STAR India’s remarkable journey is intimately linked to the evolution of the modern Indian identity. Through the lens of Indian media’s history — specifically the role of STAR TV — we see a shining example of television blazing a pathway toward national self-knowledge.
India’s first major state-run satellite broadcast INSAT didn’t arrive until 1982, and for nearly a decade viewers were “restricted to the fare served by state television, known as Doordarshan, a diet of tedious discussions by government bureaucrats, ancient Hindi movies, generous amounts of singing and dancing, and news programs often distinguished by their heavy censorship and age,” according to The New York Times.
When the company was launched in 1991, its strategy was to focus on “the top 5 percent of Asian elites who spoke English and had buying power,” leaving out 95 percent of the Asian market.
21CF places its bet
STAR TV launched as a clarion symbol of upward mobility, one that quickly captured the interest of 21st Century Fox (then News Corporation). In July 1993, 21CF acquired 63.6 percent of STAR TV, buying the rest a year later. In terms of Western media, 21CF was one of the earliest of the rivals to place a bet on India, but homes receiving satellite and cable broadcasts were predicted to explode from 14 million to 53 million between 1995 and 2005, growing from 8 percent to 25 percent penetration.
In reality, STAR lost nearly $500 million between 1995 and 1999, largely because the majority of programming was English-speaking content. Some companies would’ve simply moved on. 21CF took a longer-term view. The opportunity was there.
When STAR was finally able to create localized content for Hindi speakers, the big hits were Indianized versions of American and European content, like the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The game show launched in July 2000 and immediately skyrocketed to the top of the ratings charts, reaching 100 million viewers within a year.
Meanwhile, STAR News had launched in 1998. In 2003, several competitors lobbied for new restrictions: foreigners could now own no more than 26 percent of televised news operations, and top execs and editorial directors had to be of Indian descent. The restructuring left STAR News in a bit of a tailspin.
“I always felt that the business of media was about getting into that virtuous spot where you were in perfect sync with the society. You were pushing the society and you were allowing the society to push you… STAR was doing that better than anybody else.”
Uday Shankar, Chairman and CEO of STAR India
STAR TV rises under a new leader
Television journalist Uday Shankar left news leader Aaj Tak for STAR News. For Uday, it wasn’t about chasing competitors; it was about STAR doing things its own way, carving out an identity for itself. STAR began building larger stories that had a direct impact on the lives of its viewers. Though not explicitly concerned with ratings, STAR News leapfrogged its competition to No. 1 within a year and a half.
In 2007Uday was tapped to run all of STAR TV, shaping the network’s many brands and, in the process, catalyzing a coming-of-age for both Indian television and the Indian national identity. STAR broadened its entertainment offerings beyond the typically male-centered Bollywood style of storytelling, developing progressive content focused on strong, ambitious female characters.
21CF has always taken risks in international markets and in 2007, as the company was simplifying and divesting its presence in countries such as Russia and China, it increased its investments in India.
“We looked at markets that we thought could, in essence, really change our lives,” said 21CF CEO James Murdoch, “and we thought India in Asia was really that place with scale, with opportunity, that it could be a huge business, it could really drive growth.” The company believed, and still believes, that India could be the largest and most profitable market outside the United States.
“SMJ” shines a light on the social agenda in India
This maturation of both culture and commercial potential culminated on May 6, 2012, when STAR launched “Satyamev Jayate” (“SMJ”), “at a time when there was a huge debate on the role and behavior of media in India,” according to Uday. “Media had just got into gathering eyeballs. It was forgetting the larger social agenda.”
Airing on Sunday mornings, typically a family time, “SMJ” dives deep into societal issues — everything from female feticide to sexual assault to mental illness and gay rights — explaining to “ordinary individuals and citizens of this country how they could make a difference,” Uday said. Now in its third season, “SMJ” has become a rallying point for a more socially conscious and active India, raising $3.7 million during its first season to support NGOs working to improve the social issues discussed on the show.
STAR Sports turns local
In June 2012, News Corp bought out Disney’s 50 percent equity stake in ESPN STAR Sports (ESS) and rebranded as simply STAR Sports on that foundation, moving the headquarters from Singapore to India. Following a similar path as the entertainment and news offerings, the sports network aimed to create and cater to a more localized audience, doubling down on cricket while also making investments in soccer and badminton — favorites of the subcontinent.
Then STAR Sports placed an unlikely bet on the ancient sport of kabbadi — an “Indian version of capture the flag” — giving it a professional, glossier makeover for national television and broadcasting in native Hindi. It became an overnight ratings success, drawing 200 million viewers in its first two weeks on air.
Hotstar and India’s digital revolution
Meanwhile, a kind of digital coming-of-age allowed this transformative content to reach more viewers in India and across the greater Indian diaspora. STAR’s original programming in eight different regional languages, as well as hotstar, its industry-leading, mobile-first streaming service, have broadened its reach considerably.
After its beta launch in 2015, STAR’s hotstar digital app has become one of the world’s fastest growing digital platforms and one of India’s leading over-the-top services. The confluence of entertainment, sports and digital distribution platforms has led the company to set ambitious growth targets for STAR, projecting $1 billion in earnings contribution by 2020.
STAR’s impact on the nation and its people
The true impact of “SMJ,” and STAR in general, on the collective and individual Indian psyche may be harder to measure quantitatively. It is felt on a more core level, certainly by its leader.
“STAR in many ways allowed me to give my own form a final shape,” Uday claims. “And part of it is that my bosses have given me the space to become myself.”
From a closed society; to one offering only English content; to the development of distinctly Indian news, sports and entertainment, STAR India has led a young country in establishing its national identity, at home and abroad, ever becoming itself.