STAR India CEO, Uday Shankar is the first Indian media CEO to address the Paley Media Council in New York, where he spoke about creating content to push social change. This is the full transcript of the proceedings of the Paley Media Council Breakfast Session on Friday, May 30, 2014 which was introduced by James Murdoch, Co-COO, 21st Century Fox, and moderated by Bobby Ghosh, Editor TIME International.
Introduction by James Murdoch: It’s a real privilege; a special privilege for me to be here today to introduce my good friend and colleague Uday Shankar. 20 years ago, our company began a remarkable journey in India. We acquired a young Hong Kong based satellite Television Company whose signal provided Indian TV viewers with International Entertainment programming for the first time. But the days of a single state owned TV channel were still a reality for most Indians and paid TV didn’t yet exist. The company was opening up economically and we believed that in a new India, Indian families would demand more choice. We realized that a rising middle class combined with powerful demographic trends would drive a hunger for more access to the world and an openness to new ideas. Our path in India has not always been easy and the market is still very complicated. But today STAR India reaches 650 Million weekly viewers across 34 channels. With an average viewer age of only 28 there is enormous growth ahead.
But as proud as we are of STAR’s progress and promise, today Uday’s here to talk about another success of which we are equally proud. STAR India has become a shining example of a 21st century leader that combines a desire for profit with a drive for purpose. Uday is restless and he has promised to make a real difference to the lives of Indians, especially women and girls. For Uday it is a personal mission to challenge orthodoxies, address social concerns and make sure every Indian is included and counted.
Uday began his career as a political reporter at the Times of India before moving to the pioneer of a new kind of journalism with the launch of the environment focused publication Down to Earth. He subsequently changed Indian television forever as the head of AajTak, which he built into one of the most respected names in television news in the world. In 2004, we were fortunate to have Uday join us to run STAR’s news business and a few years later he became the CEO for all of STAR where he quickly and indelibly made his mark.
Amongst other things under his leadership, STAR’s channels have elevated strong female characters. Imagine the empowerment felt by hundreds of millions of Indian girls and women when they see strong, independent female characters fighting back against sexual assault, reaching for ambitions far outside the home or rescinding an abusive husband is beyond reform. The ripple effect in Indian society had been significant. Perhaps nothing exemplifies Indian vision more than a show that has become a phenomenon in India: Satyamev Jayate or “Truth Alone Prevails”. Each week, the groundbreaking series hosted by superstar Aamir Khan, lead its audience in shining a light of some of India’s most sensitive social issues and taboos. Episodes have addressed female foeticide, inter-caste marriage, child sex abuse and voting corruption amongst many other topics. It may sound like the stuff of a hit television show but the series is being watched by 3 out of every 4 Indians who watch television or watch a mobile phone and it has galvanized a nation.
For Uday, inspiring a million imaginations is much more than a tagline. It’s a promise that he and his team deliver on every day in ways that break through convention and spark national discussions that helping shape the new India. We are deeply inspired by the work Uday and his teams do and I’m thrilled that he agreed to come to New York to share his thoughts with us today.
Bobby Ghosh: Thank you all very much for coming and thank you Uday for coming all the way from Bombay to talk with us. We are privileged to be able to talk to you. Watching that video and the evolution of STAR in India… and I sort of have my own personal connection to it because I was still in India when STAR first arrived and I remember how it changed perceptions as Indian consumers of Indian television and our perception of what entertainment could be and then I have watched STAR now for the past 20 years in three different capacities.
One is as a consumer when I go back home to India; one as a journalist – I have written about some of your shows and then also my secret weapon is my wife, Bipasha, who was an ex…in television at NBC who looks at STAR as a case study of what television can be in regional markets. It’s really quite extraordinary to think of it now. A couple of years ago I was talking to my father back in India and we were talking about the BBC and there was talk about the BBC doing an India specific news channel and my father in the course of our conversation referred to STAR and said but you know, “we now have our own Indian channels like STAR. We really don’t need BBC.” And it’s astonishing to me to think that like my father, many Indians now flexibly think of STAR as Indian rather than an international channel that 20 years ago rose in India.
A big part of that is because I think STAR unique, not just in India, but anywhere in the world…I have not seen an analogue of this. It’s a channel that came to India as a foreign channel, brought with it the initial novelty, American styled entertainment, American production values, better scripting of shows, better production, better acting but in very American sensibilities. So the early days soap operas like ' Bold and Beautiful'. And then gradually evolved from that to what we saw a little glimpse of Indian-izing American entertainment. So Kaun Banega Crorepati which was the Indian version of “Who wants to be a millionaire” which was incredibly successful, but an American show that had some Indian facets. And you now come to a point where your shows are just Indian. The production values are international but the sensibility now is completely Indian. And in fact so much so that as I told you, Indians now think of STAR flexibly as Indian. A lot of this credit goes to you (Uday Shankar) since you moved to STAR, you brought the sensibility with you to this channel.
Talk us through if you like, your thinking when you first arrived to STAR, how it evolved and how you brought this channel with you.
Uday Shankar: Thanks very much Bobby. Thank you everybody for being here so early on a working day. James, Thank you for the very flattering introduction. I don’t deserve half of it but I think that STAR started with the right spirit Bobby.
Even after I took over STAR entertainment business about 7 years ago, STAR always believed in not bringing in either an imported creative or a business concept to India or to any market. The evolution that you see in STAR that you very accurately pointed out was in the three phases: first it was American entertainment, then adaptation of American entertainment or global entertainment and then totally indigenous high quality Indian entertainment content. But I think that’s also the journey that India has gone through if you notice and you’ve been an observer of that over the last 20 years.
It started 20 years ago when liberalization came… it was a very clearly articulated aspiration for everybody to catch up with where the rest of the world was and then it became, you know, maybe we adapt our own society, our own economy and our own creativity to where the rest of the world was. Now Indians are very confident; Indian want to create an identity and an aspiration of their own which is truly unique and they are not defensive about saying “Oh you know it’s different from the rest of the world but this is what it is” and that’s exactly what we have done at STAR. I think that was the journey that STAR had decided for itself in the beginning in mid-90s when James was running it from Hong Kong and subsequently it was very clear that we were not bringing, even though our pedigree is News Corporation and 21st Century Fox now, it was very clear that we were not bringing in American Cultural concept into India. We indigenized it completely because that was the only way. Somebody had to own, it was owned by the parent company and we were told to go and create a business that was the right business for the Indian people and Indian society. So that was always the case and that’s exactly the sensibility that I always believed in because I always felt that when you’re in the business of Media you are creating content whether news or entertainment to push social change. There are lots of businesses that are very useful, very valuable to the society. Each business contributes its own share to the society, but there is a certain amount of premium that the society puts on media businesses and that’s why there is so much debate, there is so much criticism and there are so many spotlights on media business. That’s primarily because the impact that the product of media can have on people and their lives. And I said and my bosses always encouraged me to pursue the agenda that we should challenge status quo. Whatever is not right in the country, whatever needs to change for people in the country. We at STAR have never thought of going and telling them what they should be doing next. Our job is to focus the spotlight on what we believe needs to be questioned, what needs to be observed closely and questioned. And that’s where we leave it. That’s exactly what we have done with our content. Whether it’s our entertainment content, dramas, reality shows or finally Satyamev Jayate.
Satyamev Jayate was the beginning of a journey. We felt that our brand had matured to a level in the journey of our purpose that we wanted to make that one big leap and tell people that ok we had incrementally looking at stories, characters and giving you subtle messages. India was now ready, our viewers were ready and internally STAR as a company was ready, to take that big leap and that’s how came Satyamev Jayate, where we decided that we will sharply, in each episode focus on some of the things that must change in this country while all kinds of economic and social changes keep happening.
Bobby Ghosh: We will come to Satyamev Jayate in more detail in a minute, but I want to ask you because we saw again in that video that very earlier when you decided, particularly in entertainment, that women oriented shows will be a very big part of what you had to offer and that quickly became the differentiating factor from other channels. How much was this guided by what you were hearing from the market and what you were hearing from the audience, and how much of this was your instinct, your decision that, this is part of your social responsibility?
Uday Shankar: Interesting question. We do a lot of market research. We have a very comprehensive and evolved team that’s plugged in to what the consumers say. But to be honest, I don’t see ourselves as a market research driven company. I see STAR as a company which is very focused on observing society and whatever is happening. So if a political movement is going on, if there are concerns that are being expressed informally, then often times the research insights do not really capture them. But we also try and anticipate. We are at a level where we try and stay ahead of those concerns, so meaning that when you are in the business of media, you should be shaping the concerns, you should be voicing and helping people connect their dots to themselves and whether these are dots of aspirations or these are dots of concerns that are holding their aspirations.
Bobby Ghosh: For the benefit of those who don’t get to see STAR on a regular basis, talk a little bit about the women orientation of your channel. The kind of programming that you are showing and how it is so different from your competitors?
Uday Shankar: Creatively we have targeted women to be at the core of, and it is not just women, it is families and we believe that in most of the Indian households, the mother is the nucleus of the family but the focus is the entire family. This is just for personalizing the messages.
The characters are women, as well as men. The driver characters for change are women, primarily because we have felt that they are the biggest ambassadors of change and proselytizers in their own context. If a woman gets convinced, then the first impact is felt by the children and then subsequently on the male members and that is why we have targeted that initially.
Just to give you an example, an anecdote that the first very big drama which had a central female protagonist was a drama called ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’, which talked about the emerging conflicts in the family structure and how maturely women were stepping up to ascertain their own personality and yet resolve those family conflicts. The central protagonist in that show had just earlier this week taken over as the Minister of the Human Resources Development in the country. Her entire political career was and her public persona was shaped by that show. She was a 22 year old young woman who first appeared in public life on national television on STAR Plus, did that show which was a wildly successful show, ran every single day for nine years. She left that show and entered politics and today she is one of the senior most ministers in the Indian government. I say this because that’s the kind of influence that it has had.
The number one show that we are doing right now is the story of a young girl who lost her parents in an accident and then had to go through a set of dramatic twists, had to get married early into a very conservative, uneducated family and she had the dream of becoming top police officer and how, while maintaining her responsibility towards her family and other members of the society, she pursues her dream to become a very successful, a very high quality, ethically upright police officer.
In the journey, it gave us the opportunity creatively to focus on everything that is wrong with the police system, everything that citizens expect the police to do and what a morally upright public servant could be. It just so happened, we started the show three and a half ago, we didn’t know there was a political ferment going on and there would be a huge movement against corruption and political change, but it so just happened that the show caught like wild fire and every night almost 150 million people watch the show.
Bobby Ghosh: Let’s talk about Satayamev Jayate (SMJ), “only truth prevails”, if you don’t mind I’ll give a little introduction to the show. It is quite an astonishing thing. I remember TIME did a story two and a half years ago when it first launched and it is like nothing else on television that I am aware of, in anywhere in the world.
This is a show that prime time on Sunday morning when Indians want to watch television, it takes an hour and a half to do a very, very deep dive into some of the very unpleasant parts of Indian life. Everything about the show suggests that it shouldn’t work. You are dealing at a time when people want entertainment, you are dealing with issues like female foeticide. It is an hour and a half long. There is no break in terms of…this is not like Opera with a segment on ‘how to make cookies’. Unrelenting and very, very tough and it deals with the issue that are tended to sweep under the carpet.
The one reason for people to initially go for the show was because of superstar Aamir Khan, one of the greatest movie stars in Bollywood, but he too was breaking a taboo, one of the traditional relationship between STAR and his fans in India is one of admiration and idol worship, but the unspoken rule was that ‘don’t you wag your finger at us’. We’ll worship you and give you our love and affection but you just be a star and that’s your job and Aamir was going past that mirror through your show on his audiences and what they go to see was not pleasant. And yet, the success of the show, I will let you rattle off the numbers, has been astonishing! This was a big bet by you, personally, by STAR as a company. Why did you do?
Uday Shankar: At STAR, we have now gone a step ahead and we believe that all content that we create is corporate social responsibility (CSR) seriously. I had a meeting with Minister of Corporate Affairs when they were drafting the Companies Act in India and they needed inputs, and they were saying that a certain fixed percentage of profits should go towards CSR and I said, while I am fine to do that, but you must make a note that all media content, if it goes on air is towards CSR. If it is not, then, we as media community have failed and that was our whole issue.
In 20 years we have done a series of subtle messaging through all kinds of entertainment programmes that we had done and they were very successful, we had seen a different kind of Indian woman, teenage girls were coming up, who were articulating and we were shaping influence. Retail companies were telling us that people walked into the stores and they needed bedroom material and dress material and linen of the kind that was portrayed on STAR TV shows. We realized that if we had that kind of influence, then we could use that for further push to the kind of change that we wanted to bring about.
There was some discomfort that I had and the rest of the team had, on how the discourse, while it had to be a central discourse to talk about the concerns on the economic changes taking place in India, or not taking place in India. But we thought that economic changes, if they were completely divorced from the social perspective could be unhealthy, especially in a country like India, with so much diversity. And that’s when we started thinking.. should we just go and change the traditional understanding of an entertainment channel value, where you are invited to come and watch someone sing and someone dance and make you laugh. We said, could we call people and start challenging each one of them? And that’s when we said it was probably worth doing something like that.
Around the same time, Aamir Khan, who is this megastar but had clearly made a change in his own career. He had become a star who stands for the right things using his “star appeal” to trigger right messages. I went and met him and I said should we use the power of television to do something to change this country? He was very excited about that, and then we worked together. It’s a show where the two teams worked together for over two years, but Aamir’s commitment was phenomenal. We first decided that we would take up all the challenging issues, be it child sexual abuse or female foeticide or problems with alcoholism.
Bobby Ghosh: The sense of the risk they bring with them…
Uday Shankar: You are right. One of the first challenges was that in the evening, people just wanted to watch a dance show, the Indian version of ‘America’s Got Talent’. We said, how do we do this then? We will pick up Sunday morning, this is the most challenging time for two reasons, one, the whole family was there. Aamir and I spent a lot of time discussing and finally we concluded that we are not going to pull our punches, neither in the creative expression, nor in the format and then we said that, we will take this show not for the select member of the society but we will take this show for all the members of the society. So just imagine we were talking about child sexual abuse and we came up with the advisory in the beginning that this subject is sensitive for children, however we would encourage you to watch and get your children to watch it. Because your children need to know that they are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Aamir and I believed that there was a contradiction, we wanted to protect our children from sexual abuse and yet we were not preparing them on how to first understand if someone was trying to abuse them.
Bobby Ghosh: Now, we have to go for a Q&A pretty soon, just so that you can get a little taste of what the show is like, there is a quick video, you can see it now and then afterwards I want you to tell everybody what the numbers are. Because that’s why they are here.
Bobby Ghosh: One final question from me before we go to the audience. This show changed lots, didn’t it.?
Uday Shankar: The sex ratio in India has been under pressure. It’s been declining, the gap between female and male children has been rising. But for the first time in 40 years in the state of Maharashtra, where Bombay is, it was reversed by a factor of 24:1000. The state government, the state Health Minister publically went and acknowledged that every single policy and intervention remained the same. The only external stimulus that had come in was Satyamev Jayate’s episode on Female foeticide, and he said, his officers felt that it was the impact of the show that gave women the confidence to resist abortion.
The second thing that changed was in generic medicines, we did a very big episode and we are still fighting the pharmaceutical industry on that episode where we said that the labelling of the drugs was just an exercise to raise the prices of the drugs, and if the generic drugs were sold and encouraged by the government then the drug prices would come down substantially and it would be much easier for people. Three or four state governments passed legislations and orders to make sure government hospitals only supply generic drugs.
We wanted fast track courts, because the Indian Judicial System can sometimes be very slow and rape victims were struggling with the time it took to get justice. So we demanded, in one of our episodes, fast track courts. Four states went and set up fast track courts. So you know lot of such actions have happened.
Question from a Guest: I have two questions about the regulatory environment. The first is on the pending unbundling of distribution. How do your think that will affect the current alliances in the market place, will it ultimately lead to consolidation of some of the players. And then on the enforcement on the advertising limits, how is that affecting your business? Ultimately do you think it benefits if you move more to a CPM based model. What is the impact for you?
Uday Shankar: The unbundling will affect everybody, the regulatory it’s just so that you understand the Indian channels were usually distributed by bringing together a lot of third party channels to create a bouquet and offer it to the people and the regulator has said you could do that but contracts will have to be separate. So, effectively it has been unbundled. I think for the first time the power of the content has come into play very aggressively. If you have channels that are leader channels, that people want to watch, then you will be able to distribute the channels without any problem. So I think in each market the power of content is finally coming into play, far more aggressively than it was.
On the advertising front, I think advertising had gone very undisciplined. There were channels who were running 25-30 minutes to an hour of advertising. There was a lot of consumer frustration, it was not good. No professional broadcaster was doing that, STAR for instance, even when there was no limit, we were very disciplined about it. But it was generally building consumer annoyance. And the beneficiary of this was not the channels. The channels were not making money, it was just keeping the advertising rate low. It was the advertisers and the advertising agencies who were able to buy cheap, because inventories could bloom. Now, there is rationalization in the rates and deliveries of the channels. So I think in the long run, limiting the advertising inventory is a good development for the consumer and content creators both.
Bobby Ghosh: There is a question there and then Raju.
Question from a Guest: :Uday I have worked with you on Women on Strategic Partnerships and thank you very much for inviting us. Unfortunately Lakshmi Puri isn’t here. So, I really appreciate what you have already said and also the fact that you talked about people centred media and also using STAR television as creating accountability in the governance of India, I think it’s played a critical role. Having said that, we are looking at Beijing Plus 20, women empowerment in general equality. One aspect which is very important is the issue of media and patriarchy. So I really want to understand STAR television’s role in really questioning the Indian patriarchy and changing the hegemonic forms of masculinity. Because we do have the protagonist in the serials you talked about, but we still have men who tend to be holding onto traditional values. Aamir Khan has done fantastic work, but how do you and I know this is very close to your heart, how do you look at changing the patriarchal system and specially the patriarchal media that exists all over the world and specially in India. So are there any plans to do that?
Uday Shankar: Look first of all, I think we changed a lot of that. The traditional understanding and the concepts of patriarchy, I would like to claim are not reflected on our show. Of course, it’s story telling so there is drama, so there is a villain and there is a negative character or a grey character, who just in order to highlight the point you wish to make; you need to have those characters. And also it’s a social reality, as far as the patriarchy media is concerned, yes I think patriarchy in India is as prevalent as in any other business or any other part of society.
I think we should all work towards changing that. It’s a social reality, so it’s changing, but there is a lot of counter pull and pressure. Patriarchy is an institution that developed over 2500 years or so. You are talking about changing that, it will take time, but I am one of those who believes that it’s changing. The world today is very different from what it was 20 years ago, when it comes to the strength of the patriarchal institutions. The fact that we are having a public debate on this, more and more women are asserting. I think we see that in real life, we see that portrayed in stories and media content. I would not be very cynical about it, when you try to demolish something that’s been there for thousands of years, you need to be relentless. One show, no matter how strong cannot change that.
Raju Narisetti (News Corp): Hi, I’m from News Corp and my only claim to fame is that I went to journalism school with Uday, so I can say we knew him well.
Uday, so STAR has been very good at both, embracing foreign shows and turning them into much more Indian like Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), or now creating a lot of shows that are uniquely Indian. Do you see a time in the near future that India can actually export interesting formats and programmes and data’s that have a wider appeal. I know Bollywood has really struggled to do that, or is the Indian market too big that you don’t see need to do that? I am just curious about whether any formats or any shows that come out of India can be embraced outside?
Uday Shankar: There are two-three issues, one, as you yourself pointed out, Raju. Raju and I went to the Journalism school together, he was the more sincere one there, that’s why he continues to be a journalist and I had to hide in other professions.
But, the first one you identified yourself. That the Indian market is so big that both Bollywood and the Indian television industry is quite satisfied. Especially in the early stages of development. You get good growth, you make good money, you are satisfied and you get national recognition. I think Indians have not yet taken that ambition, you know it’s a romantic aspiration that someday we will make a global film or a global television show, but it will happen. The big problem that I see is, cracking the distribution pipe, it’s not very easy. Hollywood has built this amazing distribution ecosystem all over the world, it’s not very easy to break into that. I think it’s the trade channel and finding the way of creating a global brand. Whether it is a global storyteller. A Hollywood film or show also sells because the director is known world over, the actor is known world over and then there is this amazing marketing and distribution infrastructure. Indians haven’t been able to do that, if I mention the name of a top Indian director here, I don’t think there will be many people who would understand that. It will take some time.
Bobby Ghosh: We are done to the last question, I’m afraid. One more question…
Question from a Guest: The women and their role in the society, which of course, are a lot of traditions, I’m working with women entrepreneurs in the Indian market. I’m wondering, if there is a lot of pushback in terms of acceptance. First of all, entrepreneurs, even though we have such magnificent Indian entrepreneurs here in the United States and around the world. Still finding it hard for women to get the kind of support in the market place. I’m sort of wondering, if you think that the new elected officials of government will be helping to change some of the attitudes towards entrepreneurs of the market place. What can television do to help us advance the cause of people starting and running businesses, especially women?
Uday Shankar: It’s early days of the new Indian government and we are all very excited about the new government. I think the new government is very focused on that, it has the highest representation of women ministers, compared to any government since independence. 30% of the cabinet ministers are women, so we think this by itself should give an impetus to the whole process of change. Television I think can do a great deal more, than it is doing even now. A lot has changed, but television and print, and media in general is a heavily encouraging, motivating and proselytizing agency, so to speak. And that is a role that it can play very well. I’ll just quickly tell you a story, that I think when the reservations for women in the local bodies was first introduced all over the country, in rural as well as urban areas. The first time there was a lot of resistance for women to come in and even if women were elected for those seats, the men in the household determined the agenda for the women. But, that did not last for more than a year or two. Within two years the women started telling their men first gently and then bluntly to lay off.
And I think that today, there are very few women who take their brief from the menfolk in the house when they come to the parliament or the local government. So I think same thing is happening in entrepreneurship. A lot of women first start this to help their spouses, their brothers or their parents, so see them asserting themselves.