STAR TV Chairman-cum-CEO Uday Shankar’s is an incredible story. When he was a student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, he admits he was not clear what he would do in life. After overcoming the setback of failing to crack the IAS, he finally chose journalism. Having worked for a few newspapers and magazines in Patna and Delhi, he turned to TV and whatever he touched turned into gold. And, finally, he reached the peak when he turned STAR TV channels, including cricket channels, into one of the most successful ones. Today, he heads 59 channels, several of them were launched by him, having won the trust and confidence of Rupert Murdoch. His latest masterstroke was winning the IPL media rights bid by quoting Rs.16,347.50 crore for five years, from 2018 to 2022, this month. Besides, STAR also has the BCCI media rights. Shankar, who turns 55 on September 16, spoke to Outlook in a free-wheeling interview, sitting on the 37thfloor, the top occupied floor of a 39-story Mumbai skyscraper, also known as STAR House.
After STAR won the IPL media rights on September 4 did you sleep well at night?
Yeah, I slept well. I usually sleep well. Clearly it was there at the back of my mind that there was this big responsibility that was given to me by this company, that I had to make a bid for something of great value to any content operation in this country. We developed a strategy. We had worked very hard to come up with a strategy. I knew it was a very risky strategy. We had decided that we would either win all the rights or we would win none. And the offer that we were going to make was a large sum of money. The question on my mind was: Would I be letting my team down by taking such a risky strategy – that we offer so much money and yet there was a chance that we might not win any of the rights? And was I taking a disproportionate risk?
Did you celebrate?
Look, the outcome itself is a celebration. STAR in some ways is a very great company and one of the things that I find is that the outcome or the act itself is a celebration. And we rapidly move on to the next thing. So, we were all very happy and there was new energy in the whole office, because IPL is major cricket rights. We see ourselves as the home of Indian sports. And IPL was with us on the digital platform but it wasn’t on our TV channels, on STAR Sports. The fact that we got it was a celebration in itself.
Where were you when the bidding was taking place?
(Smiles) The bidding was happening in Taj Hotel [Mumbai]; my team was there inside the bidding hall. But a few of us were sitting in a room inside the hotel, but not inside the bidding hall.
Watching the live streaming on BCCI website?
The live streaming was naturally on.
Were you watching?
Were you nervous?
Do you normally get tense or nervous before a big event?
Yes. Not nervous, but I do get very tense. Look, if it is big then you also know that it is not big for you individually; it is big for the organisation. And as the leader of the organisation you represent a large number of people and their proprieties. So, it’s normal to get tense. Yes, I get tense.
I’ll take you back to Patna, your home town. You had your schooling there. What memories do you have of Patna?
Lots of memories. I had part of my schooling in Patna and part of it in many places across Bihar because my father was an engineer for the government. So, he would be transferred and we would go with him to those places. I came from an educated but simple middle class background. Father was a professional; he was very keen to give us the best of education within his limited resources. One of my memories is that he encouraged me to be connected, and be up to date, with the world before the internet and Google search came. He encouraged me to read a lot and I used to read a lot, both books and magazines/journals. Even as a student I used to read international magazines like Time, Newsweek, Far Eastern Economic Review, and Asiaweek. I had a friend and we used to go to the British Council Library and we used to read The Times of London even though it used to come a week late, if not more. But it didn’t matter. It was a process of discovery.
So it was not your choice to read, but your father’s insistence…
No, no, he didn’t insist. He encouraged me; he would bring books for me; he would bring magazines for me.
What kind of books he would bring for you?
All kinds of books. Whenever he travelled, whatever books came his way, he would just pick them up and give it to me. In a small place [Patna], in those days you didn’t have many distractions, so there was plenty of time to read. The good thing about reading is that the more you read the more you want to read.
Were you an avid TV watcher also?
There was no TV. I had no access to TV. I saw for it the first time when I came to Delhi to study in Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1982. I had seen…there used to be this satellite TV experiment in education but that was rural TV.
You had a TV in your JNU hostel, Kaveri?
No there was no TV. There used to be a black and white TV. Actually, for the Asian Games colour transmission had started. But students of IIT had developed a colour TV and it had come either as a demonstration or a gift to JNU, and it was quite a novelty.
Were the seeds of where you are today sown then?
No. That was too early. Typically, if you went to the JNU in those days chances were that you were not very focussed on your career; you were focussed on bigger things in life and the world. I was certainly not. If you are asking me that question, the first time the idea of TV, the journalism side of it, hit me was during 1991 coverage of the Gulf War-I. That was when I saw the live coverage of the war and I was completely blown away by the power of TV -- the power it had on the viewer, the impact it could create. The impact that it could shrink geography so dramatically that a war that was happening in Iraq and American forces were fighting there, and sitting in a living room in Delhi you could transcend all the geographical barriers.
When you were in JNU how you used to dress up?
Everybody in JNU dresses up shabbily – jeans and kurta, right? I used to wear jeans and kurta, and kurta and pyjama, both. I had a jhola all the time and the slippers, the hawai chappal. Everybody wore that.
Did you have any inclination of going into politics?
I was very active in students politics in JNU, but politics outside JNU? No, it wasn’t a serious thought. If you ask students of my generation there, a lot of them had the desire to get into politics and change things. But that was more of a romantic notion than an actual plan.
You didn’t contest an election in JNU?
I did, for the cabinet position.
No, I lost by a very brief margin. It was a centrist-leftist and free thinkers’ alliance
With which party you were involved?
I was part of the leftist group.
So did that discourage from taking concrete steps towards politics?
You don’t take these things too seriously. When you fought you were obviously serious about it. But you don’t take victory and loss to heart. You do that because you think that was the right thing to do at that moment.
How did journalism happen?
There were a few people form my time who had into journalism, but there were not many options also. It happened primarily because I sat for the Civil Services and I didn’t make it after the interview. That, kind of, hit me because there was this existential question of what do you do. You have to do something in life. And also the whole setback kind of affected me. And a very dear friend of mine, who was already an IAS, was visiting me and he and I had a chat. He said ‘look, either you sit down and prepare for the IAS again and work really hard at it – because he thought if I had worked hard there was no reason I shouldn’t have made it – or go to something completely different, so that the feeling of not having made it to IAS did not haunt you. Actually, very seriously we were having a discussion. He offered three options for me. He said become a lawyer, or take the MBA entrance test, get a degree and join the corporate sector, or become a journalist. Law was an interesting idea, but somehow the life of a lawyer did not excite me very much.
Why was that so – because you might have had to tell lies at times?
No, no. I don’t know if you had to tell lies or not. At that time my understanding of law that it was about making fine points. I felt life had to be bigger than just making fine points. The purpose of life had to be more than that. MBA was clearly wasn’t very appealing. Our understanding of the corporate sector at that time was to sell detergents and chocolates and biscuits, so it didn’t sound very appealing. So, given my political liveliness or alertness, given the fact that I was always interested in contemporary affairs, I thought journalism was a natural option for me.
Or an easy option?
No, it wasn’t an easy option. Actually, to tell you the truth, after I decided, I went to meet a friend of mine who was already a journalist with Times of India in Delhi. I had finished my M. Phil and I was registered for Ph.D. I asked him how to go about journalism and he told me ‘bad idea, don’t do that’, because by JNU standards I lived in luxury as I used to get money from parents and I had a UGC fellowship. He said if you chose journalism you were signing for poverty and a tough life. I had a two-wheeler then, and he said that you would have to be prepared to ride in buses, public transport. A two-wheeler and a car would be beyond your capacity. In a well-meaning way, he discouraged me from being a journalist. So, when I was signing up to become a journalist I knew two things clearly: it wasn’t going to be an easy life, and it wasn’t going to be a life of plenty. But the whole idea of doing something, of making a difference, creating public opinion, putting the spotlight on things that were not right – all that kind of appealed deeply.
Did your decision to join journalism have your father’s approval?
Not at all. He was very unhappy about it. In fact, for a long time he kept encouraging me to write the Civil Services exam again, or do something else. But by then I had decided. I went somewhat innocently into journalism because I didn’t know it was so structured, rigid and you had to be on the desk. I thought everybody in journalism had the freedom to go anywhere and write and report. So, when I joined the journalism school of Times of India, I discovered that everybody had to first sit on the desk and edit other people’s copies [write-ups]. And that just didn’t appeal to me. So, one key decision I took: and that was that no matter what I was not going to sit on the desk. I am one of the few people of that system that didn’t spend any time on the desk. And that’s how I went to Patna because the option for everybody was to be on the desk in Delhi, in Times of India or Economic Times, which was the right thing because I had studied in Delhi, liked the city, and had friends there. And said ‘no’, I was going to report, and that’s what I liked about journalism. So, I called – it was something totally unusual – the Resident Editor of Times of India in Patna. I had done my internship there, so he knew me a bit and he liked my work during the internship. I still remember I went to Eastern Court [on Janpath Road in New Delhi] in 1989; making a telephone call was not that easy. I waited outside the Post Office at Eastern Court for the call to materialise as there was a long queue. I said to him that I want to work in Patna and asked him if he will make me a reporter. He said we’ll see that when you come here. I didn’t have an offer, but I just boarded the train from there and told myself that I am going to give it a shot. Actually, Times of India had made it mandatory for everybody to be hired as a sub-editor [desk job]. My editor said he could give me the work of a reporter but couldn’t pay the salary of a reporter that was slightly higher. I said that was not a problem as long as you let me do the job that I wanted to do. And I lived with my parents, so life was comfortable.
Did you enjoy your stint as a journalist, both print and TV?
I loved it. Writing was phenomenal. To be able to write on issues that everybody was – or should be -- thinking about was very satisfying. You got instant feedback and sometimes you made an impact and things changed. After two years in Times of India in Patna, I came to Delhi and I did a couple of short stints here and there.
How many jobs you changed as a print journalist?
I changed four jobs – Times of India, Sunday Mail, India Today, and Down to Earth. In TV, I did Home TV, Adhikaris, Sahara, AajTak and ABP News – five jobs. But I have spent much longer in TV.
How did you get to meet Mr Murdoch?
I didn’t get to meet Mr Murdoch. I was working for AajTak and I was running AajTak and Headlines Today; I had launched both channels. I was fine, I was very happy, and AajTak was a great channel. It was a great team. Life was going on fine, until one day I got a call from STAR News that Aveek Sarkar who had just become a shareholder in STAR News wanted to meet me. So, I met Aveek Sarkar and Peter Mukherjea and they offered me to come and run STAR News, which was doing really badly. AajTak was at the top and STAR News was at the bottom. I had worked for AajTak for about four years. It was a great going, but I was getting a bit bored by doing the same thing again and again. And there was also this question at the back of my mind that was what happened at AajTak was an accident or fluke of a sort of serendipity or did I really have a role to play in making that happen. I thought maybe trying out new things would test me and if I could do it a second time then maybe I really had a contribution to make. In all honesty, I was a little unhappy with things at AajTak by then. Aroon Purie [owner of India Today Group] is totally amazing; he brought me in. AajTak happened because of the way it happened because of Aroon Purie. He is an amazing editorial brain. He was a great boss. But not everybody, not everything there I liked. I was getting a little cheesed off with that: Why do I have to put up with all that? So, I said okay this is an opportunity that will allow me to do something new. The only bad news was that I had to leave Delhi and come to Mumbai. Both STAR News guys said come try it for a while and see how it goes. So, I came and worked and managed to turn it around from a laggard to a leader. And I guess that’s how I came on the radar of the STAR Group.
When you joined STAR, by the time you hadn’t met Mr Murdoch?
I met Mr Rupert Murdoch when he came to India when I was running STAR News and spent some time with him. And also when STAR News became No.1 channel then obviously through management dashboard; he had come to know [about me] so he had sent me a note of congratulations on the ‘great work done’ etc. He was very kind and complimentary. But it’s not that I knew him well or something. Then, when a vacancy arose at STAR, the then head of STAR Asia got in touch with me and he wanted to meet me. And because STAR was a shareholder in STAR News, I had a few meetings with him and then I met Mr Murdoch’s deputy, Peter Chernin, who had come to India. I met a bunch of people but I had no idea that they were considering me for the job until offered me the job.
Were you surprised?
I was very surprised, because there was nothing in my background; nothing in my experience; no MBA degree, no entertainment exposure. I was a hardcore newsperson and STAR was a very successful entertainment company. I was not even a consumer of entertainment, let alone being an expert in running entertainment. I was surprised, and I said it was a big risk. My daughter, who was young at the time, said “it was not a big risk for you; it’s a big risk for STAR”. I said that was a good way of looking at it. Even then STAR was the biggest job in Indian media for any professional because it was fully professional managed company.
You had to come to Mumbai while your family was in Delhi. How were those times?
It was tough. I had come to run STAR News out of Mumbai but after some time I told the management that it was tough on me because my wife and daughter were in Delhi and they didn’t want to come to Mumbai. The STAR News management and Aveek Sarkar himself were extremely kind and accommodating. He allowed me to shift the entire office of STAR News to Delhi. It was a big thing; he was very kind. He still likes me, I think. He and his wife are both fond of me. It also made sense for everybody because it was a Hindi language channel, so not being in Delhi was a disadvantage. So, I had no reason to leave. I was there in [Delhi] and I bought a place for myself, planning life to settle down in Delhi. And then this offer [for CEO of STAR] came. But the new and the unusual and the unforeseen has always attraction for me. I guess the unusual nature of the offer to run an entertainment company for someone who was primarily trained as a journalist. Before that I was CEO of STAR News of some years. So, I had some understanding of the business, but it was a very small scale business. STAR was a big business; it was a big TV company at that time. So the whole formidable nature of the challenge, I guess, somewhat attracted to it. I said ‘let’s give it a try’.
You call yourself a hardcore newsman. So how you changed yourself from being a newsman to run these entertainment channels. Did you like these soap operas?
It was a job to be done. We still had investment in STAR News, now ABP News, and we were shareholders of that company and I was in the Board of Directors. But I knew my operational role would be limited to entertainment. It was new thing to do and I thought I would learn. I missed news for a long time; I still miss news sometimes because news is deep in my blood. News is dear to me.
After you joined STAR, did you later come to know from people what it was that impressed Murdoch about you? Has anybody told you or did you try to find out?
I don’t know. First of all, I don’t think Mr Murdoch was sitting and making the decisions. It was a large company and the head of Asia is No.2. The only thing I can think of is the fact that I had done well in STAR News and before that also I had been involved in successful launch and running of one or two news channels must have gone in my favour.
Sports was still not on your radar when you joined STAR?
Our presence in sports was through joint venture ESPN-STAR Sports. I was associated with that company when I came to STAR as a Director of ESPN-STAR Sports. But it wasn’t part of my portfolio.
But that was a path-breaking JV and we saw live cricket etc. You love sports I guess, but probably not so much as soap operas because that’s why you were not averse to managing that kind of channel.
I wasn’t offered the sports channel. I am not a big career planner. I have actually not done that. I have done things at that instant very seriously. Whatever you give me to do I do it very seriously, and one thing has usually led to the other. The world has been kind to be and in some ways I have been rewarded generously.
When did you realise that cricket could be a big revenue earner and it could attract more eyeballs?
We always realised that. You didn’t have to be a genius to realise that. But we had an entertainment business and I think our sports business, JV ESPN-STAR Sports, was not doing well. And there was deep concern on that, despite the fact that we had cricket and it was a pan-Asian business, we had some other key sports rights. I used to find that troubling. It came up for multiple discussions between me and my boss James Murdoch, who was also a big believer in the value of sports and knew India very well. He had been the CEO of STAR Asia, so he knew the market extremely well. He was also surprised at why we were not doing more in sports. At some stage when the shareholders were discussing the future I said that we should step in and run the business and run the business ourselves. And that’s how it happened.
So, you were instrumental in STAR disassociating itself with ESPN. Is it?
I did play a role, but it was a decision that had many, many people in it. You can say that I played a key role in convincing my boss that there was merit in doing it ourselves.
Are the decisions that you take are based on gut feeling or you do the research etc?
I have a team which is very strong on research. Contrary to the perception, I am not a big believer in gut feel. We dig deep, we discuss, debate, look at a lot of data in this company and then we decide. Once a decision point has been offered then I try to see whether my conviction lies behind that or not. I follow my conviction in some ways. Contrary to the perception, I am very conservative man. I do not take too many decisions and I take my time over decisions. Very often in my personal and professional life people around me get frustrated with how much time I take to make a decision. But once I make a decision I put my entire conviction behind that.
Some great leaders take quick decisions which is considered to be good.
Clearly, I am not a great leader (laughs). I believe that most of us rush into decisions and solutions too soon. I believe that the value comes when you understand the problem deeply. Quality answers and responses come by understanding the problem and immersing yourself in the problem. I genuinely believe that and I like that one thing that STAR does better than a lot of other companies is immersing in the problem.
When you decided to patronise cricket in India and you had a whole lot of rights under your belt you didn’t leave any scope for the opposition to bid etc.
That’s totally not correct. Let me put facts on record. We took ESPN-STAR Sports but it did not have BCCI or IPL. We actually took over a limp tournament called Champions League T20 [global version of IPL run by BCCI] which was making huge losses for us. It didn’t work out for us. The only major rights we had at the time was the ICC rights [2007-2015], besides a couple of bilateral rights [of national cricket Boards]. This was happening in 2012. The BCCI rights happened unexpectedly after it terminated the then media rights holder [Nimbus] and put it on a tender. So, we decided to bid and we won by a very, very narrow margin. But ICC rights were going to go away after two years. So, the rights business is really relentless. We have just won the IPL rights but on December 21 the last BCCI match [of STAR media rights, though they technically end in March 2018] would be played.
When these BCCI rights end in March, do you enough on your plate or…
We have IPL and the ICC rights, which is pretty good. Given the inflation in the rights universe there is so much only one can afford. If we don’t have the BCCI media rights [post March 2018] we are fine.
You mean you are going to bid?
That depends on what are the terms, what is the value etc. etc. It’s too early to say anything. But our strategy to participate in the IPL tender was also designed to create a buffer for us that in case we don’t have, or don’t win, the BCCI rights, we can still have a good business. The BCCI rights have some issues. There are a lot of Test matches and their viewership has fallen. Personally, I love Test cricket but commercially it doesn’t make great sense.
So, whatever you have said indicates that you will not be too keen on BCCI rights.
What we do then will be known then. I am not going to tell you now.
This may also ignite club [IPL] vs country [Test cricket] debate. Do you think TV is taking the viewers away from Test cricket?
Boss, we give too much credit to TV. Everything in this world that is going bad or changing seems to be attributed to TV. I wish TV had that kind of power.
What made you gamble on kabaddi?
It’s not a gamble, I am a conservative man, as I told you. I take calculated bets, risks, because that’s how you build businesses. The one thing I think I do very deeply – and I think I understand – is this country. As a student of liberal arts, an activist in student days, as a politically aware person and as a newsperson, I have developed that understanding where mass sensibilities lie. My friends told me that nothing works in India other than cricket. Somehow it didn’t square up for me. Why is this country crazy about cricket and not interested in anything else? One needs to pick a sport that has deep roots across the country, people understand it and it should not be complicated. And we should have enough heroes of our own that fans can follow. Kabaddi was always there at the grassroots, and India won a [inaugural] gold at the 1990 Asian Games and that was the irony of it. Nobody knew a kabaddi player or the Asian Games gold, and kabaddi players after winning the gold went back to work on their farms etc. because there was no economics around kabaddi. So, we said this could be an opportunity.
I remember my conversation with Anand Mahindra, who was the pioneer of the Pro Kabaddi League. When I told him that we should build kabaddi and the only way to do that is to really go big and deep in the very first year, though it will be expensive. We are talking about hundreds of crores. He thought I was crazy. His first question to me was: ‘How are you going to convince your American bosses to invest hundreds of crores of behind a game that they haven’t even heard of?’ It was a very fair question. I told him not to worry and that they will come around only because this company has the conviction. You should do few things and once you do that you should put full weight behind it.
Or shall I say the company had trust in you?
Definitely trust in me but conviction in STAR’s ability to make things happen. When we discussed kabaddi the whole team was excited about it.
Are you going to continue with kabaddi?
Yes. We have expanded that from eight teams to 12. We think we have just scratched the surface of the potential of kabaddi.
Will football overtake cricket in terms of popularity? Lots of people told me so. Was that a reason why you stepped into football also?
I would like to think that we have played a role in the growth of football in this country than entering it because it’s popular. We have driven that along with Reliance. The partnership is to promote football. We have a long way to go.
Do you think football can over take cricket in terms of popularity in near future or a little later?
No. I find it somewhat ironical that for decades nobody thought that other than cricket any sport had any future. And now people are going to the other extreme and saying this sport or that sport will overtake cricket. I think cricket will remain very big, and for a variety of reasons. One, cricket has gone so deep in the ethos of this country. A fraction of people who watch and love cricket have actually played cricket. And that’s the real power of cricket, that people without playing or understanding its nuances are so passionate about it. And cricket authorities have gone on to make it more difficult to understand year on year for people to understand the nuances. They keep changing the rules and all that. The other thing is that for a number of years cricket is throwing up heroes who are making us proud all the time. It is one sport where the team doesn’t embarrass you most of the time. Cricket will remain very, very big in this country. But I think in a country of 125 crore people there is enough room for many other sports to be very popular and very successful and that’s what we are trying to do.
Other sports on your radar?
We are involved with football, badminton, kabaddi, hockey, TT league.
Your views on sharing sports content of ‘national important’ with Doordarshan. Do you think it is a fair condition by the government?
I don’t have a problem.
How do you unwind?
I watch TV with wife, daughter and a dog.
Do you want to go to hills, peaceful place? Which place do you like to unwind apart from Mumbai?
I am in Mumbai, am so far away. I don’t like noise, and I don’t like crowds. I like places that are quiet, peaceful. No particular place, but I like the hills and Himalayas, I love Goa. I always take my family together.
What are you other hobbies apart from watching TV?
I am a somewhat boring person. I don’t have too many hobbies but I like to watch TV. I wish I could paint. I love art; I have some interest in it. let’s put it this way: I would like to do gardening. When we had a place in Delhi we had a really nice garden. But when you live in Mumbai, you live in apartments that’s tough.
Do you follow politics?
I am still a very keen student of politics.
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