Network plans emerging as Asia economy booms

HONG KONG — Star TV’s chief operating officer Laureen Ong will give a keynote speech at the Oct. 17 Asia Pacific Entertainment and Media Summit in L.A. on the future of Asia as a leading entertainment market. At the end of the month her boss, Star CEO Paul Aiello will similarly address pay TV bosses at Hong Kong’s Casbaa convention.

Explanations about the strategic direction of the News Corp.-owned Asian satcaster cannot come soon enough. Concerns are mounting about the Hong Kong-based org’s approach to the world’s two largest developing markets India and China.

In the latter, despite Rupert Murdoch’s wooing, Star has failed to secure full access to the country’s airwaves and last year cut its stake in Mandarin broadcaster Phoenix. In India, where Star not only has access it has market leadership, its lead is being trimmed and revenues are dropping.

Now the company  has been hit by a wave of senior and middle-management changes.

The Hong Kong-based org announced platform prexy David Butorac’s resignation Oct. 9. That was followed Oct. 10 by the news that Ross Crowley, Star’s senior VP of programming, will ankle. Butorac will leaves in early 2008 and be retained as a consultant. Crowley’s exit is imminent.

More resignations are expected, according to sources close to the company, though Star spokesman Jannie Poon described as “absolute nonsense” talk that network creative director Bill Browning might be leaving.

Poon says Star is making appointments and shifting staff between units.

Internal memos announced new hires including: Todd Lituchy, as prexy of Star Entertainment, who is joining from Viasat; Donovan Castillo-Mohlman VP, program strategy and development, joining from Viasat in the U.K., and David Searl, joining as senior VP of production.

David Wisnia moves from Fox Sports to join Star as VP distribution and sales based in a new Star content and production office in the U.S. Role includes sales of Indian and Chinese content.

In August, the company appointed Anthony Day to a new post of executive VP, strategy and development, based in Hong Kong.

Latest movements follow top-level upheavals in Hong Kong and Mumbai at the beginning of the year.

In January the twin heads of Star in India, Peter Mukerjea and Sameer Nair, resigned following a failed 2006 reorganization, which split the Indian company in two. Long the dominant pay TV channels group in India, Star is seeing its lead shrink and ratings erode.

The same month Michelle Guthrie announced she was quitting as Star CEO in Hong Kong from March. She was followed out the door by chief operating officer Steve Askew.

Aiello, a former investment banker who had been with the group less than a year was promoted to CEO Star Group, while Uday Shankar was recruited as chief operating officer of Star India and former National Geographic head Laureen Ong as Askew’s replacement in Hong Kong.

At first, Aiello traveled several times per month to India to manage change. Poon reports that Aiello has become a less frequent flyer. “The strategy is now in place,” she says.

The company has announced diversification into other local language channels in India and told investment analysts that channel launches are in the cards.

Other sources, however, contend that incoming execs lack Asian experience or lack experience of management in multichannel TV environment.

“Hiring so many expatriates seems to be going backward, away from the News Corp. strategy of localization,” says one.

But Poon says localization was alive and well. She cites last week’s hiring of Keertan Adyanthaya as VP and g.m. of Star Plus, from Indian rival VH1 as an example. She says part of Hong Kong HQ operation supports local divisions in Greater China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. “The creative talent needs to be local.”

Poon adds the company is attending campus recruitment fairs in the U.S. to hire for Asia. “We are looking at luring back ethnically Asian executives as returnees for China and India.”

In India, Star has been the dominant pay TV channel, but as with other Hindi-language general entertainment channels, its ratings are wilting as more new channels bow and fragment the sector.

Poon says the problems have less to do with Star and more to do with Asia’s booming economies and supply and demand conditions in executive recruitment markets.

“Every (TV) company’s management teams have problems,” she says. “Salaries in India are rising. They are on a par with Hong Kong or Singapore, but this is India we are talking about where ad sales have not grown as fast as salaries,” says Poon.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more