The secret to success in TV – compelling content – is easier to say than do.
For Uday Shankar, CEO of India’s biggest broadcaster Star India, that’s often because a key ingredient is missing – a connection with the hopes and lives of people watching at home.
It’s a philosophy behind major changes in how Star buys, creates and monetizes mass-market dramas, movies and more recently sports, put in place by Shankar since he took the helm at the entertainment major over seven years ago.
“Essentially we are in the business of telling stories, creating content,” Shankar said, speaking at this year’s APOS conference.
“For convenience or logistical reasons you may outsource it to some producer but the problem comes when you start licensing away the creative rights, or giving away the creative license,” he added.
“If you are too heavily dependent on someone, no matter how good that content might be for you, you’re not internalizing those core creative skills that are so essential for making a difference with the consumer.”
A close partnership with production house Balaji Telefilms once helped Star’s flagship channel, Hindi entertainment offering Star Plus, dominate the ratings.
Shankar however reduced Star’s reliance on its main supplier, highlighting the risks of buying in talent and content by pointing to the failure of well-resourced new entrants in Hindi entertainment during a spell of intense competition towards the end of the last decade.
“We have been very focused on developing a robust, deep internal creative engine, which would be best in class when it comes to ideation, when it comes to development, when it comes to making sure we challenge the outside creative partners to bring out the best from them,” Shankar said.
The harder road
Star’s chief wants to maintain the tempo, bringing on film talent to work on TV shows, at first for Hindi channels and then for other languages, while removing films from his entertainment channels, partly to offset rising costs, but also to wean entertainment channel heads off short-term audience gains from blockbuster hits.
“Entertainment is about core IP you create through drama and formats, and that’s what we are offering,” Shankar said.
“I think there is a correction happening [in movie rights pricing]. But creatively, cross-pollination between the film and television talent base is something that can unlock huge amounts of value.”
Now Shankar is looking to step up content values in another big-ticket genre, sports.
In recent years, Star has spent heavily on premium cricket rights, helping create a platform for a more diverse offering, catering to local interests and sports with the potential to attract bigger audiences such as football and kabaddi.
Like movies on entertainment channels, cricket can help aggregate large audiences and deliver important momentum for an early-stage venture, Shankar noted. However, the business has to diversify to become sustainable long-term.
“What are we doing in sports is fundamentally not different to what we have done all these years in entertainment,” he explained. “Let’s create deep content of deep affinity. We came in, we needed a beachhead, and cricket was our beachhead.”
Reliance on established audience drivers can obscure bigger growth opportunities, Shankar argued, highlighting local affiliations that have been neglected by sports channels so far.
“We want to use the power of that passion to create content,” he said. “Again, it fits in with our whole objective of giving shape to social aspirations. Sports can be hugely empowering.”