The rise of the media-savvy IT leader
Illustration: Bo Lundberg
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The rise of the media-savvy IT leader

Cindy Waxer – December 2015

How digital content is raising the bar for technology professionals in the media and entertainment sector.

 

From Hulu and Netflix to Canalplay and NowTV, never before has such an array of video streaming platforms been so widely available to audiences globally. At the same time, any notion of a fixed location for watching content has long gone — consumers now expect anytime, anywhere access to entertainment on smartphones, tablets and laptops.


Within the media and entertainment (M&E) industry, those changing patterns of content consumption are having a dramatic impact on the sector — and IT’s pivotal role in its delivery.


Forget about rolling out ERP modules and issuing security patches: today’s M&E CIO must know how to manage experimental business models, track consumer behaviour, take advantage of cutting-edge tools and ensure content can be targeted at any number of different devices.

 

“When you create a production, the end point isn’t a TV screen anymore,” says Shadrach Kisten, senior vice president of IT at Sesame Workshop, the New York City-based non-profit organization whose flagship educational TV program Sesame Street has delighted children for decades. “Now it’s a website, it’s Roku, it’s Amazon Fire TV, it’s iPad, iPhone or a multitude of Android devices. So the content has to adapt and it needs to change to be responsive to those types of devices.”

Customizing content

headshotbedemacarthy
    Bede McCarthy, Financial Times

But that’s not all. M&E CIOs must also rely on new strategies and skillsets to meet the demands of an increasingly digital landscape. Just ask Bede McCarthy. McCarthy is the director of product at the Financial Times (FT) in London. According to McCarthy, digital media has “really revolutionized what we would have described as distribution in the old world. Now the FT’s digital subscriptions are at more than half a million and growing. Print is still strong but, for us, it’s really about how technology is moving our customers and that we’re moving with them.”

 

With more and more customers moving to digital platforms for their business and economic news, the FT has evolved from a 127-year-old print publication into a digital juggernaut with 520,000 online subscribers, a flagship web app and a strong mobile readership. In fact, the FT increased paid circulation (print and digital) by 9% to 737,000 in the first six months of 2015, thanks in large part to a 14% uptick in online readers. 

 

There are a number of ways the FT is building up its digital audience. Currently, the company, which was acquired by Japanese rival Nikkei this July for $1.3 billion, is revamping its website, FT.com, so that it caters more directly to readers’ areas of interest. “People are now looking to carve the content up in ways that really suit them,” says McCarthy. For this reason, McCarthy says future iterations of FT.com will provide readers with types of content that they’ve specifically shown interest in. In turn, readers will be able to receive automatic notifications as related news breaks.

 

McCarthy describes this innovative approach to curating and delivering content as “an editorial filter which takes away some of the noise that [readers] get out there in the market.” As a result, FT.com will enable digital subscribers to “go straight to what’s relevant to them” for a more customized experience.

“With digital you can be really ruthless, identifying what customers are after and how they are behaving with your product.”

To help package this content, McCarthy says the FT relies on a potent mix of data analytics tools and internal talent. Technology solutions include web analytics tool Chartbeat and a handful of proprietary applications that help the FT measure how consumers are interacting with its print and digital properties, as well as determine what tweaks will lead to deeper engagement. For example, after months of examining customer behaviour data, McCarthy says the FT opted to transition from metered access to FT.com, which lets online readers view about 10 articles for free a month, to a month-long trial period.

 

“The print industry is very much a hunch, personality-driven approach,” says McCarthy. “With digital, you can be really ruthless, identifying what customers are after and looking at the way that they’re behaving with your product.”

 

Data analytics has also helped the FT identify important spikes in traffic — patterns that indicate when readers will be most receptive to receiving content. “We just didn’t know that much about [customer behaviour] in print terms,” says McCarthy. “With digital, we actually know what they’re consuming, how they’re behaving and what kinds of content they’re really interested in, and we can feed that back into the newsroom.”

New media, new business models

The FT isn’t the only traditional media corporation converting audiences’ demand for digital content into new and innovative business models. Take, for example, Sony Liv. Sony Entertainment’s video-on-demand service lets viewers watch popular entertainment shows from their preferred digital device, when and wherever they want. As with many other platforms, audiences can choose to view content online or download the Sony Liv app to view content from their smartphone.

Ajay Kumar Meher, Sony Entertainment Television
      Ajay Kumar Meher, Sony

Leveraging Internet-centric devices to deliver content is creating fresh revenue streams for established media conglomerates such as Sony Entertainment Television. “In the earlier days, when we had the content, we used it for television broadcast and that’s it,” says Ajay Kumar Meher, senior vice president and head of IT and post production at Sony Entertainment Television in India. “Today, because particular pieces of content are available in digital form, there are various ways to reuse that particular content.”

 

Meher points to today’s burgeoning over-the-top (OTT) content market in which TV providers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are delivering content over the Internet, bypassing the involvement of cable or satellite television broadcasters. In fact, according to a report from Juniper research, OTT TV providers are expected to generate $31.6 billion by 2019 — a significant leap from just under $8 billion last year.

“Technology in the media space was previously more about corporate systems. Now the landscape is changing and the IT department needs to adapt and find new talent.”

Shadrach Kisten, Sesame Workshop
      Shadrach Kisten, Sesame Workshop
Niche video streaming is another content delivery strategy that’s turning the traditional broadcasting model on its head. Sesame Workshop, for example, now offers SesameStreetGO, a free subscription streaming service that lets parents introduce Big Bird and other popular characters to their children via a smartphone or tablet. Sesame joins a growing list of M&E titans, including HBO and CBS, that have recently launched subscription streaming services. “Our company recognizes that we do need to create content to engage users to meet our mission, which is to make kids smarter, stronger and kinder,” says Kisten.

 

However, designing and developing SesameStreetGo was far from child’s play. “Typically, technology in the media space was more about corporate systems like email, database systems and files,” says Kisten. “But now because of the changing landscape, the IT department needs to adapt, which means finding the new talent and the skillsets that are necessary.”

 

Now that the end device is no longer simply the television screen, Kisten says IT professionals working within the M&E industry must move beyond software development skills to embrace an “understanding of the creation, the distribution and the maintenance of new types of content” on a multitude of devices including the smartphone, tablets, consoles and set-top boxes. In fact, Kisten says Sesame’s own IT team “needed to adapt, our technology needed to change and our design processes change.”

 

Hiring practices have also evolved. Kisten says he now looks for IT candidates with the “flexibility, the enthusiasm and the mindset required to shift from a traditional IT background to a media space.”

From server rooms to the boardroom

The role of IT in the M&E industry is also transforming as CIOs play a larger part in shaping content and testing new delivery platforms. Says Kisten: “I have to make sure that IT is not just a service organization; that we’re part of the business. So my job has changed; I need to wear that cap of being a business leader and not necessarily a technology leader. It’s not about ‘break and fix’ anymore: in this space, it’s about the mission, the brand and the business.”

 

Meher agrees. “For the role of the CIO or the CTO in an organization, technology is only a small aspect. Business is now the bigger aspect of these roles and mapping the business with the technology is critical,” he says.

 

To ensure that its IT projects line up with corporate objectives, the FT established an audience engagement team within its editorial department. This cross-discipline group work together to conceive of creative ways to package and deliver content based on data analytics findings. According to McCarthy, it’s not a question of whether a digital initiative “can reach more people, but are they the right kind of people, are they the quality of audience that our advertisers would be interested in and are they the kind of people who would be likely to subscribe to the FT.”

Keeping the lines of communication open

But television and online audiences aren’t the only people who must be carefully handled as the M&E industry evolves. Rolling out innovative IT projects can upset existing business models. As Meher highlights, with the introduction of many new digital services, “you are inevitably impacting your existing business to make something new.”

 

To calm nerves, he says it’s critical that IT leaders garner support from other stakeholders by establishing any initiative’s goals, scope, timeframe and costs upfront. “On digital projects today, you may think there is definite growth potential. But if the CEO of the organization wants to make money on Day 1 on a particular IT project, that’s something that needs to be managed well,” says Meher. “Any digital project will have its own timeframe to reach monetization, and needs to be understood.”

 

In fact, there are few guarantees in today’s changing M&E industry. For instance, many organizations are still struggling to find ways to make streaming via mobile a profitable venture. It’s why McCarthy says the FT is busy “exploring richer ad formats and formats that are responsive to different screen sizes” in an effort to strike a balance between delivering sponsored advertisements and a positive mobile experience.

 

What business models, on-demand services and platforms will win out in today’s battle for viewers remains to be seen. What is certain is that the M&E industry’s technology professionals will have to be open to sweeping changes in both technology, and what’s expected of them, to stay on top.

First published December 2015
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