A Player in his Prime

Uday Shankar's rise to the top of the television world

01 December, 2012

IN SEPTEMBER 1992, the magazine Down to Earth published a short interview with a 14-year-old boy named Daham Oraon. Two years earlier, Oraon had been sold into bonded labour for Rs 500 along with two dozen other children from his village in south Bihar; the middleman who brokered the deal had vanished with the money, and the teenage boy was now working for no pay as a carpet weaver at a loom in Lohara, a village in the Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh. The interview described his punishing schedule, working 12 hours each day with only an hour of rest, tying thousands of knots to weave fancy carpets even as his hands bled. (“If we stopped working, we would not get any food,” the boy explained.) Oraon had tried to escape twice, only to be caught and beaten by his employer, who had also resisted the desperate entreaties of Oraon’s father to return his teenaged son. After the intervention of a Delhi-based NGO, the district magistrate in Mirzapur ordered a raid on the loom owner’s premises, and the boy was set free. Thirty-year-old Uday Shankar, one of Down To Earth’s founding editors, interviewed Oraon as he was released, and recorded the boy’s hope to return to his own village, go to school, and eke out a decent living.

“I still remember that interview—I remember how shaken the boy was after being rescued from the loom,” Shankar recently told me, as we sat in the plush Business Chambers at New Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel. “I wonder how his life must be today.”

Shankar and Oraon haven’t crossed paths since 1992; but, if Oraon today is in one of the 148 million television-owning households in India, there’s a good chance the former child labourer still encounters Shankar’s work. The man who was then a lanky, slouching reporter for a small environmental magazine, is now CEO of Star India, arguably the nation’s most successful television network, which has a bouquet of 35 channels—spanning general entertainment, movies, kids, sports, music and lifestyle genres in seven languages—that reach rural and urban households across the country.

In the five years since he was appointed CEO of Star India, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch-led News Corp, Shankar has engineered a turnaround in the fortunes of the broadcaster. When he came in, the once-dominant network had acutely shrinking revenues, was under threat from rival channels, and was beginning to lose respect within the industry. Then, on the same day, News Corp officially announced the resignations of two of Star India’s senior-most leaders, Star Group CEO Peter Mukerjea and Star Entertainment CEO Sameer Nair. At least 17 other employees jumped ship to join the latter in a new venture with broadcaster NDTV. “Everyone was wondering if the company would survive,” Shankar told me. “I was hearing jokes that I was roped in just as a stop-gap arrangement because News Corp would eventually shut shop.”

No one is joking any more. Star India now rakes in 30 to 35 percent of the estimated R100 billion per year in India’s television advertising market—the highest advertising revenues in the industry. Essential to this recovery has been Shankar’s reinvigoration of Star Plus, the network’s flagship Hindi general entertainment channel (GEC). Once briefly eclipsed by Viacom-owned challenger Colors, Star Plus now completely dominates India’s GEC segment, which is worth Rs 32 billion in annual advertising sales. In addition, Shankar has launched a raft of new programming, including maverick shows such as the wildly popular and controversial Satyamev Jayate.

Aamir Khan and Uday Shankar during the launch of Satyamev Jayate in Mumbai in October 2011. GANESH LAD / FOTOCORP

SHANKAR’S SUCCESS AT STAR INDIA has allowed him to play what some insiders feel is a transformative role in the television industry. “Uday is in a position of authority as CEO of the top entertainment company in India,” said a senior official from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. In particular, Shankar has used this position to advocate for reforms that he believes will improve both the finances of broadcasters and the content of Indian television. This includes the creation of a broadcaster-led regulatory body that will set guidelines for television content.

The most important reform that Shankar has championed is an ongoing switch to the digital transmission of programming. Although many industry players support digitisation—“broadcasters, including myself, have pushed for it for the last five years,” Shankar said—the senior official suggested that Shankar has been the reform’s driving force. “Uday very passionately went ahead to show us why a digitisation landscape is critical for the industry,” the official said. As another senior industry member told me, “when the market leader talks, you listen.”

Shankar says he supports digitisation because of his “madness for content”. According to a recent report by the FICCI and consulting firm KPMG, digitisation will allow networks to recapture an extra Rs 100 billion per year of subscription revenues and fees that are currently swallowed up by analog cable operators. Shankar hopes networks will use the windfall to produce better shows. Every paisa saved through digitisation can be invested in research and development to deliver just what audiences want, he said. “Financial health and content go hand in hand.”

AS A CHILD, Shankar had one major indulgence: Newsweek. Every week he saved his pocket money and then ran to the only news agent in his Patna neighbourhood, which sold the magazine at an exorbitant price. “When I didn’t have the money, I would request my parents to dole out some more and allow me to get my copy,” Shankar said.

Although he had a precocious interest in the news, Shankar said he doesn’t remember having ever been ambitious. “I was a bright kid, I was a good student, interested in current affairs, but I didn’t really think about what I wanted to do in life.” But, he added, “I was never short of confidence.”

As a student in economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the early 80s, Shankar said, he lived a fairly carefree life. “I had a two-wheeler, I used to drink and eat out regularly—I wasn’t considered frugal in my ways.” Having a career was by no means a priority. “I only wished I could make money that I could blow on buying single malts and shoes,” he said. His father, a civil engineer, was concerned. “My father was worried because I was his oldest child and had no clue where I was headed,” Shankar recalled.

Eventually, Shankar decided that he would join the Indian Administrative Services, and took the entrance examination. When the results were announced, he discovered that he had failed. He was dispirited. “That,” he reflected, “was the end of my carefree ways.” Chats with friends (including Tripurari Sharan, a Bihar cadre 1985 batch IAS officer, who is now director general of Doordarshan) helped Shankar move forward. They told him it was “time to get serious”, he said, and gave him three options. First, he could retake the civil services examination. He ruled this option out (“It’s very brain-dead,” he told me). Second, he could do something completely different from the IAS. This didn’t appeal either (“I could have gotten rattled by that”). Finally, they said, he had the option of becoming a journalist, an idea that seemed to fit well with Shankar’s self-image: “I was energetic, curious, socially aware, and had a left-of-centre rebellious point of view.”

Some friends advised against journalism, and Shankar’s father was disappointed with the idea. “‘Get a real job, please,’ is what my father told me,” recounted Shankar. But Shankar had become resolute, and, in 1988, he enrolled in the Times School of Journalism.

BY THE TIME HE ARRIVED AT THE TIMES SCHOOL, Shankar’s confidence seemed to have returned. Ravi Parashar, a batch-mate of Shankar’s who now runs a newsroom for the Zee News network, remembers it well. His very first meeting with Shankar involved “a heady but healthy debate related to some political issue”, Parashar said. “Oh, he always had an opinion. He was—how do I explain it—hatke (different).”

“It was a glorious batch,” continued Parashar. “Our debates, our political leanings, our vociferous participation as part of the trade unions, willing to take on the might of the owners who were running the business of newspapers, our youthful desires of changing the world with our qalam (pen), our dream and desires for a better world even as we discussed issues over regular drinking sessions—those were the best days, really.”

Even now, said Parashar, many of their batch-mates from the Times school discuss Shankar’s spectacular rise. Parashar, for one, never imagined that Shankar would come so far. Several times during our conversation, he shook his head and exclaimed, “Yaar, I really wonder how he became such a success!” Shankar himself never imagined it. “I lacked focus, I had no idea about my career, I had no clue I would head an entertainment company ever,” he said, laughing aloud as he remembered that time.

Seen standing in the third row of this convocation photograph of the 1989 batch of the Times School of Journalism (from left, second, third, fourth and sixth) are Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar Parashar, Samar Halarnkar and Narisetti Raju. COURTESY TIMES SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM

Although Shankar describes himself as lacking focus in those days, that wasn’t the impression he gave Professor K Thomas Oommen. Oommen, now in his late 70s, and a director of the Manorama School of Communication, has been teaching journalism for the last three decades. He was the head of the department of mass communication at the Times school when Shankar joined the institute. Contrary to what everyone else—including Shankar—said to me, Oommen felt that his student always knew what he wanted. What’s more, Oommen remembered him as “a superb operator” who identified exactly how he should go about fulfilling his aspirations. “He would then go ahead and do what had to be done, including cultivating relationships with those people who could help him the most,” Oommen said. In his view, Shankar was never unsure of himself and was willing to do whatever he had to do to succeed. “I have always known that Uday would rise to the top of whichever line of work he chose to join,” said Oommen. “But,” he admitted, “I thought the line would be more modest and the position less lofty.”

A former colleague of Shankar’s agreed. “Uday is a person who calculates the next five moves even though he’ll insist he’s unplanned,” the former colleague told me. “He’s planning his moves all the time. He knows how to impress his bosses, he knows how to project his work.”

IN 1989, after completing the journalism course, Shankar took the train back to Patna and joined the Times of India as a political reporter. There, he soon got involved with the local journalists’ trade union. (“We were demanding more power for journalists on wage-board committees,” Shankar said.) He also began to take issue with the paper’s management, whom he felt, “lacked the perspective of the employees” and had unfairly transferred or fired several of his colleagues.

At the beginning of 1991, Shankar left Patna for a while and came to Delhi to blow off steam. It was in this period, he said, that he first experienced the power of television. One of his old college buddies had a cable connection, and Shankar would go over to his place to watch CNN. The First Gulf War was igniting, and Shankar was transfixed by CNN’s reporting. “Cable television was a rarity then, and I was completely blown away by the coverage,” he said. “It had a really lasting impact.” It was at that point, Shankar told me, that he knew he wanted to work in television and bring influential news stories to the nation.

After returning to Patna to officially hand in his papers at the Times, Shankar returned to Delhi and joined the now-defunct Sunday Mail, where he reported on politics and health. The following year, he joined one of India’s leading weekly current affairs magazines—he declined to reveal which one—but less than two weeks into his new role, he quit. He told a senior editor at the magazine that he was stepping out for lunch, Shankar recalled—and then he “simply never went back”.

Instead, he joined Down to Earth for the publication’s launch in 1992. “I wanted to be a part of the magazine,” Shankar remembered. “It was a startup but something told me it was right for me. It gave me an opportunity to work in areas of environment and do socially relevant stories.”

Around the same time, Shankar had another highly influential encounter with television. Author and journalist Ramesh Menon, who in the 1990s lived near Shankar in East Delhi’s Press Apartments neighbourhood, remembered an outing they decided to take to Noida’s Film City studios to be part of the audience of a current affairs show. Shankar was fascinated by the entire filming process—the cameras, lights, studio setup—which he was seeing for the first time, Menon recalled. (Shankar said he vividly remembers the experience.) According to Menon, Shankar looked at him and said, “One day, I will launch television channels.”

SHANKAR LEFTDown to Earth in 1995 to make his move into television, joining Zee TV, where he produced a number of stories on the environment and current affairs. Over the next few years, he would change jobs rapidly, steadily carving out a role for himself in the television industry, first as a highly skilled producer and then as a powerful executive. A year after he joined Zee, he left to become a producer at Home TV. In 1997, he moved jobs again to become an executive producer at television production house Shri Adhikari Brothers, where he started the current affairs division and produced Special Session with Karan Thapar for Star TV. Then, in 1998, he joined Sahara TV, a Hindi-language broadcaster, where he established the news and current affairs operations.

Just before the launch of Sahara’s news channel, Shankar jumped ship again to join Aroon Purie’s TV Today Group. The timing enabled him to produce a handful of shows on the 1998 and 1999 parliamentary elections. He then became director of Purie’s around-the-clock Hindi-language news channel, Aaj Tak, when it launched in 2000, and in 2003 he helped Purie establish Aaj Tak’s English-language counterpart, Headlines Today.

Ajay Kumar, who covered a number of beats for Aaj Tak and is now its executive editor, told me that Shankar had high standards and drove his employees hard. “Uday used to be in office by 5 am to see if everything was on schedule,” Kumar recalled. “He would leave at 11 at night, sometimes even later. And, if one wanted to call him at 3 am for work, he could speak to you and give you some intelligent perspective.” A current colleague of Shankar’s gave me a similar account, describing the CEO as a “taskmaster”.

Shankar, Kumar added, was also the sort of boss one wanted to emulate. “He has sound editorial and technical knowledge. He’s available twenty-four seven for his employees, for his work. He’s extremely proactive, he knows the technical ins-and-outs of how a channel needs to function, how to tackle a problem when you get stuck,” Kumar said. Shankar’s current colleague also praised him. Although Shankar can sometimes be perceived as arrogant, the colleague said, “you have to hand it to the guy, if he likes you, if you work hard, he will try and be there for you in any crisis, personal or professional.”

Shankar’s work ethic may have helped turn Aaj Tak into the industry leader it is today; the news channel has almost exclusively dominated the number-one ratings position for Hindi-language news channels since shortly after its launch 12 years ago. For his part, Shankar said that he learned an extraordinary amount from working with Purie and his other bosses. Purie, Shanker remembered, would call up in the middle of the night to ask why part of an on-screen graph that was supposed to be coloured red was not red. Purie, Shankar gushed, was “insane but wonderful”.

The joy of working with Purie and others at Aaj Tak drove Shankar forward in his career, he said. In 2004, he quit the network and moved to Mumbai to don the mantle of editor and CEO at Star News, where he oversaw both content and advertising sales. (“It was time to move on” from Aaj Tak, Shankar told me.) When he arrived, the channel was in what Shankar called a “wobbly condition”. But an infusion of fresh programming, spearheaded by Shankar, helped turn it around.

At Aaj Tak, Shankar and his team had created “a breaking news phenomenon”, he said. “It was gigantic and everyone seemed to be copying it.” At Star News, however, he decided to take a different approach. “We did in-depth interviews—tracking [underworld don] Abu Salem’s wife in the US for an interview, for instance—and launched regional channels in Bengali and Marathi,” said Shankar. Bollywood and television-entertainment news shows were also introduced, as were political debate shows, which brought together top politicians from rival parties on one stage. (Shankar himself once waited outside Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s office for two hours in order to get the opportunity to persuade Modi to come on the show. It worked.)

A former member of Star News’s marketing team who worked closely with Shankar described him to me as a “seasoned journalist asking the right questions in his head with a terrific business sense of what sells and what doesn’t”. The marketer told a revealing story about how Shankar undertook changes at the network. At one point, Shankar called his team into the office and told them that he wanted to change the channel’s viewership profile and attract larger female audiences. He ordered a huge portion of raan from Nizam’s, a well known kebab shop—“he’s a foodie,” said the marketer—and sat munching it while he informed the team that he was intending to launch an afternoon show that would take a journalistic approach to the daily serials, reporting plot developments and behind-the-scenes gossip about popular actors.

“We had quite an argument,” recalled the marketer, who said he told Shankar that he was not in favour of “prostituting the news”. “I abused him, but eventually he reasoned with me and asked me to at least get the advertisers’ points of view,” the marketer said. “Two days later, I had to agree that Uday had managed to sell a great idea.” Advertisers loved the concept, which eventually became the show Saas, Bahu aur Saazish.

The changes spearheaded by Shankar helped Star News compete aggressively in the Hindi-language news market. For a brief period, the channel was even able to dethrone Shankar’s former network, Aaj Tak, and take the number one position.

In 2007, Shankar was chosen to take over as COO at Star India. (He believes his work at Star News—its parent company is partially owned by Star India—had caught the attention of the network’s international bosses.) Paul Aiello, who was then the CEO of the Star Group, said that Shankar’s in-depth knowledge and experience made him perfect for the post. Shankar’s rise within the network was swift: within five months, he was promoted to CEO in a move that consolidated the two previously independent roles—running the company and developing the network’s programming—of his predecessors, Sameer Nair and Peter Mukherjea.

In Kumar’s view, Shankar’s move from news to a massive entertainment network was risky for both Shankar and Star India. Running the entire company and developing content across all its genres is a “wide spectrum for any journalist to cover,” he said. Menon agreed. “At the end of the day, he is a journalist, just like us,” he said. “Everyone was waiting and watching when he was given the reins.”

CRITICAL DECISIONS AT STAR INDIA are often made in Shankar’s office, which a colleague described as sparse in comparison to the offices of other media CEOs. Instead of expensive art or other knickknacks, Shankar displays channels from Star India’s large portfolio on more than a dozen wall-mounted television screens. The decisions the CEO has taken while at the helm of the network have revived the broadcaster’s fortunes, reshaped the content of Indian television, and significantly influenced how the industry functions as a whole.

By most accounts, at the time Shankar took over, Star India desperately needed a turnaround. India’s still relatively young cable television market was burgeoning, but faster growing rivals were threatening Star Plus, the network’s formerly unassailable GEC. In particular, the Viacom-owned channel Colors was winning viewers over with socially relevant shows such as Balika Vadhu. “Though it was still the market leader, the perception that Star set the strategic and intellectual agenda for other broadcasters was no longer there,” Shankar told me.

One of the problems for Star Plus, thought Shankar, was the slew of kitchen-sink dramas they had from television production houses such as Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms. Although the shows had “ace ratings”, Shankar said, he felt the dramas were repetitive and staid. Star Plus had become a “slave” to the shows, which he said were like “steroid shots” for the channel. “We had to take the plunge and do something different,” he said.

In trying to create new content for the network, Shankar massively expanded Star’s research capacity and extended its research efforts out of the metros to tier-two cities and smaller towns, said Sanjay Gupta, COO of Star India, who has worked closely with Shankar over the past four years. Shankar sent teams to tier-two and tier-three towns to interact with families and figure out exactly what viewers wanted to see on television. “He wants to continuously impact the viewer,” Gupta said.

Armed with insights from this research—“our content is always backed by data,” Gupta asserted—Shankar made a series of bold moves. Shankar first turned his attention to the highly successful quiz show, Kaun Banega Crorepati? The show had been a triumph under host Amitabh Bachchan, and although it was beginning to falter under new host Shahrukh Khan, it was still a popular brand. Shankar thought its time had come, and he discarded it. He then turned to the problem of the serials. In order to feature fresh content on Star Plus, he would have to end the channel’s almost decade-long exclusive arrangement with Balaji, and this would mean allowing Balaji to shop its popular productions to Star’s rivals. Again, Shankar was undeterred: he canceled many of the Balaji’s dramas and ended Star’s partnership with the production house.

To keep audiences on side, and to grow the Star Plus viewership, Shankar launched a number of new serials featuring stronger female protagonists, higher-quality production, and smart packaging. Then he focused his attention to other channels. With a crop of fiction shows targeting youngsters, he turned Channel V from a mere music channel into a full-blown youth network and doubled its viewership. At Star Gold, the Hindi movie channel, Shankar took a more radical approach to grow its audience: he reclaimed for programming one-third of the airtime that had previously been sold to advertisers. “It may have reduced revenue by thirty to forty percent,” said Gupta. “But it increased viewership.” Gupta suggested that these breaks with tradition were all motivated by Shankar’s core belief, which Gupta described thus: “Disruption is always necessary for things to succeed.”

And Shankar was preparing to take what many would come to see as another major programming gamble.

SHANKAR SAID HE FIRST CONCEIVED THE IDEA of a socially relevant television show for Star News way back in 2005, but no one on his team was interested. “I tried very hard to convince people, but somehow either Sachin Tendulkar’s latest century or Shahrukh Khan’s next film was more important,” Shankar said. “I left the grain of the idea at that.”

The idea lay dormant in Shankar’s mind for the next four years. Then, in 2009, Shankar drove to actor Aamir Khan’s house for a meeting. He wanted to gauge the actor’s interest in making his television debut. Khan told Shankar that he was not interested in the sorts of song-and-dance shows, game shows or reality shows that other celebrities had done. In a canny move, Shankar revived his old idea and floated to Khan the concept of a socially relevant talk show, with the superstar actor as its host.

This was uncharted territory—both for Khan and for Indian television. Khan had never worked on the small screen before, and no one had ever produced a show in which a celebrity of his stature delivered anything more than light, undemanding entertainment to the viewer. The financial stakes were also high. “Aamir Khan is great but all great things come with a price tag,” Shankar said.

Shankar conceived the idea of a socially relevant show in 2005, while with Star News. He pitched it to Aamir Khan in 2009.

Through a series of discussions, Khan eventually came on board with the idea, Shankar told me. The actor and his personal production house then worked quietly on the concept for nearly a year, researching societal problems such as female foeticide, honour killings, child abuse, and alcoholism, and unearthing moving personal tales. Khan and Shankar then held another series of meetings, in which they clarified the show’s content and chalked out its format. It was time to launch.

The production would cost Rs 3.5 crores per episode. Because of this expense, the advertising sales team had to do an outstanding job selling airtime and sponsorships. The sales pitch Shankar gave to them was simple: “Star Plus and Aamir Khan are coming together for a show.” This was supported by an audacious strategy: in addition to an active online presence—the show’s web pages eventually garnered more than 1 billion hits—the show would be broadcast simultaneously on multiple Star India channels, as well as on Doordarshan (the state broadcaster would get its own advertising and share 50 percent of the revenues with Star India).

“The need to offer quality content gave me the madness to do Satyamev Jayate,” said Shankar. The gamble paid off. Airtel signed a deal to be the show’s title sponsor for a reported Rs 20 crores, and the team sold airtime at rates between Rs 500,000 and Rs 1 million for 10 seconds. The first episode was also a resounding popular success: it was watched by 90 million people and garnered higher ratings than had any episode of Kaun Banega Crorepati—which was now owned by Sony TV—in the previous year. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes honoured Shankar and Khan for their socially relevant programming. After an episode on alcoholism, Alcoholics Anonymous India said that it received an unprecedented 167,000 telephone calls.

UNDER SHANKAR’S LEADERSHIP, Star Plus has regained its dominance in the GEC category. In terms of advertising revenues, it now outshines its once-ascendant rival Colors: Shankar’s channel rakes in approximately Rs 9 billion annually compared to the Viacom challenger’s Rs 6 to Rs 6.5 billion. And Shankar has been working to add to Star India’s successful stable. In 2011, he spun off a new GEC, Life Ok. Then, having already wooed Bollywood, Shankar moved on to India’s other moneymaking mega-phenomenon, professional cricket: for a bid of Rs 38.5 billion, Star India recently won the BCCI auction to telecast international cricket in India from 2012 to 2018. One media analyst told me that this was a huge bet, and that Shankar and his team may have over-estimated the value of the programming property. Shankar, however, said that he is confident that with innovation, 10-second ad rates and distribution revenues, the investment will be worthwhile. “It’s a gamble, yes,” said Gupta, but quite possibly a lucky one: according to some media reports, the acquisition will grow Star India’s revenues by Rs 8 to 9 billion per year.

Shankar with BCCI President N Srinivasan in Chennai in April after Star won broadcast rights for international cricket till 2018. BIJOY GHOSH / THE HINDU IMAGES

Shankar suggested that his background in journalism is very much a part of this success. “Journalism and GECs are not very different because the reader or the viewer is the same,” he told me. And their subjects aren’t all that dissimilar either: “Face it,” he said, “our protagonists and characters on entertainment channels are as real as the politicians you read about in newspapers.” Satyamev Jayate was also in many ways a journalistic enterprise. “Come to think of it,” he said, “it’s an idea that was in my head when I was at a television news channel.”

In a talk titled “Lazy Journalism” that he recently gave at the Delhi Press Club, Shankar held Satyamev Jayate up as an example of quality programming. He groused about other CEOs and editors, who, he said, are lacking content, missing stories and failing to recognise just how socially valuable the profession continues to be. He also spoke out animatedly about “moral laziness in editors”, many of whom get stories from political middlemen. Referring to a recent New Yorker piece on the editorial philosophy of the Times of India, he remarked, “When the market leader in print journalism says the company is in the business of advertising, not content, it’s sad.”

Shankar later told me that he is committed to improving the quality of television content and setting standards for the Indian television industry. Lately, he has been spearheading efforts to initiate the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC), an independent body authorised by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation for the purpose of allowing the industry to regulate its own content. “I always said we should be vigilant about the content and the government shouldn’t interfere,” Shankar told me.

Many attribute the rise in Star India’s fortunes to the very same commitment to quality that Shankar publicly advocates. But others are more circumspect about what, in practical terms, Shankar’s commitment actually amounts to. When it came to Satyamev Jayate, for example, several critics were equivocal in their praise. “The show got Rupert Murdoch’s flagship channel a lot of goodwill at a time when News Corp is getting a rotten press elsewhere in the world,” quipped Sevanti Ninan, editor of media website thehoot.org, in her column in the financial daily Mint. “That is a PR triumph of no mean measure.” Critics have also decried what they consider tasteless programming produced under Shankar’s leadership, including Star’s incessant, sensationalising coverage of the recent marital troubles of actress Karisma Kapoor and her husband Sanjay Kapur, for which it drew heavy fire.

Indeed, many feel that Shankar, for all his talk about quality content, plays first to the advertising market and the sensational interests of viewers, and only afterwards considers the ethical duties or standards of the fourth estate. As an example, critics point to a succession of stories that recently ran on ABP News (the rebranded Star News) and in three mainstream Indian newspapers (Mail Today, Indian Express, and The Hindu) about a missing NRI girl. It turned out that the girl is a fictional character from a serial that recently launched on Star Plus, and the story that ran on ABP News, Shankar has admitted, was intentionally planted as part of the show’s promotional campaign. (He denied that the newspaper stories were plants.) For similar reasons, some skeptics scoff at the idea of the industry regulating its own content; Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju has called it an “oxymoron”.

In our conversation, Shankar distanced himself from several of the questionable programming decisions that have been made under his watch. Although he admitted to being embarrassed by the way his networks covered the end of the Kapoor–Kapur relationship, he stopped short of taking responsibility. “Yes, I will admit, I was unhappy with that coverage.” (In general, however, Shankar has “no problems with hounding celebrities”—“if you are in the media, you need to suffer the media,” he told me.) When I mentioned Saas, Bahu aur Saazish, he was visibly uncomfortable; but contrary to the story his former marketing team member told me, Shankar said that “the show, the way it came out, was not my idea”.

SITTING IN THE TAJ HOTEL, Shankar admitted to me that he has paid the price of success. “It is lonely at the top,” he reflected. “The more success you achieve, the more people perceive you to be a certain way.” And there were painful personal decisions he felt he had to take. In one particularly upsetting period, he had to move to Mumbai while his wife and daughter remained in Delhi. “Those were tough days,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t wish those days on anyone.” Although he’s not fond of crowds, Shankar said, he couldn’t handle the loneliness. “Staying alone can take an emotional toll,” he said. “You age with twice the speed.”

When he is by himself, however, Shankar often turns to the television. He said that he can watch it 24 hours a day. This includes the soaps. When he took over Star Plus, he made a rule, which he still follows, to watch the sagas for two hours every night. “No, it’s not a punishment,” he laughed, “I quite enjoy watching the serials.”

In the end, Shankar insists that, although he enjoys all the good things that money can buy, at heart he’s not driven by possessions or wealth. “I miss being a journalist,” he told me. “I miss doing that one good story that has the capacity to change lives.” But, he added, “I am emotional and crazy about television.”