Having worked in the M&E industry for nearly two decades, Gaurav Banerjee, President (Hindi and English Entertainment), Star India, brings to the table his sharp journalistic acumen along with deep insights into business and creative processes to steer Star India network into a new era of programming where technology, and content with global appeal is set to be the new normal By Natarajan Vidyasagar and Vivek Ratnakar
Starting his career as a TV news journalist at Aaj Tak in 2000 and then moving to Star News where he covered the general elections and a budget show, Gaurav Banerjee, President (Hindi and English Entertainment), Star India, is among the league of extraordinary TV professionals who have redefined TV viewing experience for the masses in India. “Uday Shankar is one of my major influencer and transformative leader in my professional
career,” says Gaurav.
A sincere and intelligent person with a penchant for research, his grip on his viewers has been remarkable. He has been successful in combining creativity with business with his choice of programs to help Star climb the ladder of success. It is, therefore, not surprising that in a career spanning nearly two decades, he has emerged as one of the major pillars of the Indian M&E industry with a lot of similarities with Uday Shankar, President of The Walt Disney Company Asia Pacific, and Chairman of Star India and The Walt Disney Company India, who like him had an illustrious career at Aaj Tak and Star News and was greatly benefitted by the sharp acumen of a journalist combined with a keen sense of creativity and business and the ability to feel the pulse of millions of consumers. Gaurav was reporting to Sanjay Gupta, MD Star and Disney India.
Gaurav has worked with both Uday Shankar and Sanjay Gupta closely and is now charged with transforming the network in an era, where new technologies, platforms and shifting consumer choices are increasingly disrupting the M&E industry.
“It’s been a series of happy accidents,” says Gaurav in an exclusive interview with Pickle. “Personally, for me, it’s been a privilege to have been part of this team. And of course, I’ve learned a lot,” he adds.
“Sanjay was my boss for 10 years and I learned a lot from him. But I think the real strength of Star is our team as a whole. And Star has incredible number of very talented people. And I think the fact that we have the best talent in the industry and we have a culture and spirit that allows a lot of that talent to flourish has made us successful.”
Gaurav admits that good work “keeps me inspired and excited” and hopes to “do a few things which will set the framework for a healthier industry”.
The fact that he started his career in a news room has to do a lot with his unique perspective on what viewers want. “In the newsroom when you go in, you don’t really know how that day will shape up. So you just bring in your skills, your intelligence, some of the reading that you might have done. And then it’s about your reflexes, and about what can you add to a story that makes it truly come alive for your fans,” he says while reflecting on his career as a journalist.
He recalls that when 9/11, the world trade center attack in New York happened, he was in the newsroom and Uday Shankar was in the control room, trying to figure out what to do and what perspective to give. “It was really clear that we were witnessing something happening right before us, which is going to change the world forever. That was one real massive moment at the start of my career at Aaj Tak in particular.”
Underscoring his learnings from this incident, he says, “It might seem deeply naïve today, but I didn’t look at weekly rating numbers. And I think nobody actually did except for the senior leadership. But for the rank and file, we were so convinced that we were the best news channel that everything else kind of didn’t matter. I have no idea what the ratings were before that or what they became after that. I have to honestly say that it was an interesting learning.” Gaurav believes that over-thinking the results often undermines what is needed to be done.
Another memory he shares is that from 2005 when he was in the newsroom and Mumbai got more rain that night than Cherrapunji had ever recorded in the recorded history of rainfall in this country. “I was sitting on the ticker when this story flashed. I couldn’t really believe what I was reading.” Star News that day decided to “drop everything else, and just stay with the story. We decided that the agony and the spirit of Mumbai should come alive in our coverage. And I thought that one moment was truly the moment which became the making of Star News.”
However, there is a huge difference in the way stories are conceived in TV and a journalistic thinking of visualizing a story. “Uday Shankar had always been very deeply involved in the creative process at Star. And, we talked about how we could reflect India’s concerns all the time. And how do we show it in a manner that is very, very responsible that inspires people,” says Gaurav.
He adds that one of the big distinctions for Star was its tagline, “Inspiring a Billion Imaginations”, which “has led to some very different programming”.
“A few years ago, we did the show Satyamev Jayate and it was a very unconventional show for an entertainment network. But for Star it seemed like absolutely the right decision. The way we went about doing it, the scale of investments that we put in, the way the scheduling happened, and the way it was marketed put a very different stamp on what entertainment means,” he says proudly.
“We were so proud of the show. We wanted lots and lots of people to see it wherever they could.”
So, what’s next in programming that could prove to be a game-changer for the Indian Media & Entertainment industry? “If we see the current trend, you know, now it’s the documentary series that are becoming one of the trending elements globally,” he says.
Gaurav is also a trained documentary filmmaker, and he admits that “it’s a fascinating way to tell a story… but honestly, we have not done a lot of it. Though we did one interesting documentary last year but perhaps that was more of a one off. It’s something that I have some feeling for personally. Hopefully, when there is a right subject we can do something which is interesting, exciting and meaningful. I think documentaries is something that we can really open up a wide massive Canvas for. And that’s an opportunity that we haven’t really applied our minds to yet.”
On the evolving diversity of content viewing audience, Gaurav is clear that Star sees itself as a content company first. “We are about those stories we tell and the impact that those stories could have on viewers. And I think everything else sort of comes after that. So as far as I’m concerned, I see myself as a content guy first, deeply interested in shows, writers, in the physical worlds that we are creating, and trying to input it into making our stories richer, more diverse, and more contemporary.”
He also believes that everything else is about monetization, different brands and different distribution frameworks that are continuously
evolving, “and we need to stay ahead of those curves”.
“We need to understand where our viewers are, we need to adapt as far as technology is concerned. While doing all that we want to be the place where the best writers come with their most exciting ideas. And hopefully we sort of become their partners in taking those ideas and making them very big. So personally for me, the width of brands is very exciting. But essentially it’s doing something similar across the board.” He cites the examples of Star Ananda and Star Jalsa, which he helped launch and he feels that “they’re very similar brands. One speaks in Bangla, the other in Hindi”.
Speaking on the importance of data, Gaurav believes that there are “some insights you can get from data, as a lot of us really like to speak to consumers. And, you pick up themes from there. I think Star is a very, very strong consumer company. And we can definitely leverage that. We are sometimes guided by that, but honestly, that’s rare. Usually it is, you know, your heart beats for a particular story, and in a way that someone is thinking about it or narrating it, and you hope that you’ve got it right. The nature of the business is that sometimes you do get it right and many times get it wrong. And then you have to humbly except and learn something, hopefully, and then move to trying something different.”
With English Channel programming added to his job profile, Gaurav has found an innovative way to address the new challenge of convergence in audiences in both language mediums. “it’s a recent development that has happened and I’m particularly excited about it. We just had the release of Avengers and Aladin. And both those movies did really, really well. The new thing that we have done is that we are putting these movies simultaneously across our network. So they come not just on Star Movies, but for example, in Hindi also on Star Gold. So that’s an innovation that has happened very recently, which is very exciting. It sort of allows the marketing to happen together. And the viewership that we got for Avengers was pretty phenomenal, which was very exciting. And I think there is much more to come, hopefully in the days ahead.”
“One of them I’m happy to share with you will be the premiere of The Lion King. And that was a really, really amazing movie. It did wonderfully well in India as well as globally. It has Shah Rukh Khan and his son doing the voiceover in Hindi. So hopefully there’s a lot that fans have to look forward to,” he adds.
However, there is also a fear in the industry that COVID-19 will have adverse impact in terms of broadcast and TV business. “Our hope, and our strategy is to really try and see that we can keep a big part of the viewership share. And I think if we can continue to do that, we will continue to be able to make big investments into content. Content investments are a strategic part of our business. We do not think about them as what will be right for one or two quarters. We’re taking the long view on this. We continue to remain deeply committed to being the company that is most invested in high quality storytelling and in curating the best possible stories. So I think, there a road bump or two along the way in the next quarter or two. But we’re here for the long haul, and we are deeply committed to content, which is our most critical resource and our biggest strength.”
Gaurav is also in the leadership team to Originals at Disney+Hotstar. With the rise of OTT platforms globally, an opportunity has presented itself for Indian content to move to other markets. However, this is still not happening at a pace the Indian M&E industry would like it to move. According to Gaurav for that to happen “we need to be more ambitious”.
“When we have a deeply local, authentic storytelling style, and bring in a universal insight it makes content travel. I think that’s something that we need to do. Those are the kind of scripts that people like me and others like to commission. But I also think that the challenge with a lot of content that we have done, if I were to be self critical, is that it’s only looking at the Indian market.”
“If we get the insight right, and it’s a universal insight, then it will work very well in India as well and be able to travel across the world,” says Gaurav citing the example of Slumdog Millionaire, an Indian story written by an Indian with the insight which is truly global.
He is hopeful that India can get into that space. “Say for example, in the next three, four or five years, we will be able to tell such stories. We are not the same India as what we were a few years back.”
However, he adds a caveat, that “if we cannot do that in the next five, then yes, we have let go of a massive opportunity. And we need to find a way around it.”
Q. What comes first, creativity or business?
A. Creativity. Good creativity leads to great business.
Q. What do you binge watch?
A. Haha, I like a wide range of shows and films. So I watch a lot.
Q. Do you read fiction?
A. I’m not unfortunately a very big fiction reader, but I should read more. But I do read a lot of current affairs.
Q. Who has the major influence in your life?
A. My father and my mother have massive influence on me. Both of them were teachers. And then my father became a public servant and a writer. So he’s always been a massive influence. I’ve had the great privilege of working with Uday Shankar for a very long time. And I’ve learned a lot from him. So he’s a absolute great influence as well. Also, I have a 14-year old son who also influences me to a great extent.
Q. Did you ever visualize when you were starting off that you will enjoy what you’re doing now?
A. No, of course not. I always thought that I would probably spend my life in TV journalism