Deepak Shourie | Dancing with the idea of change

Deepak Shourie | Dancing with the idea of change

The director for BBC Worldwide Channels, South Asia, and their television channel BBC Entertainment, is a newspaper junkie. “I read seven or eight newspapers every morning— that’s where I get my fix," says Deepak Shourie. It may be a clue to how, or why, over the last 15 years of his media career he’s started or headed as many media outlets himself.

If you read seven newspapers a day, the idea of competitive co-existence clearly exists. That can only be a good attitude for someone spearheading a relatively new entrant into a TV market that is already fiercely competitive. “I also watch all the news channels," he says. That’s once he’s already got the headlines off the Internet.

Tee-totaller: Shourie is a passionate golfer, which he says is ‘good for health and business’. Jayachandran/Mint

“Your generation won’t even need to read newspapers," he says. “In the US, no one under 35 reads them any more." I write for one, I protest, and he laughs, something he does often during our conversation.

You don’t get to be channel head without a sense of humour.

Shourie, 61, took charge last year, coming to his new project at a moment of transition in the subcontinent’s history with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In January, the BBC announced that it would shut down BBC Hindi, a radio news service that has run for over seven decades in India, on 1 April. In February, BBC Worldwide began its first major marketing drive in India for BBC Entertainment, its non-news-based television channel that airs the channel’s entertainment, lifestyle and factual programming.

Adverse reactions over the announcement about BBC Hindi indicated the standard of credibility associated with it. “It’s an amazing brand," Shourie says. “I remember a time before instant news took over, when it was the only radio news channel that you relied on to get your world news and reporting. But things have changed—the media has changed."

Shourie should know. In 1988, when he got a call from India Today’s editor-in-chief Aroon Purie, asking him to work for him, Shourie initially demurred. “I said to him, ‘I’m not the journalist, my brother is’" (his brother is writer and politician Arun Shourie). “Aroon said, ‘I’m not looking for a journalist, I’m looking for a general manager.’"

In 1994, Shourie left to start Outlook, a news magazine that would become a competitor to his old publication. Outlook and its competition with India Today would make history. “I used to say, a fortnight in news doesn’t work. I remember (former Union minister) Jaswant Singh coming to one of our meetings and saying, ‘This would be exciting to read—but it’s too late!’ That’s how we made the weekly pattern the norm."

Later stints included managing Hindustan Times (Mint is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Hindustan Times), Zee Publishing, Discovery India and their lifestyle channel, Travel and Living (now called TLC). Evidently, Shourie is a great believer in change—which is not a word habitually associated with BBC in many parts of the world. Tuning in to BBC’s news services in any language, listening to announcers and journalists report on world affairs in their famously unruffled, measured tones, may fool listeners into thinking precisely the opposite—that some things never change. But, of course, they do.

“Indian TV right now is basically hooked on American content," Shourie says. “Everybody’s running Friends, or CSI. But British programmes haven’t been seen. So we asked, if you’ve not seen a lot of the British content—why not?"

BBC Worldwide alone produces 20,000 hours of programming every year, which is huge. Most of this may be unheard of, or at least unseen, in India, but Shourie and his team have the advantage of instant recognition—at least every English speaker in the country knows about BBC.

Taken together, the TV audience today stands at 72.5 million people. “If you do the math, that’s about 18 million homes," Shourie explains. There’s also the power ratio to consider—an old statistic had it that English newspapers made up 15% of the country’s circulation, but hoovered up 55% of the advertising. “That’s changed a bit—but I’d still put the advertising figure at not less than 48%," Shourie says. “It may not be true that the English viewer is more affluent, more outgoing, more willing to spend, better travelled—but that’s perception for you."

Into this advertising market, worth almost $200 million (around 904 crore) annually, and currently packed near-exclusively into India’s major urban areas, BBC Entertainment will beam its revamped programming through its single mixed-genres channel. For fans of the sort of vintage television that made British comedy legendary, a word of caution—brand new BBC does not indicate perpetual re-runs of Blackadder and Monty Python sketches. “We need to change associations," Shourie says.

A new season of the already-famous Dancing with the Stars began to air on 24 February; publicity for the always-popular Top Gear, as well as Human Planet, an eight-part documentary on human interaction with the environment, has begun in force. “Three programmes that highlight three categories we’re focusing on," Shourie says, “entertainment, lifestyle programming and factual content."

He chuckles. “I know. Dancing with the Stars! How many people sit up and think, ‘Wow, what happened to the BBC?’"

With its content mix, the channel seems to combine the experience of TLC and Discovery, Shourie’s former channels, with a British variant on Star World. While studying their target audience, Shourie says, they realized the viewers of these channels and their own occupied the same geography. So instead of being splintered into niche channels, those three categories melded to add texture and variety to their single channel. “The viewer for each kind of programme is of the same demographic.."

“I realized something when I worked at Discovery," he says. “Globally, they were tanking at certain points of the day because they were blasting the channel with a single kind of programme that had started out well—tattoo television, like Monster Garage, Monster House. But people won’t watch one full episode of that sort of thing. It’s television you snack on."

Nor is BBC Entertainment all about tigers killing deer at family-friendly hours either (“you watch that for about 5 minutes at a time too"). Among its new shows, says Shourie, “BBC Earth and Monarchy at Work will both excite people. But there’s also Spooks, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who—an amazing mix."

But will it lure his demographic away from its remarkable affection for those Friends re-runs? “I don’t think you need to lure a viewer away," he says, after a diplomatic pause. “People would welcome a choice."

There may be no BBC Entertainment Hindi for a while yet, but India-specific content may come not too far into the future. “It’s always a good idea," he says. “Particularly in lifestyle programming—you’d rather see an Indian home, not a British one." More immediately exciting, however, is the thought of the storehouse of India-specific programming sitting buried in the BBC’s massive libraries, stretching back decades. “A new BBC look has to rely on the best it has to offer," he says.

Is there any time in the day left to watch the competition? Shourie won’t say. “I must be one of the few people in the country who watches DD Bharati," he replies. “I do it because I love classical music."

We pause to contemplate an alternate universe, one in which India’s own official television channel plays a role similar to the one BBC does for Britain. “If it were packaged well, it could be India’s ambassador of culture to the world," Shourie says, contemplatively, and then smiles. “What more can I say?"