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After mid-2000s success building the Star TV empire into one of India’s top broadcasters and the dominant local streaming service, James Murdoch and Uday Shankar are back with a new project. Murdoch and Shankar, Disney’s former president in Asia Pacific, unveiled an ambitious new partnership Jan. 14 targeting digital business opportunities in India and Southeast Asia. But details of the venture, including its name and exact strategy, are scarce.
Hal Vogel, CEO of Vogel Capital Management, tells The Hollywood Reporter that the venture will be able to tap into the relationship between Murdoch and Shankar and their expansive networks. “They have known each other a long time, and Shankar is very well-connected in India media,” he says.
Murdoch has long held an interest in India. “Over 20 years ago, James Murdoch was amongst the first to recognize the economic future of India and to invest significantly in bringing modern media to India,” notes Claire Enders, founder of London-based Enders Analysis.
Murdoch told the Financial Times that the venture with Shankar will be a “major priority” and a “center of gravity” for Lupa Systems, the holding firm he launched in March 2019 with his $2 billion share of the Murdoch family’s windfall from the $71.3 billion sale of 21st Century Fox to the Walt Disney Co.
The “crowded” Indian streaming space will not be a target for the new enterprise, Murdoch has said, but a range of other digital sectors that recently have undergone notable growth in the country are all on the table, including digital media, online education and health care delivery. (In 2019, Comcast and Lupa Systems were in talks to buy a controlling 51 percent stake in India broadcaster and streaming platform Zee Entertainment but were rebuffed, but they were rebuffed when the owners decided to sell a minority holding to U.S. investment group Invesco instead.)
Adds Enders: “It makes a lot of sense for him to ride a new wave of interest and investment in remote education, remote health and remote working in one of the economies with the most potential for those services.”
Thus far, Murdoch’s Lupa has put money into the likes of Vice Media, Tribeca Film Festival owner Tribeca Enterprises, comic book publisher Artists, Writers & Artisans, virtual reality startup The Void and events organizer Art Basel. But his new venture with Shankar is expected to leverage the Indian executive’s track record at taking acquired businesses and bundling them, rather than simply placing venture capital bets. Although the partners have described their ambitions as expansive, many industry watchers in the Asia-Pacific region speculate whether the entrepreneurs will lean on their operational expertise.
Shankar began his media career in news, launching the Hindi-language news channel Aaj Tak in 2000, then served as CEO and editor of Star News, which was India’s first 24-hour news channel. “James is known to have a passion for news, and he’s had his greatest success with Uday in that area,” one insider tells THR, adding: “The Indian news business is going through a tough time in the television space, and no one has been able to make money out of the digital space — I would not be surprised to see them try to disrupt and capitalize there.”
Vivek Couto, director of regional consultancy Media Partners Asia, notes that whatever they target, an intimate understanding of local cultural dynamics and trends is becoming increasingly important as India’s digital economy moves into later stages of its development. “Such locality combined with capital, connectivity and expertise to scale has become vital, and it’s in this context that the partnership of Uday Shankar and James Murdoch has real relevance,” he explains. “Great things do, however, take plenty of time to build, as will this enterprise.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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