Three of the hottest tech topics at the 2014 NAB Show—multiplatform content delivery, cloud-based technologies and filebased workflows—are also areas where Disney/ABC’s top technologist, Vince Roberts, has proven his mettle as an innovator, most recently with the launch of the Watch ABC App in 2013.
Watch ABC, which provides a live 24-hour feed from local ABC stations to authenticated pay-TV subscribers, involved a massive effort throughout the company to secure rights, cut distribution deals and address a host of other issues.
But purely from a tech point of view, the app represents a groundbreaking use of cloud-based technologies and software, much of which was created in-house. These technologies helped automate and streamline the multiplatform delivery of content, overcoming time consuming and costly processes that have limited the ability of some other broadcasters to expand digital distribution.
It’s all part of a life-long fascination with technology that Roberts traces to his father, a successful contractor in the San Diego area who often took him out to construction sites. “I was always driving my parents nuts by tearing TV sets apart to see how they worked,” he says.
After college, he landed a job as an engineer and cameraperson for CBS News and worked in videodisk research, where he got a patent for a quality control device. Then, in 1983, he became one of the founding employees at the Disney Channel, where he worked on the channel’s launch, and in 1989, after a two-year stint at Color Systems, he returned to Disney Channel as VP of engineering and operations.
Since then, his teams have cut new ground in a number of areas, including the development of one of the country’s first video file server-based operations and the launch of its first international broadcast operations.
Over the years he’s also had a big hand in the debut of over 90 entertainment channels and feeds in more than 160 countries, and for developing transport and storage architectures that move some 10 terabytes of content around the world each day.
Speaking of tracing back, Disney/ ABC’s aggressive move into digital media—with the launch of the series Lost and Desperate Housewives on iTunes in 2005— is what prompted a big wave of innovation. “That began a lengthy conversion of all of our infrastructure and technology into a file-based environment,” and a major incentive “to push the envelope on cloud workflows,” Roberts explains.
But Roberts, who was named to his current position in 2010, is most proud of how he’s worked to transform the company’s tech teams to handle rapid change. “The most rewarding part has been working with the tech teams to convert them from the old linear mentality to this new world,” he says. “The fact that we’ve been able to construct teams to manage that process and learn to think differently has been crucial to our success.”