With doubts being raised about the October-November T20 World Cup in Australia, BCCI officials says that IPL now has a window. Star and Disney India chairman Uday Shankar, while insisting that the tournament should only be played when it’s safe, talks about the creative challenge of broadcasting of what looks like the first ‘closed doors’ IPL. Speaking to Sandeep Dwivedi, the man on the top of world cricket’s power list explains the importance of imagination in dealing with this unique COVID-19 crisis, the fundamental changes in media business and how working from home has made him sharper and focused.
Q: You are known for your big ideas. No one knows what is going to happen next. Are you thinking hard these days … how are you spending your days?
A: These days, we all are at home. Being home is more productive. First, you are much more focused as you know you can only communicate electronically. When you go to office, some meetings generally tend to get longer than they should. Number two, I’m thinking sharply because there are no distractions. And the third thing is because there’s a crisis, every member of the team is trying to do their best, thinking out of the box. On the downside, there is no distinction between workplace and home. You start in the morning and just keep going on, so it’s exhausting.
Q: Sports broadcasting is all about understanding the minds of fans. But these are very unusual times, do you know what exactly a fan would want once live sports resume?
A: The most important priority globally is for people to be safe. Only when it is safe to have a tournament, we should have (it). We have a lot of business riding on live sports but nothing is even remotely in the same zone as the safety of people.
That said, to say that people will only like something in a certain form is a very static way of looking at things. I believe that the society is always open to trying out new things. In fact, it is the business and the experts who are more stuck in their ways. People may not be able to articulate it through, but they try out new things every day. They try a new toothpaste because someone in an advertisement says it is great. I think people are far more open than we give them credit (for).
When we were launching Hotstar, our streaming service, five to six years ago, about a million people told me: “What are you doing? The experience of live sports on a small mobile phone, this doesn’t work. This tiny three-inch mobile phone, you will never be able to feel it, cricket is played with a small ball.” I got all kinds of theories. And the rest, as they say, is history. More than 100 million people come to watch one game on Hotstar now.
So if for some time people can’t go to a stadium, it is fine. Viewers will embrace the new experience. They know why it is happening.
It (empty stands) is not a concern at all. I don’t buy it when people say, ‘oh, the experience will be incomplete’. Sports has become bigger because people are able to watch it on multiple media. Yes, the presence of audience at the ground does help to create an atmosphere, so we will figure out ways of creating and enhancing the atmosphere through graphics, audio, sound effects and all that.
Q: Can you think of an innovation that recreates on TV the whole drama that used to be in the stands – close-ups of kids, grown-ups weeping, fans excited…?
A: You watch sports at home on TV or Hotstar. Whenever you’re watching a tense moment, do you not have a very intense expression on your face? So, all we need to do is capture it. And today technology is ready for that. So, you can be at home but you can also be on television. Our ability to recreate the same atmosphere for the fan who are watching it from home is limited only by our imagination, otherwise the fan gives you enough opportunity to capture those moments of intensity and excitement. If this had happened 20 years ago, without broadband and hundreds of millions of smartphones with cameras, it would be a challenge. Today it’s happening at a time when we’re ready.
Q: So, you are replacing the guy in the stands with the guy on the couch. Will there be webcam or go pro at homes?
A: Why will I need them, everyone has a camera phone, I just need to source them. So, we’ll have to start thinking differently. It’s a creative challenge, it’s not a sporting challenge.
Q: What about the changes on the field in terms of broadcasting the game?
A: I can’t tell you all the details, the reasons being we’re still working on it. I don’t have full clarity. Things evolve, say ‘day cricket’ became ‘night cricket’ and that in turn brought with it a new set of opportunities and challenges. First of all, let’s make it clear that this is not going to be forever. As long as we have to play without spectators, we will find creative ways of using our imagination and creative resources to develop new forms of excitement.
Earlier, there was the stadium, you didn’t need to do something. For every reaction, you just had to cut to somebody in the ground, now we will have to think of it and we have to create the experience without people at the ground.
It will be a somewhat different experience but it surely will be as rich, if not richer.
Q: So that’s the kind of game you love, you are in the habit of making new rules, new sports …
A: Our biggest challenge is we have these fixed ideas in the head about how to do things. Not just in the way sports is played or produced; it’s about everything. Earlier, no one thought we could operate without going to office. Every morning, we would get into our vehicles and go to office. We struggled with traffic, we were frustrated, we wasted time, we wasted petrol and all that. We felt it was important. Now suddenly, no one is going to office and the world is okay, things are working.
We launched ‘Disney plus Hotstar’ in the middle of this lockdown. All our commercials for digital and our TV channels were produced in a decentralised manner and still everybody came to know about it.
We need to break our muscle memory. No matter which business you are in, those who are able to think differently and work backwards from the new reality, they will be able to create much more value.
Q: In the coming days, foreign travel, in and out, will be tough. So, have you thought of going local or even hyper- local. Since state borders will surely open before the international ones, can you think of having a spiced-up Ranji Trophy or a some T20 event between states with cheerleaders and top stars…?
A: First of all, we all know that travel is going to be a bit of a challenge. But look, players can come in. Earlier, they used to come five days in advance; now they will have to come two weeks before the game. They will be in quarantine, they will have to more careful when training.
But yes, there is an opportunity to create hyper-local experiences. There is also opportunity to create more digital, more technology-driven experiences.
Q: You will also have to take hard decisions, isn’t it? You will have to identify your assets and liabilities. You have got this huge network, in terms of your regional reach, like the very successful Tamil commentary initiative that got you new viewers. You also have heavy-duty analytical shows like Dugout that cater to serious fans. Do you think you’ll have to shrink or downsize operations?
A: It’s tough for me to say that right now, we’ll have to see the horizon for live sports. I don’t like to take tactical decisions quickly but eventually business has to make sense. We are running a business, it’s not a charity, we have to be profitable, or else we won’t be sustainable. So, if something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
But just because there has been a disruption, I don’t see a reason to downsize. Dugout is a very compelling product. It’s the fine dining experience of cricket. And also, by talking cricket in regional languages, whether it is in South or elsewhere, we have widened the scope of cricket. I don’t think just the disruption itself means that we should do less.
Q: But in case things don’t improve, how will you deal with ‘Tamil commentary or Dugout’ dilemma?
A: Why would we cut it down if both are doing well?
Q: What about a larger correction, in terms of the kind of money that sports broadcasters pay for television rights and down the line, to the kind of money certain modest IPL players earn? I know it is the market that decides all such values, but do you think that COVID-19 is going to recalibrate everything. Or you need to go back to BCCI in terms of renegotiating these already existing deals?
A: Look, first and foremost, we have a contract. We are an honourable company and we will honour it. But you should also understand that sports bodies are also aware of the challenges in the market place … the economy and incomes have taken a hit. And as far as Star and cricket are concerned, it is the goose that lays the golden egg. We have invested more in cricket than any other media company, any time in the world.
I think in my experience, all sports bodies and authorities value the fact that our commitment to cricket is so high. If there is a real problem, we will go to them and I’m sure we will get a fair audience.
Q: Doesn’t cricket need to go into this big huddle which would include virtually all stakeholders – franchises, broadcasters, players?
A: There is too much uncertainty and volatility. At some stage, people will start talking. Right now, it’s all on a pause because you don’t even know how long the lockdown will continue. So, what will you discuss in that huddle? It’s a bit premature.
Q: No, in general talk about taking austerity measures, being slightly more cautious…
A: We don’t even know exactly what will be the shape of the economy. You don’t even know how big a hit it’s going to take. Look, right now it is the high-tide time. You don’t start swimming during high tide. You just put your head down, hold your ground and let the tide settle down. Once that is done, you start thinking ‘okay, so what do we do now’.
Q: There is no good time for a crisis. But take your five-year IPL deal, in business there are phases – first investment, followed by breaking even, and then profits. So, this economic slump after two IPL seasons, is it a good time or bad?
A: Of course, it was the wrong time for the whole world. But IPL has been very good for us. So have been the ICC and also the other cricket rights that we have. And you have seen after all this, we took New Zealand cricket rights and only recently we took the rights of South Africa cricket too.
So, it’s not that we ever stopped. It has hurt us greatly; but it has hurt everybody. So, I won’t read too much into this. For us, the two big challenging scenarios are: if cricket doesn’t work or the economy’s not good. But we know that cricket works; there is no question about it. The key question in our minds is the how the Indian economy will perform. How strongly and quickly it rebounds from the COVID setback.
Q: During the 2008 slump, you focused on your core competence, which was entertainment. It proved to be a good move. So, what is your core competence now – is it entertainment or sports or is it cricket?
A: The big difference between 2008 and 2020 is that Star is far more diversified; it is much bigger and much deeper in this country. In 2008, we were just doing entertainment, nothing else. At that point, we had a sports business but that was a joint venture with ESPN.
I think the core competence of the company, The Walt Disney and Star in India, is our ability to be creative, bold and disruptive. I think the media business is going through a very deep fundamental transition where it is becoming more and more disintermediated and leaning towards direct to consumer. Don’t forget that we have about 200 million television sets in homes in this country and we already have more than double of that number by way of mobile devices, each with a screen and with data access. Over the next few years, we will be about 250 million TV sets and there will be about 700-750 million mobile screens. So right now, the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge is how do we make sure that in countries like India, the mobile device becomes the default mode of content consumption.
We have a sustainable economic model. Our subscription service ‘Disney plus Hotstar’ and the way we have invested in technology and consumer experience should hold us in good stead.
Q: How big is the logistical hurdle of holding cricket behind closed doors? Like we are seeing in European football, things like testing, isolation and keeping players away from their families.
A: It will be a challenge and we are required to deal with it for the first time. But it will get easier. Look, on Day 1 of lockdown, even using sanitiser and mask was a big disruption. I heard so many people say that they were not able to breathe properly. Now everybody is wearing masks. We will get used to it.
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