In the second instalment of our CTO Series, 21st Century Fox’s Paul Cheesbrough speaks about the challenges of delivering content to more platforms than ever before and explains why cyber security is his number one priority.
As Chief Technology Officer for 21st Century Fox, Paul Cheesbrough has an expansive remit. Reporting into Executive Chairman Lachlan Murdoch and CEO James Murdoch, Cheesbrough oversees the company’s technology strategy and operations on a global basis.
With the internet playing a key - and disruptive - role in the delivery and production of content, Cheesbrough’s degree in Computer Science and Strategy was a good starting point for a career that has taken in news, digital and broadcast.
“I started in 1992, which was at the front end of the internet,” says Cheesbrough. “I started learning client/server engineering and business strategy. I came out having learned about the internet as it developed. I was very fortunate to get a background in both traditional computing and the internet,” he says.
After university, Cheesbrough joined IBM as an engineer. “I started programming with the language, Smalltalk,” he says. “The object-oriented approach of Smalltalk is still hyper-relevant today.” He worked for IBM between 1996 and 2000, where his clients included several media organisation like the BFI and the BBC. “I like applying technology to creative projects,” he says.
He left IBM to join the BBC. “I joined in the Greg Dyke era – Dyke had a focus on digital technology,” says Cheesbrough. He was part of small unit focussing on digital project, that also undertook commercial projects for external organisations, including his future employer, Fox.
From there, he began looking at production technology and how it could move to the digital world and was also involved with IMP, the forerunner of iPlayer. “I had the opportunity to be at the Beeb during one of its most exciting times,” he says.
By 2007, Cheesbrough wanted to get back into the commercial world. He took on the role of CIO for the Telegraph Media Group as part of a new management team installed by the Barclay brothers after their recent acquisition of the company. Between 2007 and 2010, Cheesbrough oversaw the organisation’s move into the digital sphere, launching one of the first integrated digital and print newsrooms.
“The CTO still has operational responsibility, and members of the exec board still look at you when things go wrong” - Paul Cheesbrough
In 2010, Cheesbrough met James Murdoch, and because he had experience in news, print, and broadcasting, he was a good fit for what News International was looking to do. He became CIO for the European operations of News International (now News UK). After two years, he was named the global CTO for News Corporation. He remained with News Corporation for three years after the 21st Century Fox/News Corp spin out, and then moved to 21st Century Fox as CTO in 2016.
In his current role, his focus is on, “embracing cloud, artificial intelligence and machine learning,” he says. “I’m also passionate about consumer digital media.”
In the US, he has grown the company’s relationships with Silicon Valley. Every six weeks he spends about a week on the West Coast, looking at emerging, early stage companies and getting a sense of what’s coming in the future.
21st Century Fox
21st Century Fox is the US company formed when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation spun off its publishing assets into a separate company. The company’s operations are focussed on cable network programmes, television channels, films, and satellite television.
In December of 2017, the Walt Disney company announced its intention to aquire 21st Century Fox after the spin off of some of its operations.
Based in New York, Cheesbrough splits his time equally between New York and Los Angeles.
”I get up pretty early - usually around 5.30 - and try to be disciplined about working out in the morning and get to my desk by 8am,” he says.
“I try to avoid a meeting culture and spend as much time as possible speaking face-to-face with my team,” says Cheesbrough. “We avoid having meetings for the sake of having meetings.
“I spend lots of time with my leadership team working on strategy,” he says. “We use videoconferencing to connect around the world and focus on the top three issues of the day.
“I try to spend a portion of the day with the teams who are really doing the work,” he says. “Spending time down in the weeds with technology.”
His day extends beyond office hours as well. He usually spends three nights a week doing things socially with partners and co-workers.
He also must pay attention to the smooth running of the company’s services. “The CTO still has operational responsibility, and members of the exec board still look at you when things go wrong,” he says.
“It’s not healthy to get complacent about those things. Because we’re global, we always have to run with operational issues – transmission, leaked programmes, or pirated movies. Sometimes it may be because of an error in process, or other people reasons – and that has to be taken care of. We’re on more platforms than ever – it’s challenging.”
Cheesbrough emphasises the importance of managing priorities. “ You have to stay focused on making sure you get enough space to keep in touch with all of the technology trends,” he explains. “That also guides how I shape my teams and focus them. It guides us in where we need to invest – it’s important not to get bogged down in that normal day/abnormal day thing.”
“Our number one challenge is cyber security, says Cheesbrough. “Media companies are heavily targeted and it’s hard to manage it across a global organisation.
“We have to make sure we deliver on all the things we promise as a team. It’s easy to promise a lot,” he says. “It requires a certain DNA to deploy and transform the technology in a way that really brings the business forward.”
“The opportunity to take our brands digitally to consumers in a way that really kind of changes the game,” he explains. “Different platforms, different formats - Hotstar (an Indian digital and mobile entertainment platform launched in February 2015 by 21st Century Fox subsidiary Star India) in India has really changed the game – they are completely focussed on mobile. I’m excited about figuring out how can we do that in other markets, the US especially.”
“There’s no more exciting place to be than the axis of technology and media,” says Cheesbrough. “Some might challenge this – they say TV’s dead. But there’s nothing like buzz you get coming into work and working with creative artists. People producing their best ever work to show to a global audience. TV shows like The Americans on FX, the next set of productions for Avatar at the film studio, the new products and political commentary on Fox. Technology is truly strategic to the business,” he continues. “It’s crucial to the way we transform internally as well.”
“When you spend time with Silicon Valley companies – the culture is still fairly stale – you miss a lot of that creativity,” he says. “They’re big companies now. To people working in media, I think they would be dry, boring places to work.”
“Content drives engagement – Apple and Google don’t currently have that.” - Paul Cheesbrough
“Sometimes the grass isn’t always greener, it’s just green,” he laughs.
“It helps having a burning platform where you’ve got to change – working with the Murdochs – they’re entrepreneurs at heart and want to make changes to the business,” says Cheesbrough. “Traditional business has to change – working with innovators and new companies – I think it’s easier to make the changes than it would have been 10 years ago.”
Cheesbrough’s focus for the short term is dominated by the new deal with Disney and data. “Elements around the new company create exciting opportunities – lots of technology at the heart of that deal,” he says. “We want to spin out the company in a way that’s creative and innovative.”
“Internally, we are on a path to really start to leverage data in a more strategic and real-time way,” says Cheesbrough. “We want to enable more collaboration, enable flexibility, and new capability around data science.”
According to Cheesbrough, 21st Century Fox’s long term strategy is consumer focussed. “We’ve been talking in the 20 plus years I’ve working in media space about convergence and new models and now it’s really happening, and happening apace,” he says.
“Disruption from Amazon and Netflix os accelerating the need to drive to the digital future. How do we ensure our amazing brands and content thrive in a world that is much more consumer focussed - fragmented and digital?” says Cheesbrough. “We’ve got great brands and properties that will help us thrive in that market. It definitely tilts and changes the way we operate as a business.”
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“The biggest challenge facing the industry is when broadcasters start to doubt the power of their platforms and content,” says Cheesbrough. “There’s so much noise out there and critics – you mustn’t overlook the power of live broadcast to reach people, and the power for brands to reach people through broadcasting can’t be underestimated,” he says.
“We’ve done a lot of work to give confidence to our teams and creators in the power of broadcasting,” he continues. “If you think about broadcasting as simply delivering a signal to homes – that’s going to change. If you look at multi-platform broadcasting, brands, and content, you must remain confident in the power of that that - it’s a thing not to forget. Content drives engagement – Apple and Google don’t currently have that.”
CTO Series In conversation with Richard Waghorn, RTÉ