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Uday Shankar, the Star performer

By Vanita Kohli-Khandekar
October 28, 2020 11:33 IST
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Uday Shankar’s biggest contribution was that he managed to take years of resentment about Star’s foreign origins and turn that around. Most people now think of Star as an Indian company, says Vanita Kohli-Khandekar of his stint at Star india.

Thirteen years is a long time, so there shouldn’t be any surprise that Uday Shankar, 59, will step down as the Asia Pacific president of the $69.5-billion The Walt Disney Company, and chairman, Star and Disney India.

Shankar was 46 when he took over as CEO of Star India, then a Rs 1,600-crore floundering broadcaster.

 

There was much scepticism. How could a former journalist and man who set up Aaj Tak and Star News run an entertainment company? Shankar proved everyone wrong.

Disney Star is now a Rs 18,000-crore powerhouse, India’s largest media firm with a leading share in broadcasting, one of largest OTT brands in India (Disney+Hotstar), a film studio and some of the biggest sports properties, many of them created under Shankar.

There is the Pro Kabaddi League, the Hockey India League and the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Disney+ has just had a successful launch in Japan, Australia, Indonesia (as Disney+Hotstar) and is on course to becoming a serious rival to Netflix in Asia.

Shankar has done his job.

Yet there is an element of surprise at his departure, why?

A cultural clash leading to such an eventuality has been anticipated since 2018 when the bulk of parent 21st Century Fox was sold to The Walt Disney Company for $71.3 billion.

Disney is a cautious, process-oriented, typically American multinational.

On the other hand, Fox, run by the Murdochs, is an extremely entrepreneurial, cowboyish company.

“People don’t realise what a federal structure we (Fox) work in. Working with the Murdochs has spoiled me.

"The amount of ownership and freedom I have here is tremendous,” Shankar has told me several times. (He did not speak to Business Standard for this piece.)

Fox’s culture and its fit with Shankar’s journalistic bent of mind was evident.

The Disney control would bring conflict, said analysts. It didn’t.

Soon after taking over, Disney appointed Shankar the head honcho for Asia, paraded him in front of Wall Street and heard carefully when he insisted that Disney+ would become a niche brand if the firm continued to treat the brand like the holy grail; that sharing the Disney name with Hotstar would work better in Asia; so was born Disney+Hotstar.

Shankar has been antsy for some time now.

The surge in both the broadcast and streaming business, and Disney’s ability to ramp up there in a bad year seemed like a good note to end on, say insiders.

He’s always said he cannot imagine working for any other Indian media firm after the high of Star.

Now the buzz is he might be raising a fund a la The Chernin Group.

Peter Chernin, Rupert Murdoch’s second-in-command for years, is one of the sharpest minds in the media business globally.

In 2010, he formed The Chernin Group to make private equity investments in media and tech firms.

Some of the language in the official press release announcing Shankar’s departure supports that: '… to support and mentor a new generation of entrepreneurs… intend to partner with global investors and pioneers to achieve this'.

He could, equally, join politics or dabble in it; his background as a political journalist and interest in the area are strong.

What will happen to Star?

Shankar’s biggest contribution was that he managed to take years of resentment about Star’s foreign origins and turn that around.

Most people now think of Star as an Indian company.

He did it by involving himself with issues around the Rs 1,822 billion Indian media and entertainment industry.

From the setting up of the Broadcast Audience Research Council to an active Indian Broadcasting Foundation, he has been the moving force behind several positive changes in the ecosystem.

He’s invested in several growth engines across films, sports, digital and, most importantly, in languages other than Hindi in a bid to develop the market.

Over a fourth of Star’s revenues and more than half its audience share now comes from non-Hindi markets where channels such as Star Jalsha or Star Maa do well.

You could argue that neither cricket nor kabaddi nor any of the others are making money though they are bringing in huge amount of growth.

But as Shankar always argues, no sports property can break even in the first five years, that these investments are kids right now and will start paying their way soon.

Just two years before Shankar took over, Star was valued at $3 billion.

More than a decade later, the Disney-Fox deal valued Star India over three to five times that figure, between $10-15 billion.

That perhaps is the best measure of what Shankar achieved with Star.

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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar
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