Innovation and technology leadership are qualities, much like creativity or wisdom, that aren’t always easy to define or reduce to a simple formula. Yet, it is easy to recognize why the members of the 14th annual Broadcasting & Cable Technology Leadership Award class, whose work spans virtually every part of the TV industry, are viewed by their peers as true technology trendsetters.
Two of this year’s award winners—Colleen Brown at Fisher Communications and Jim Ocon at Gray Television—have made their mark by adapting newer technologies to local broadcast stations. A third, Jerry Steinberg at Fox Sports, has had a distinguished career first in cable and then at a national broadcaster. Two other honorees—Angie Simmons at QVC and Michael Koetter at CNN—have established their reputations for technology leadership in cable. The sixth award winner—Chris Cookson at Sony—had a long career of innovation in broadcasting before moving to the Hollywood studios, where his work on digital technologies is transforming the way content is both created and distributed to consumers.
Looking at the achievements of these honorees offers a few common themes. Much of their work reflects both creativity in the traditional broadcast infrastructure as well as resourcefulness in adopting technologies from outside the industry to strengthen the power of more traditional television businesses.
In many cases, they have also been grappling with some of the most important technical and business issues affecting the TV industry. How can TV companies deliver more content to more platforms? What can they do to streamline their operations? And how can new technologies be used to better serve local communities and audiences?
The answers the 2011 Technology Leadership Award winners have supplied to those questions is probably the best definition of innovation anyone can offer. With this year’s honorees, the list of B&C tech leaders swells to 65 members. The current class is to be feted April 11 at our annual event in Las Vegas, site of the NAB convention.
Colleen B. Brown
Fisher CEO Redefines Local Media with New Technologies
When Colleen Brown arrived at Fisher Communications Inc. as president and CEO in 2005, she joined a company with serious operational problems. Some broadcast veterans might have approached the issues by simply focusing on the traditional broadcast operations that produce most of the company’s revenue. But Brown, who has been in the industry since 1980, decided on a much more radical approach, which explains why she is one of this year’s Technology Leadership Award winners.
“We needed to strengthen traditional broadcast but at the same time we couldn’t wait on developing new media,” she recalls. “So we created this strategic plan based on the idea this wasn’t going to be traditional media 1.0 or just a fresh coat of paint. We were going to fundamentally change how we thought about media and reinvent how we thought about local media.”
Implementing that strategy has been hard—the toughest thing Brown has faced in her career, she says. But in the last six years, she has relentlessly stuck to the plan by launching a number of industry-leading digital initiatives, including a robust network of over 120 hyperlocal neighborhood sites, a multiplatform effort called “Buzz Brands,” and the beginning of mobile digital-TV broadcast in the Seattle and Portland markets.
These digital efforts are still small—online revenue accounts for only 4% of Fisher’s overall television total—but they are growing fast, climbing 73% in 2010, and helping strengthen the company’s traditional broadcast operations.
In a March call with analysts on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings, Fisher reported that its stations have increased their audiences and have been expanding their market share. That jump helped boost Fisher’s fourth-quarter television revenue by 61%, the largest increase among seven pure-play broadcasting companies tracked by M.C. Alcamo & Co. Even better, full-year 2010 revenue and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization were the best Fisher had produced in a decade.
Such successes illustrate how Brown has used technology to strengthen both Fisher and the broadcast industry, colleagues note. “Colleen is a true broadcasting leader,” John Connors, a partner at the venture capital firm Ignition Partners, who serves on the board of directors of DataSphere Technologies with Brown, writes in an email. “She was one of the first executives to embrace the disruptive nature that technology would have on the industry, and was ahead of the wave in preparing her company to compete and win in this fragmented environment. By combining the power of traditional broadcast with technological advancements, Colleen has transformed Fisher into a leader in local media innovation.”
That technology leadership is also evident in her industry-wide work on mobile DTV as one of the founders, and current president, of the Mobile500 Alliance, which is working to develop business models for mobile broadcasts.
“Mobile DTV broadcasts are the natural next extension of what we do,” says Brown, who has already rolled out the technology in Fisher’s Seattle and Portland markets.
Brown’s ability to work with a wide array of other broadcasters, content-rights holders and consumer electronics companies to help develop the technology, is another example of her qualities of leadership, notes John Lawson, executive director of the Mobile500.
“Colleen’s pioneering work with hyper-local sites and mobile shows she’s an extremely effective businesswoman who can really connect the dots between technology and new services that create new revenue for broadcasters,” Lawson says. “More than most broadcasters, she is really open to new alliances and new ways of doing business.”
Sony Digital Pioneer Works to Streamline Production and Distribution
Despite the almost universal use of digital files in the creation of movies and TV fare, digital production and distribution can still be a cumbersome, thorny process that often wastes time and incurs unnecessary expenses.
To change that, Sony has been working to streamline how digital files are created, distributed and used. The ultimate goal is to be able to move a file seamlessly from a camera through the entire production and distribution process “without the physical steps that have slowed down the creation and distribution of content throughout the industry’s history,” notes Chris Cookson, who is president, Sony Pictures Technologies at Sony Pictures Entertainment and chief officer of the Sony 3D Technology Center at Sony Corp. of America.
“For the last 100 years we’ve asked the creative minds to work around the limitations of their tools,” Cookson adds. “What we are to trying to develop are tools that are almost transparent to the creative mind. We want to make sure people in this industry no longer have to adapt to the tools. The tools are adapted to them.”
Such efforts offer one example of how “Chris’ technical perspective on the world of entertainment is enabling us to reimagine the way we create, manage and deliver our products,” writes Michael Lynton, SPE chairman and CEO, in an email. “From our industry’s first forays in digital in the ‘80s to the emergence of 3D today, Chris has helped companies like ours navigate technological change.”
Cookson got his start in TV during the 1960s, working at a broadcast TV station in Phoenix while attending Arizona State University. Then he joined the Air Force, where he made recruitment films.
After a stint at RCA, he joined ABC in 1976, where his work in 1984 as director of the ABC and International Olympics Broadcast Centers won an Emmy for his pioneering use of digital technologies. Then, as VP and general manager of operations at the CBS Television Network from 1988 to 1992, Cookson pushed those digital technologies deeper into the broadcast infrastructure.
At Warner Bros., which he joined in 1992 and where he became chief technical officer in 1999, Cookson worked on a number of innovative projects for digital distribution, including the development of video playback on optics disks that became the DVD format. Cookson currently holds some 62 patents as an inventor or co-inventor, including a number of patents detailing technologies that were used in what eventually led to the DVD.
Since arriving at Sony, Cookson has worked to streamline those digital production and distribution efforts even further, with the 2009 launch of Sony’s innovative digital Colorworks facility and the opening of the Sony 3D Technology Center in 2010.
The latter, which is run by Cookson, has since educated more than 1,100 people in high quality 3D production techniques in the hopes that they will produce better content and improve the overall 3D market.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Cookson says, expressing a sentiment that could also apply to how his work has helped the TV industry overall.
CNN News Production Guru Plots Rapid Digital Workfllow
In the highly competitive news business, getting a big scoop isn’t worth much if a journalist gets so bogged down transmitting or encoding files that rivals get the news out first.
Overcoming that problem has been particularly important for CNN in recent years as it has ramped up its own news production and reduced its reliance on video produced by outside news agencies. By owning more of its own content, company executives hoped, CNN would distribute more news to more platforms and continue to expand the business.
“In news, the value of the video goes down exponentially over time,” notes Michael Koetter, CNN’s VP of news technology, planning and development. “The sooner you know that someone has a piece of video and the faster you can move it [to consumers on various platforms] the more valuable it can be.”
That dynamic also explains why Koetter’s work on simplifying workflows and developing production systems and media asset management systems for CNN has been so valuable to the company, notes Dan Darling, chief information officer and senior VP of technology, production and operations at Turner Broadcasting.
“Under Michael’s leadership, CNN has overcome huge technology challenges to implement an integrated content environment where original content and metadata travel the globe as files from camera through production and into the archive,” Darling explains; that, in turn, has significantly strengthened CNN’s competitive position.
Koetter began working on video production systems while getting a master’s degree in computer technology and media at Georgia Tech, where he worked on a number of cutting-edge online streaming video projects.
After graduating in 1998, he joined IXL, a Web integrator, where he worked on developing digital production systems; in 2000, he brought that expertise over to BBC Technology, where he worked on a variety of leading-edge media asset management and video production systems that are still in use.
After joining Turner in 2006, Koetter continued to focus on finding ways to streamline and improve digital workflows, while also pushing forward the company’s HD upgrades and its move to file-based workfl ows.
One significant advance in those efforts occurred last year, when CNN deployed a new HD video production and asset management system in Atlanta that is now being implemented around the world.
Thanks to that work, CNN now has “systems and workflows that work in concert with one another on common platforms and file systems,” producing significant improvements “in production time, picture quality [and] operating cost,” John Courtney, VP of CNN Image + Sound operation, writes in an email.
As important as Koetter’s work has been to the news organization, he credits Turner for encouraging technological innovation and employing many talented engineers and technologists, creating a culture that has won several of his bosses Technology Leadership Awards in the past.
“I’m really a big picture thinker,” he stresses. “Having teams of people that can really think through the problems and execute has been crucial. Being able to draw on that kind of talent is really something that is unique to CNN.”
Gray’s Top Technology VP Reengineers the Newsroom
Visitors to the Gray Television NBC affiliate WOWT in Omaha, Neb., will find a quick primer in why the station group’s VP of technology, Jim Ocon, is part of the 2011 class of Technology Leaders.
Here, as part of a strategy to reinvent the way broadcast stations run their operations, Ocon has taken the unique step of combining the news production system and master control, using just one employee to direct the news and run the control room.
Such efforts have “gone a long way toward making us a much more efficient company and, frankly, a better company because the automation innovations have actually helped to produce a better news product for our local news,” writes Bob Prather, president and COO at Gray, in a lengthy email.
By automating more of the news and play-out operations, the changes are also making it easier for Gray to deliver more content to multiple platforms and to reallocate more resources to newsgathering or its digital platforms.
At the same time, Gray has been automating operations as it moved to HD local newscasts and has used the savings from automation to fund improvements in the picture quality it is now delivering to viewers, Ocon says.
Ocon’s effort to use technology to reshape Gray’s operations draws on a career that combines experience in both traditional broadcast television technology and newer technologies from the IT and digital worlds. Ocon got his basic technology training in the Navy, but he was always interested in the broadcast craft and recalls reading up on HD technologies in the 1980s while still in the military.
After leaving the Navy, he worked for the Coast Guard on communications systems and used that experience to land a job at KNBC in Los Angeles, helping the station fix its two-way radios and communications systems. “Once I got my foot in the door, I was like a kid in a candy store and loved every second, learning my chops,” he says.
As he became an expert in broadcast technologies, Ocon’s interest in IP solutions continued to grow. In 2001, he co-founded a company that provided professional Web streaming services, and he continued experimenting with ways to combine broadcast and IP technologies at Pappas Telecasting, where he was the deputy director of engineering from 2004 to 2008. Ocon brought this perspective and experience to Gray in 2008.
To encourage that kind of innovation at the company, he created a new position called broadcast information technologist, and he has worked to “take off-the-shelf technologies and combine [them] with broadcast infrastructure all the way into the DNA of the stations,” Ocon says.
Ocon and Prather believe this will help Gray continue to improve operations in the face of a rapidly changing media landscape. “Jim realizes that there are drastic changes going on in our industry because of the encroachment of new media, and he is working to embrace all of these technologies to make sure that Gray Television stays on the forefront of innovation and creativity in the television world,” Prather says.
QVC’s Multichannel Manager Upgrades the Shopping Experience
Finding new technologies that will allow TV companies to gain more money from the Web, mobile and other digital platforms has been top-of-mind for everyone in the TV industry of late. But those efforts have been particularly aggressive and successful at QVC, where the success of its multiplatform strategy has helped earn Angie Simmons, the company’s executive VP of multichannel platforms, one of this year’s Technology Leadership Awards.
“Since joining QVC five years ago, Angie has had a tremendous impact on our technology platform,” writes Mike George, president and CEO of QVC, in an email. “When Angie joined QVC, we were largely an analogbased TV production environment with a small but growing Web business. Her work has helped transform QVC into an engaging multi-screen shopping experience.”
Simmons, who has a bachelor’s degree in business and computer education from the University of Georgia, spent eight years at Acuity Brands Lithonia Lighting before joining Turner in 1995 as manager of technical architecture.
At Turner, she rose to senior VP of network operations in 2003 as she gained valuable experience in deploying digital technologies and HD upgrades as well as launching new services.
“I was hired at Turner when they hired their first woman CIO,” she recalls. “There are a lot of great people there, and I got a great breadth of knowledge from it.”
In 2006, Simmons took that experience to QVC, overseeing operations at the network’s broadcast division as senior VP of broadcasting and TV Sales; in 2008 she was promoted to her current position. Now she leads a team of over 700 people and oversees QVC’s digital platforms as well as teams handling sales and broadcast TV operations.
Simmons says that while revamping QVC’s operations over these past few years, it was useful for her to look at technology from the perspective of a QVC shopper. “My favorite part of this job is taking the QVC experience to where our customers want to be,” she says. “I’m a QVC customer and I thought about how I would like to shop and what that experience should be.”
For starters, that meant a major HD upgrade for all of the company’s studios and then its mobile operations in 2007; that allowed QVC to launch an HD feed in 2008.
As part of that upgrade, the network also upgraded to a digital infrastructure. That has allowed it to more easily repurpose its content for multiple platforms, significantly expanding the amount of video on its website and, more recently, on smart phones and tablets.
Such efforts have helped boost online sales to about one-third of its revenue, she notes. It is also increasing the importance of QVC’s mobile operations, producing “significant revenue” George says.
“One of the key strategic advantages we have is that we can leverage our network’s live broadcast capability and our vast library of video to take that shopping experience online and to mobile and make it unique and engaging for our customers,” Simmons says.
Fox Sports’ Head of Operations Changes the Sports Tech Game
Two of the biggest changes in the TV sports landscape in the last half-century have arguably been the launch of ESPN in 1979 and the rise of Fox Sports. Being part of one of those launches would be enough to make a career, but Technology Leadership Award winner Jerry Steinberg, who has overseen the operational side of the live sports broadcasts on the Fox network since 1994, was in on the ground floor for both.
“Being part of two great start-ups has been the most fun I’ve had in this business,” says Steinberg, the senior VP of field operations at Fox Sports. “I was the engineer in charge of an ESPN truck when it first launched and then I was blessed to get a second opportunity when they launched Fox Sports.”
Throughout, Steinberg has remained passionate about sports, so much so that he calls himself a “crazy sports fan. Either I’m putting an event together on the weekend or I’m going to watch events. It is more of a lifestyle than a job. I’m doing what’s fun for me, and in life, that is a blessing.”
Over the years, that passion has made Steinberg one of the most respected sports operations managers in the business, with a distinguished record of technological innovation.
“Jerry has been a huge asset to Fox and he’s overseen multiple Emmy-winning efforts, especially in technology, where Fox has been a leader in things like audio,” notes Ken Aagaard, executive VP of operations and engineering at CBS Sports. “If I want to get a take on a technology or talk about a common problem that we all have in our positions, Jerry is going to be one of the first guys I’m going to call.”
Steinberg got his first TV experience working as a page for NBC, and he showed an early technical aptitude by renting out and installing production equipment from a friend’s showroom.
In 1979, he joined ESPN in its first season, as an engineer in charge of one of the ESPN trucks. “We went all over the country, and it was great,” he says. “It was the wild, wild west of sports TV.”
In 1984, Steinberg went freelance, working on virtually every major sporting event imaginable, from the Olympics to World Cup Soccer to the Super Bowl, before being recruited to run operations at Fox’s new sports division in 1994.
“At the time we used to call it Fox Sport because we just had the NFL,” Steinberg jokes. As those duties expanded—Steinberg now oversees operations for some 250 to 350 live events a year—he also established a reputation for deploying new sports technologies, working early on with slow-motion cameras, 3D and the expanded use of audio to capture the drama of an event.
Steinberg stresses, however, the importance of not letting technology rule. “We try not to do things simply because it’s cool and someone else did it,” Steinberg says. “We’re here to provide technology and tools that producers and directors can use to tell the story.”