“It is very bleak for news... there is appalling crisis of vision and alarming poverty of talent”

In conversation, Star India CEO Uday Shankar

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BV Rao | September 7, 2012




Star India CEO Uday Shankar is the only one who has straddled news and entertainment genres at the highest levels and hence uniquely positioned to fill in the gaps in our understanding. Sharp, incisive, intellectual, self-incriminating and brazenly bold, Uday gave us a deep dive into the difficult world of news media and what ails it. And why it will continue to ail.
Here is the transcript of the interview:

Going by what I have read in the media, you approached Aamir Khan for a show and he said that he wanted something substantial and came back with a plan…after that it seems that Star has had no role at all.
It is true that he has played a critical role, not just anchoring it but otherwise too. It was 2009, post ‘Three Idiots’. I had already put in two years at Star and was looking at reengineering the creative agenda for entertainment. I was getting pushed around by the entire creative universe which, I thought, was determined to do more of the same. I was not convinced and knew that this just could not go on…

You mean the soap operas?
You know, it’s not about the format because that is irrelevant to me. It’s more about what were the concerns that you are moved by and what are the concerns you want to trigger. That was the key issue in my mind. While families are important and family lives are important, how long could we continue to do only romantic aspirations of the family? I have been hearing the argument about women being our audience and all that. I did not find conviction in that and even if that was the case I was quite keen to give it a shot to change that.

Like everybody else I had been observing Aamir for a long time. What he did in last 10-12 years is remarkable. The cinema he associated himself with, the issues he stood up for and the focus he brought upon excellence… whatever he does he likes to make it a landmark. Even the advertising campaigns he has done have a certain amount of freshness and variety in them. That is why I went to see him. I told him, ‘your movies have done great work and communicated the message. You wield power in a big way. But compared with television, cinema is a limited medium in terms of its reach and influence. By not coming on TV, you are restricting your reach. Why are you doing it?’

Aamir agreed with me. He said he was conscious of it and even considered doing television. But, he said, he was sure he did not ‘want to do the same things that others are doing’. I told him that I wouldn’t have approached him if I had wanted him to do the same things. ‘I came only because I know you don’t do the same things.’ For doing the same things I have other people to go to. But, that said, I was clear from the beginning that being a mass platform we should do something that connects with the masses.

He said he liked the power of TV and wanted to harness it for positive social change. He said he would think about it and come back. He spent a lot of time and effort, put together a bunch of people and came up with concepts and said ‘these are the things that are dear to my heart’. We then sat down with our teams to work the details. I spent as much time as I could and we were engaged. Yes, there is no denying the fact that Aamir drove the creative agenda of the show.

Once you made up your mind on the creative reengineering of the channel, did Aamir choose himself for the show you had in mind? Was he the obvious choice?
He was the obvious choice because you require a lot of commitment, right? It requires a lot of risk appetite in a market where everybody is chasing ratings and success. That is something I explained to Aamir, that we have to have a very different parameter to measure the success of the show and it cannot be just the ratings even though it is an important denominator. But it has to be measured also in terms of its impact. He’s very focused on all of these. That’s why he self-selects.

There are two unique aspects to Satyamev Jayate (SMJ) that interest a governance magazine like ours. First, that you chose to do such a show on an entertainment channel and second, that you chose to share your creative content with even your competition. When we create content we are selfish about ownership whereas you did something completely opposite, unheard of. How did Doordarshan and All India Radio (AIR) come in? What was this urge to share it and why did you seek this wider audience?
Like everything else in the show it was a collaborative effort and an iterative revolution. I agree with you that in this industry everybody is obsessed with intellectual property (IP). I find the whole concern bizarre. The concern is not about creating great IP. There is inadequate focus on creating incredible IP, but there is incredible focus on protecting mediocre IP. I never understood this. Somewhere we are all creatures of our background. Coming from a news background has given me a healthy disrespect for the idea of IP. In news the world’s biggest story tonight is completely passé by the end of the week. However, as a news journalist you are very focused that when you do a story, at that time, everyone must come to it and it must affect and impact everyone. That is the context.

Aamir had said that ‘when we do it I would like to make sure that it reaches everybody’. Some of it is serendipity but this was again something close to my heart as a strategy. We expanded the network of Star in a big way from being a Hindi-only broadcaster to English, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada and all of that. But given the diversity of our country you cannot address the entire country with one mouthpiece; no matter how impactful that mouthpiece is. So it is important to have multiple platforms. At Star group, we had been recreating stories across regions and states. If a story works in one market and it is culturally connected with another market then that story should work in the second market as well. Though we had created this diverse and comprehensive platform we thought if this content is relevant to one or more than one markets, why should it be restricted by limitations of ownership?

We actually had a show with a pan-India target group and cross-sectional appeal. And why should we deny access to that story as this was a rare occasion when things as central and meaningful to our society were taken on such a large platform and driven by a big personality and Star was putting its entire weight behind? Commercially it was a big risk for us. So we were thinking ‘how do we do it, how do we reach everybody?’

So, we immediately decided to put it on all our channels. Next we looked at the part of the universe that we were yet to serve and the obvious ones were those who were not part of cable and satellite. So we decided to give it to Doordarshan. In India, the biggest hole we have in our portfolio is in the state of Andhra, we don’t have big presence there. We didn’t want to deny Telugu-speaking people so we picked Eenadu TV in Andhra and put the show there though we compete with Eenadu in most parts of India. I don’t think by doing this we lost market share, which is very transient. If anything we have introduced a completely different way of looking at audience, viewership and ownership. It was something that Aamir was very keen on and something that I felt there was a need for.

I have always felt there is a need for something like this. We have taken issues of IP control and ownership too seriously. You cannot compromise larger societal objectives to promote these. Yes, I understand the logic that if you have invested money in creating something, somebody else should not take unfair advantage of it at the cost of your interests… that is logical. As long as that is not happening, why should we not do it?

And I think this must have only helped you build your brand immensely…
I hope so… I’m sure. I don’t believe that brands are so fragile that if you share one idea or one content they will suffer… I think the whole country knows that this has been co-created by Aamir Khan and Star, no matter where they saw it. Some causes are big enough to make some compromises.

You were driving a social agenda. Coming from the news background you believe in certain things but the market or the organisation you head may not necessarily share the belief. Was there an instant buy-in internally?
It would be a lie to say that there was an instant buy-in. It was huge commercial commitment for us and risky commitment and it was very different from regular entertainment. However, it is not the first time that Star had moved the needle. Star is also a very experimental company. Forget the past, even in a recent show – Star had the courage to remove one of the biggest shows of all times and replace it with a show called ‘Aap Ki  Kachehri’ with Kiran Bedi.

Then, recently, we took a big story that had created huge social outrage in the country and mounted a drama to mirror that reality and it worked. We were the first to say that traditional perception of the Indian woman as meek, devoted and sacrificing for the family needs to change because reality is changing and we need to be abreast of reality. So we brought in the concept of an aware, modern and assertive woman. These are the things that happen in a company over a period of time and you have to prepare the company.

The preparation had been going on for a while and SMJ was a logical culmination of that journey. There were concerns, there were questions. If we hadn’t done ‘Pratigya’, ‘Aap Ki Kachehri’, and ‘Sach Ka Saamna’ it would have been a shock internally. The company has always been and become very eclectic.

You seem to be driving more social change through entertainment TV than news TV...  
Frankly, now that I have spent a few years in entertainment and a few years in news, surprising as it may sound to you, a lot of distinction that is made between both are actually false. If you look at it, the audience is the same. The society in which news stories or fiction stories are created is also the same. Fiction does not take shape in isolation. It is inspired or shaped by reality around us. It is just that news is far more direct and characters are real, while in entertainment characters are shadows of reality. The needle of entertainment has moved because it has mirrored the reality far more accurately. Terrestrial TV and specially satellite TV has moved changes in a big way. Some of the changes are visible, some are not. Every change does not have to be dramatic.

Soaps have changed a whole lot of things for us.
Correct. The way people live, eat, dress, talk, behave is influenced by what they see and a lot of it has been very positive. There are negative influences, we have to be aware of that. But in a country where formal institutions for imparting awareness, education and training are grossly inadequate, television has imparted this training and filled gaps. That is exactly the role that news television is supposed to perform in a more direct way. And I think it does to some extent. No matter how much we beat down news television, if today corruption is on national centre stage, it is primarily because of news media. So, I’m not an unbridled critic of the news media. But, yes, news channels are not challenging themselves the way they could, and I saw that there was an opportunity for entertainment guys in it. It was a flank that was left exposed.

That’s what I’m saying: there’s a huge space that news has to occupy but it hasn’t.
Yes, I also think that sometimes journalists, especially news journalists as opposed to feature journalists, get so obsessed with newness that they let gigantic, continuing problems go by and be ignored. The issues that SMJ took up are gigantic and society has been grappling with some of those issues for hundreds and thousands of years. Just because the issues may have been discussed a few times in the past, it does not make them irrelevant or go off your agenda. They remain central to society. As long as female foeticide continues to exist, as media, it is our responsibility to keep talking about it. It is a creative challenge for us to invent engaging ways to get audience but you can’t say we won’t discuss it because it’s already been discussed.

Yes, some critics said, oh, we have been talking about it all the time.
By that logic when you report something about a scam, why do you report on it again the second day? Because it is important, vital and has huge impact on society, we must be committed to talk about it until the dial moves. One of my complaints with the media is that issues get raised, there is no sustained follow-up and nothing happens. People are very frustrated and this is a common complaint I hear from people.

One of the biggest arguments that we have not been able to counter effectively is that the social responsibility of a news channel and its business realities are not good bedfellows. In SMJ obviously you have delivered a great social message. How was the business? As the CEO are you happy?
As the CEO of a company the size and scale of Star Network, you have to look at net worth for the network unlike a production house or a channel where you have to look at profit and loss accounting of individual shows or of individual channels. Commercially we always knew that it will be an expensive project considering the amount of work, research and travel that has gone into it and the scale we mounted it on. As far as the programme itself is concerned, we knew it may not be great return on investment (ROI). But ROI for the network in terms of goodwill it has created has been phenomenal. In media, you exist only as long as your social charter is valid. SMJ allowed Star to renew and revalidate its social contract with the country in a very big way. The value of that is phenomenal. It may not translate into a very big value in the bank, but if the network does well, the bank account will do well.

How did you fare on the cost-benefit analysis? Did you make money out it?
We don’t discuss that publicly, but I can only tell you that considering the amount of investment that went into it, the kind of marketing that went into it, if it was for a regular show with such costs and the same returns, we would perhaps not do it. But this is Satyamev Jayate.

What were the surprises from SMJ?
The biggest surprise has been, I just discovered yesterday (July 25), that the show has generated more than one billion digital impressions on Facebook, internet and Twitter and in the form of SMSes from all over the world. We had people connecting from Costa Rica, Alaska and the US and from places that you and I can’t locate on a map. This has happened in a country that is considered digitally unevolved. This cannot be measured monetarily. It is a revelation how content is relevant and challenges status quo, then how powerfully people can connect with it.

Tell me why can’t we do this in news channels? What are the creative shortcomings, monetary and business dilemmas for a news channel to be unable to do SMJ?
There are many business and some creative dilemmas. But first and foremost, there is something that comes before all of this and that is vision and belief. First of all you have to believe in something, that I will do this because it is the right thing to do. If you have belief you will find a way around all business and creative challenges, otherwise you will get stymied by all such obstacles. Secondly, as an editor, content person or a journalist, you will understand, every now and then you must step back from what you do on a daily basis and take a look at the big picture – the society, what is right, what is not right. Generally, there are always exceptions to this rule, in India we are going through a phase where not enough editors, promoters and journalists are stepping back from the daily grind and taking a look at big picture. What is the larger commitment that we must make?

Because news media is not just a business?
No, listen, media must be a healthy business because if you are not healthy you cannot survive. Unless you have good business you cannot create content. I don’t believe that media must be a social enterprise. Media is not charity and even charity has to be funded by somebody. But I don’t believe either that there is a fundamental contradiction between good content and good business. If somebody makes that point, I think it is shortage of vision. I don’t believe that at all.

Speaking of vision, how creative are newsrooms? Is creation happening there?
Creation is happening. It is happening every day. The question is, in which direction is it happening? Are we doing iconic creations every now and then? The answer is no. I am not an unmitigated critic of media. Despite all the limitations, this country would be much worse without the media we have here, whether it is television or print. TV has brought in a certain democratisation in media: for that, full marks. The problem is, somewhere economic pressures in the news business have forced people to compromise larger objectives and vision. It almost reminds me of the traditional image of a debt-ridden farmer from old Hindi films who is forever weighed down by adversities and miseries of life. That is what is happening to our news business. The daily grind of the survival has taken away any desire to step up on the vision.

Most people don’t know that SMJ was born more than six years ago in Star News (when you were editor and CEO of that channel). It sank without a trace then. What is it that makes SMJ fail in a news channel but succeed on an entertainment channel? Is it just the money, is it that SMJ on Star Entertainment has Aamir Khan driving it whereas Star News cannot afford him or is it that news media does not try hard enough?
I don’t believe that. Of course, having Aamir is a huge clutter breaker. He is a phenomenally powerful engine driving the whole show. But since you asked the question, I will answer it in that context. I was very committed to SMJ because it was my way of stepping back and looking at the larger picture. But that first attempt at SMJ in 2006 failed because the economics of news channels including Star News at that time were so challenged that everything had to be justified in terms of economic benefits it brought in or not. There was a fear that a show that was “serious” would not get ratings. And if it didn’t get ratings, you would not be able to hawk it to advertisers and not get money and it would further multiply economic pressures on an already challenged channel. So the commercial people thought that it was the hobby horse of an editor who had just become a CEO and yet didn’t understand economic reality. The content people didn’t feel convinced because they didn’t see the power of a visionary model in it when struggling for physical existence. While it is sad that it did not work on Star News, I can understand why it didn’t work. It helped that Star India is commercially successful. Because, if Star India was not successful and yet had the money to work out a deal with Aamir, it still would not have been able to do it because people at Star would have wanted to the put money to better use. Because we were commercially successful, we said ‘let’s scale up our ambitions and aspirations and rise to the commitment’. I think that is what is going wrong with news media.

So is it bleak for news? Would you do a SMJ on a news channel? Or let me put it this way, how would you do SMJ if you had a news channel right now?
It depends on who owns that news channel. I don’t see anyone in the current dispensation to have the commitment to put their weight behind it. You cannot do one SMJ and then move on to covering Bollywood. You have to also earn your rights and for that it requires commitment. If Star India had a news channel I would do SMJ or that kind of a programme 365 days a year and that is how I would build that channel.

Do you think there is commitment or courage in the industry for anybody to do that today?
I think no. Because, if they had it they would have done it. So, to answer your earlier question, yes, it is very bleak for news. There are two counts on which it is bleak and forgive me for not pulling my punches. One, there is an appalling crisis of vision and two, an alarming poverty of talent. And I don’t think the crisis of vision is due entirely to economic pressures. Economic pressures make it more challenging, but there is a crisis of vision, period.

I see people contracting expensive cricketers as experts and also spending Rs 30-40-50-60 crore on distribution. At least there could be one person who actually believed in power of content and that person could actually take away Rs 10 crore of the Rs 60 crore to put behind good content. I know economics makes it even more difficult to do it but that is not always the only reason. One key reason for the crisis of vision – you know how it works –  it’s a process of interaction, no one person ever comes with the big idea in the shape that it can work, it’s a collaborative process where the whole team works and the boss, subordinate, owner, worker, journalist, editor, everyone comes together to create a direction. That is not happening.

The quality of talent in newsrooms, in print and television, on-screen and off-screen, is a matter of serious concern. The intellectual and educational competence is by itself appalling. As recently as 15-20 years back, if you were not an engineer, doctor or civil servant or if you were a student of liberal arts or economics you didn’t have many options. You could either become a teacher in a university or college or become an academician or become a journalist.

Some very bright, intellectually sound and well-read people from liberal arts background, who didn’t have a market outside, came into media. While today they have many options, demands on journalism have gone up and we need to be even more qualified in this world of technology etc which is becoming more and more complex. It is a strange contradiction where access to quality talent has gone down while need for quality talent has gone up and how do you match that? A lot of what you see today is a result of that.

I have often wondered why there is such a tremendous desire on stories about cricket or Bollywood or even party politics. That’s because you don’t need intellectual competence to discuss, cricket, Bollywood or even party politics, because everybody is an expert on that whereas to discuss the economic crisis in the European Union you need to understand, study and have some skills. So we are in a funny situation where the talent is putting pressure on the vision and the vision is putting pressure on talent and together we have pushed news in a completely dark zone.

As editors part of the blame is also on us because we were there and we couldn’t do it.
Yes, I am a culprit. I ran away. I ran away because I couldn’t fix it.

I ran away too. In that sense it is easy to criticize. But with that said, do you think the biggest problem with news journalism today is the editors? We have failed to produce stars after the initial flush of TV. Beyond Prannoy, Rajdeep, Barkha and Arnab why have we failed to produce new stars?
You have just answered your question. Look at the intellectual robustness of people like Prannoy, Rajdeep, Arnab. When you have someone who is an evolved intellectual, not the serious and boring types, then the person can give you an entire new perspective. Today the person reporting on parliament has never read the Indian constitution, let alone parliamentary practices. This again brings us back to the talent deficit issue. Not one standout personality has been produced in the country in last ten years because, I suspect, we have done an appalling job of mentoring talent, spotting talent and nurturing talent. 

Is it about not allowing talent to bloom in a newsroom? In other words, are we protecting our fat salaries?
I don’t think it is a conspiracy to stymie talent. I am sure some people do that. But I think in a talent-starved world it is difficult to hide genuine talent. Because I may have a vested interest and not give the person a chance but since everyone is equally talent-starved, the talent may go to you and you may give him a chance. It is not so much a conspiracy as a lapse.

So, it’s a catch-22. How do we break this?
Yes, it is a catch-22 and the political order is very comfortable with this logjam. It works brilliantly for them and every politician is happy about this shoddy journalism. They rant about journalists showing only Bollywood, cricket and naach-gaana but the moment media stops showing that, they dislike it because the focus is on them. Occasionally when scams like Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Society and 2G break out and media starts targeting them, coincidentally demands for regulation of media also become very pronounced. It’s a situation that suits the ruling elite in a big way.

Is that why it is taking so long for us to solve cable vs. digital problem?
That is one big reason because if news channels don’t have money to spend on content it’s great. Cable is a complex issue because it has deep political interest. Local politicians are very closely involved in the business of cable and analogue cable brings in huge amounts of unaccounted cash. Why would they want that to change? This entire ecosystem of cash at the local level has created a complex network of vested interests.

And it has stymied news channels because of their expenditure on distribution.
It has stymied their content. Period.

As a leading entertainment channel, you took a certain risk. It is sometimes incumbent on the leader to show some creativity and break away and do something drastic because the business demands that.
That is the joy of leadership and the price you pay for it.

But why is it that leaders in the news genre decided to follow the followers rather than show the way?
It is a blunt question and can only have a blunt answer. Forgive me for saying this as news is my first love, there are no genuine leaders in the news genre. It is a pack of followers herding together.

Do you see somebody breaking this?
A certain equilibrium has come to settle. It can change only if a new force disrupts it.

Haven’t we failed as editors in the sense that ten years ago there was a particular format for news stories and the format still continues and has at best been replaced by the prime-time talk shops?
Because talk is cheap and pictures are expensive. Talk is coming from people who are available free of charge, whether it is a party spokesperson or people on the street. Actually what we are doing is zero-cost news gathering.

If you were consulting a news channel, how would you advise them to break away?
The news structure has some fundamental problems. Nowhere in world does television news work as standalone business. It is always part of a larger media portfolio. Television news requires big investments upfront, in building a constituency of audience, brand and reputation. Only after you have done that you can start monetising on that and then there is handsome profit. Successful news channels across the world make a lot of money. But there is a long gestation period. And that is why you need to have financial appetite and commitment to go through that phase. India is the only country where entry barriers to news channels are low. There are 80-85 news channels in English and regional languages. In a scenario with so many people coming in and nobody making money the question arises, what is the motivation of most of these people to stay in the business? While a media company cannot be traumatised and pressurised easily for those who have other businesses and a soft belly it may not be easy.

Are your saying that only big corporates can make a successful news channel?
No, on the contrary. Usually the corporates haven’t succeeded in making great news channels anywhere in the world. In the US or Europe media companies with some exceptions are largely owned by people who operate only in the business of media. Disney, Time Warner, Discovery are entirely content and media companies who have built big businesses. These companies understand the business of media.

Going back to Star News and SMJ-1, do you think that if you had stayed on it, you would have made a mark with it or was the economic pressure unbearable?
As the CEO I could have pushed against the economic pressures. But what do you do when journalists themselves are not committed to ideas because everybody is worried if the show will give ratings. Nobody is worried if the show will give them credibility, respect and impact as eventually all of these will translate into economic value. Nobody has the maturity and patience to understand that. I think the economic pressures here were in the background; the reasons in the foreground were that all of us could not show the commitment required. 

Also read: Satyamev Jayate: why the news really is not very good

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