With the media industry undergoing such enormous change it is essential that broadcasters know who their customers are and what they want, says Fox’s Richard Friedel.
“This is a really interesting time in the business,” says Friedel, who as well as being a member of the IBC Council holds the position of Executive Vice President and General Manager for Fox Networks Engineering & Operations, the 21st Century Fox unit responsible for engineering, operations and technology supporting Fox’s national and regional television businesses.
Fox is one of the world’s biggest global brands, covering services like National Geographic and FX as well as its noted news and sports coverage.
“We’ve always had change, but this is exceptional. Change in the business – new advertising models as well as new efficiencies – changes in technology and changes in consumer demand.”
On consumer demand, Friedel set out first the reality for broadcasters, particularly those with an extensive back catalogue. “Every television show ever recorded is available on the internet somewhere. This is a completely different market. We need to adapt to what the consumer wants.”
The core of that challenge for broadcasters has traditionally been knowing what it is that the customer wants. Indeed, it is knowing anything at all about the customer. Fox is now pursuing a big data programme.
“We knew almost nothing about our customers,” Friedel says. “Now we can get real information on our customers. We call it the Data Pool. We’re mining the data, looking for ways to improve sales and content.”
Big data is also an issue internally. One key to delivering what the consumer needs, across all platforms, lies in having the details of the content available. “Asset management was not much more than the digital equivalent of tape labels.
“We found ourselves getting cast details from sites like IMDB – and paying for it – to populate the app. Someone has to be the repository of this information. Why don’t we do it?”
This is just part of a transformation in Fox’s technological infrastructure. It has been a pioneer in developments in IP for a number of years, and it is now widely regarded as a leader.
Friedel points out that one of the key drivers was around the uncertainty of what would be the primary production and delivery formats. “When we started this programme five years ago, we couldn’t figure out what we needed – we had never even thought of HDR, for example. So we built an infrastructure that didn’t care.”
“If we’re solving a problem, we’ll do it in the cloud first”
There is currently a great deal of talk about IP, and Friedel appeared in a number of conference sessions talking about it. But, as he made clear, much of the revolution has already happened. “85% of content is already handled as files,” he says, pointing to standard devices like video servers and non-linear editors. “What we couldn’t do was live.”
Fox is very committed to software-defined architectures, because Friedel sees it delivering real, practical advantages for the business. “If we’re going to get real agility, we have to virtualise. We need to go to cloud.
“We’re going for hybrid solutions,” he says. “If we’re trying to solve a new problem, we’ll do it in the cloud first. The cloud is new, the cloud is different. But we have to learn.”
He puts forward an unusual analogy for the way that the cloud allows you to try things out, to experiment until you understand what you and your audiences really want. “When you first get married, you rent an apartment until you decide how many kids you want,” he said. “Then you buy the right-sized home.”
Asked what sort of agility, what sort of scaling can be achieved by moving to virtualised systems and the cloud, Friedel suggests a transformation in the way content is delivered. “We can push assembly to the edge,” he says.
“We’re looking at dynamically changing content downstream. We can use it to customise a feed or a stream, replacing advertising, promos and even content.”
“Why can’t I interact with broadcast systems the way we interact with an iPhone?”
What else is in the near future vision? “I’m interested in machine learning – I don’t call it artificial intelligence.
“I could have it train a system and develop the best workflows. We could even possibly automate sports highlights in the future – find the action and put together the highlights packages. The technology is not there yet, but it will be.”
His final message to vendors is that everyone needs to work together to convince people that cloud is real. “They have to build proper cloud applications,” Friedel asserted. “They have to offer solutions as a service.”
And in a concluding swing at the complexities of today’s technology, he asks “Why can’t I interact with broadcast systems the way we interact with an iPhone?”
Richard is the Executive Vice President and General Manager for FOX Networks Engineering & Operations, the 21st Century Fox unit responsible for engineering, operations and technology supporting FOX’s national and regional television businesses. He manages the FOX Network Center in Los Angeles, which provides facilities and technical services for FOX Broadcasting Co., FOX Sports, FOX Cable Networks Group, Fox International Channels and the Twentieth Television syndication division. In addition, Mr. Friedel is in charge of the Fox Network Center-Houston, home of FOX Sports’ regional networks.
Prior to FOX Networks Engineering & Operations, Mr. Friedel was a member of the team that launched FOX News Channel.
Before joining FOX, Mr. Friedel served in various positions at Capital Cities/ABC, NBC News and several television and radio stations.
Richard is a fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers and a member of the Audio Engineering Society, Society of Broadcast Engineers and Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers. He serves as President of the Video Services Forum, President of the North American Broadcasters Association, is a member of the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society Administrative Committee and is the Chairman of the Advanced Television Systems Committee.