It almost sounds too good to be true—a job that involves watching copious amounts of television, while helping to shape the face of public debate in the world’s most populous democracy.
But this is indeed the remit of the man I am meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai, one-time journalist and self-confessed television addict Uday Shankar, who now heads Star TV’s Indian operations.
Dressed semi-formally in a blue shirt and trousers, Shankar is bang on time and greets me with a warm smile and handshake. He is experimenting with a new detox diet. “We abuse our bodies so much,” he explains when I inquire into his austere choice of cut fruit and Darjeeling tea. “I also like to try out new things. I love to eat fruit…but I am not a health nut,” he laughs. “I like my single malt too.”
We take a seat in the lobby lounge, The Bar and Verandah, where the whirring of a blender behind the bar competes with piped music and conversations among other patrons to drown out his voice on my tape recorder. A diminutive man with an acute intellect and keen appreciation of the absurd, Shankar, 47, explains that his “love affair” with television started in the early 1990s, following the liberalization of the medium in India.
“I love television,” he says. “I love anything on television. I can watch television for 24, 48, 72 hours...you name it. Without a break.”
Shankar, who was promoted last year to take over at News Corp.-owned Star India in the wake of a management exodus, trained as a journalist at The Times of India media school where, by his own admission, he was “a good student, but not particularly studious or disciplined”.
He went on to cover politics for the daily newspaper before starting the environment-focused publication Down to Earth. But for all his “love for television” it had never occurred to Shankar to switch careers till his wife suggested it.
Although Shankar claims his migration from journalism to management happened “inadvertently”, he concedes that his journalism background proved to be the ideal preparation for a role in management.
“As a journalist, every day you walk into a new situation, hear a new story, look at a new set of facts, try to make sense out of them and see where the obvious logical holes exist,” says Shankar, who chooses each word with care. “And once you have done that for several years, frankly, I didn’t find it very difficult to manage the business. I think being a journalist is actually a very good training ground for training to be a chief executive.”
He gained his reputation as an astute television head with the launch of Aaj Tak seven years ago, as he steered the Hindi news channel to the top spot in the ratings charts. His success there took him to Star News in 2004, and the simultaneous departures of Peter Mukerjea and Sameer Nair as the respective heads of Star Group and Star Entertainment in early 2007 cleared the way for his ascent to the top job at Star India.
Shankar, however, remains close to his origins as a journalist—and an inquiry into his thoughts on the role of the media and standards of journalism across the country today triggers a weighted response.
“There are two things you need to distinguish,” he declares, of some decisions taken by the fourth estate. “One is a conscious choice to do certain (dubious) things, and the other one is a lack of competence, or ignorance. I think both those challenges exist in the Indian news media. Not just in television, but in print as much.”
Yet, Shankar was head of the newly-launched Aaj Tak at a time when rumours about a “monkey man”, or human predator on the loose, were stoking hysteria in Delhi. The channel’s coverage of the incident included a graphic, depicting the creature as a monster with lights for eyes, which reportedly contributed to the panic.
“You have to understand,” says Shankar, leaning forward for emphasis when I ask him how that style of coverage ties in with his thoughts on responsible journalism. “That story happened in the infancy of live television in this country and the tradition of television was very recent. So everyone was groping to come to terms with how to handle the medium and sometimes you went overboard. Our pitch was that people were making mischief. I don’t think these things are particularly dangerous.”
Demonstrating faultless courtesy, Shankar pauses to inquire whether my budget might extend to a second pot of tea, joking that if he had known Lounge always insists on footing the bill, he would have picked a day when he wasn’t experimenting with detox diets. We order more tea, and I ask him what he would do if he was granted total power for a day.
“I would call every media house and tell them to create a very transparent code of self-governance and tell them to keep it ready,” he says after a moment’s pause for thought. “I would also withdraw all regulation that artificially seeks to restrict media content. All regulation (governing the media) is regressive and is basically to protect people in power.”
While Shankar conveys a sense of immense satisfaction with his career, there is one issue that irks him. His appointment to the top job at Star India meant relocating to Mumbai from Delhi and leaving behind his wife and 15-year old daughter—who is studying for board exams. He refers to their absence as “the only disappointment currently in my life”.
However, the move enabled Shankar to work in close proximity to the media mogul behind News Corp., Rupert Murdoch—an experience that he describes as “fabulous”—as well as Murdoch’s son and heir apparent, James.
“I think he has an amazing mind,” he says of Murdoch senior. “Every meeting with him leaves you recharged and his grasp over fundamentals is outstanding.”
In practical terms, Shankar’s tenure at Star India has seen him maintain the group’s lead in television ratings—with Star Plus holding an 8.35% share of eyeballs, against the 7.17% claimed by Colors and Zee’s 5.97% —despite setbacks, including the failure of game show Kya Aap Paanchvi Paas Se Tez Hain?, starring actor Shah Rukh Khan. Shankar’s Star Plus channel also recently pulled the plug on super-soap Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi after an eight-year run that topped national ratings and firmly placed Star Plus on the top.
“There were questions that were being asked about the leadership and direction of Star in this country. I think we have answered a lot of those questions,” says Shankar, who entirely unselfconsciously describes himself as “very clever”, as well as “a sharp observer and a very quick learner” with the ability to “quietly pick up things that I think are useful in other people”.
However, observers have picked up on the irony of his decision to air Paanchvi Paas, an imitation of US-based Fox television network’s Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, given Shankar’s vocal criticism of the copycat culture across Indian television.
“By copycat I mean copying the same kind of programming that others are doing,” rebuts Shankar, who relishes the opportunity to air his point of view. “It does not mean that we do not tap into the best in global programming.”
“We are not going to be swadeshi or patriotic in a stupid manner,” he asserts, presaging perhaps the future of his brand of television.
Born: 16 September 1962
Education: MPhil in economic history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi; postgraduate diploma in journalism from Times School of Journalism
Current Designation: Chief executive officer, Star India
Work Profile: Shankar began his career with ‘The Times of India’ and then helped to start ‘Down to Earth’ magazine. He joined Star News in 2004 after stints with TV Today and Sahara TV. Shankar was promoted as CEO of Star India in October 2007
Reading: Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe’ by Bill Bryson
Favourite TV Programme: All the Star shows
Favourite Holiday Destination: The Himalayas