust that they have in me is phenomenal.”
Thus when everyone thought Satyamev Jayate was too costly to put together, Shankar went to Murdoch Jr and got a go-ahead. “I called James, and I said it’s a risk we are taking, it is expensive, but I think we should do it. He said if you think you should go ahead, do that, and we will survive even if it doesn’t work,” recalls Shankar.
Another instance was the show ‘Kya aap panchvi pass se tez hain’ when Shankar was just a few months old in the company. It didn’t do well at all, and all that Murdoch Sr told him in New York was ‘It happens, that is the nature of the beast, move on...’
“A recent example is kabaddi... today everybody sings paeans to kabaddi, saying Star has done such a great job, but just imagine having to convince a group of people in New York and tell them that there is this sport that you have never heard of, it has never been on TV or Print or Radio, but we want to invest very aggressively on this, and please support us,” recalls Shankar, adding it was an “easy conversation with James, who encourages you to take big bets, and gives you the confidence to do your best without worrying about the outcome”.
“It is also a part of my personality to encourage people to take big bets... whether it is your business, your life or your world, everything changes when you do big things. Small things don’t change the world. When you do something big or want to do something big, then you need to do it with full commitment, bet the house on it. I encourage my team to do that all the time,” he adds.
‘At Star, I first put together a team of bright people...
Shankar inherited Star when it wasn’t in good shape at all, having seen a slew of top level exits. So what did it take to bring it around? “It took understanding,” recalls Shankar. “I was an outsider; I had never been in the business of entertainment.
Star was a very big company, compared to companies that I had worked for earlier. So I had to understand what the issues were. I understood that the biggest mistake I could do was try and fix things all by myself. Hence I set about putting together a competent team that could deliver. A lot of people had left and so there was a need and an opportunity to change the team, and the smartest thing I did was to go and get a set of people who were very bright but who also had skills very complementary to mine. I knew that I had an understanding of content, so I brought a whole range of people who were the best in class for skillsets that I didn’t have. I gave that team the confidence to bond and understand what their skills and strengths were. So everybody played to his or her strength, and nobody tried to step on the other person’s toe.”
“The overhang of news media is too high on the M&E ecosystem...
According to Shankar, the media in India cannot have a free and fair growth because the overhang of news media is too high on the media & entertainment ecosystem. He also feels that we have inherited the structure of media from our colonial masters, and that fundamental construct has never changed. “Within the bureaucracy and the political class, the default desire is to control the media rather than build an open, vivacious, robust media that can be much better than what it is today. It is something that we need to change,” he insists. “But whether you like it or not, the glamour and power associated with the news side of media have drawn a large number of unwarranted people to it. Their focus is on peddling influence through media, and that creates distortions.”
A healthy disdain for government broadcasters makes Shankar wonder why the government needs to be in the business of either news or media at all. “I think all of us have an obligation to create media content, the government’s job is to make sure that it creates conditions for robust media development and ensures that distortion of media by media owners for their own benefit is prevented. News used to be the pamphlet of the ruling party, but with Star News and later Aaj Tak, we created something different. One thing is clear - private news media in this country has brought change, people in positions of power and authority have been made to feel accountable,” he affirms.
“There is no such thing as work-life balance in my life...
In Shankar’s words: “You should be able to throw yourself at what is important. And it keeps changing. When the family needs you, you throw yourself after that, when the work needs you, you throw yourself after that, I’m sorry to be politically incorrect, but I am a binary guy – it is one or zero for me, and I think work-life balance is a great metaphor, but difficult.”
The story goes that he was so driven, so obsessed with TV that at one point in his career, he just quit his job and decided to try his luck in the television industry without knowing whether he would even get a job. “I struggled for a long time, before I got my first break in TV. I took a huge salary cut, but that taught me two things: one, if you genuinely want something, you have to take a plunge; and two, if you give it your best, things work out,” says Shankar.
He lists launching Aaj Tak as a high point of his life, and the re-launch of Star Plus, restoring it to its strength and glory, as another one. “More recently, shows like Satyamev Jayate have been the high points of my life. I also feel very proud that we could do so much for kabaddi,” he adds.