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‘Satyamev Jayate’ to travel to China, says Uday Shankar

MUMBAI: Having created a high impact among Indian television audiences in the first and second seasons, Star India’s show on social issues ‘Satyamev Jayate’ is now all set to travel to China.

Star has sold the telecast rights of ‘Satyamev Jayate’ to a company in China, revealed Star India CEO Uday Shankar.

Making a socially relevant show was always on the back of Shankar’s mind. Terming ‘Satyamev Jayate’ as the beginning of the journey, he said that when their brand had matured, they wanted to make a leap to tell people that Star India and its viewers were now ready to give something different to society.

Uday Shankar at Paley

L-R- Bobby Ghosh, Uday Shankar, James Murdoch

Shankar’s task was made easier as his bosses at News Corp. have always encouraged him to challenge the status quo. Speaking over a breakfast session at the Paley Center for Media in New York, Shankar said, “We decided that we will focus on some of the things that must change in this country while all kinds of economic and social changes keep happening.”

Sharing his thoughts behind the idea of ‘Satyamev Jayate’, Shankar said, “We thought that economic changes, if they were completely divorced from the social perspective, could be unhealthy, especially in a country like India, with so much diversity. And that’s when we started thinking. We said, could we call people and start challenging each one of them? That’s when we said it was probably worth doing something like that.”

“I went and met Aamir Khan and I said should we use the power of television to do something to change this country? He was very excited about that, and then we worked together. It’s a show where the two teams worked together for over two years, but Aamir’s commitment was phenomenal. We first decided that we would take up all the challenging issues, be it child sexual abuse or female foeticide or problem of alcoholism,” he said.

One of the first challenges stated by the head honcho was that in the evening, people just wanted to watch a dance show, the Indian version of ‘America’s Got Talent’. That is when they thought to pick up Sunday morning; this is the most challenging time as the whole family was there.

He added, “India was now ready, our viewers were ready and internally Star as a company was ready, to take that big leap and that’s how ‘Satyamev Jayate’ came. We decided that we will in each episode sharply focus on some of the things that must change in this country while all kinds of economic and social changes keep happening.”

The show created a huge impact in India. For the first time in 40 years, the declining sex ration in the state of Maharashtra was reversed by a factor of 24:1000. It also helped to set up fast-track courts and brought to light the case of fake medicines in the pharmaceutical industry.

All content that the network creates is corporate social responsibility (CSR), believes the team. In 20 years, Star has done a series of subtle messaging through all kinds of entertainment programmes.

The impact was such that retail companies were telling Star that people walked into the stores looking for bedroom and dress material of the kind that was portrayed on their TV shows. Shankar then realised the potential of that influence to bring about the kind of change he wished for. But the road was not an easy one.

There was some discomfort that he and the team had with the discourse. The central discourse was to talk about the changes taking place in India, or not taking place.

“And that’s when we started thinking: Should we just go and change the traditional understanding of an entertainment channel value, where you are invited to come and watch someone sing and someone dance and make you laugh? We said, could we call people and start challenging each one of them? And that’s when we said it was probably worth doing something like that,” he recalled.

One of the earliest changes was the women-oriented shows which quickly became the differentiating factor from other channels. They targeted women to be the core as the drivers for change are women.

Talking about the evolution of Star India, he commented, “Even though our pedigree is News Corporation and 21st Century Fox now, it was very clear that we were not bringing in American cultural concept into India. We indigenised it completely because that was the only way. Somebody had to own—it was owned by the parent company and we were told to go and create a business that was right for the Indian people and Indian society.”

An example of this was Star’s popular show ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ which had a central female protagonist, and talked about the emerging conflicts in the family structure and how women were stepping up to ascertain their own personality and yet resolve those family conflicts.

The same protagonist, Smriti Irani, just earlier last week took over as the Minister of the Human Resources Development in the country.

Shankar stated, “Her entire political career and her public persona were shaped by that show. She was a 22-year-old young woman who first appeared in public life on national television on Star Plus, did a show which was wildly successful, ran every single day for nine years. She left that show and entered politics and today she is one of the senior most ministers in the Indian Government. I say this because that’s the kind of influence that it has had.”

Even the current top-rated show of the channel, ‘Diya Aur Baati Hum’, narrates the story of a young girl who lost her parents in an accident and then had to go through a set of dramatic twists. She had to get married early into a very conservative, uneducated family and she had the dream of becoming the top police officer. While maintaining her responsibility towards her family and other members of the society, she pursued her dream to become a very successful and ethically upright police officer.

The Paley Center for Media hosted a dialogue over a breakfast session between Shankar and TIME International editor Bobby Ghosh to discuss the story of Star and the role of television in bringing about positive social change in India.

Also answering a few questions on the pending issue of distribution, he said that for the first time the power of content has come into play very aggressively. If you have channels that are leaders that people want to watch, then you will be able to distribute them without any problem.

On the advertising front, he felt it was much undisciplined. The 25–30 minutes to an hour of advertising was not benefitting the channels. They were not making money; it was just keeping the advertising rate low. It was the advertisers and the advertising agencies who were able to buy cheap, because inventories could bloom. Now, there is rationalisation in the rates and deliveries of the channels.

Talking about international format shows and how they can be embraced in India, Shankar said the big problem is cracking the distribution pipe. Hollywood has built a distribution ecosystem all over the world, which is not very easy to break into.

Shankar was the first CEO from the Indian media and entertainment industry to address the prestigious media council. He was introduced to guests at the event by 21st Century Fox Co-COO James Murdoch.