JUNE 27, 2022

Making the Media S2E14: Pick and Mix

S2E14 Headshot-1862

The relationship between program makers and their technology providers has changed forever, and the cloud has the capability to enhance it further, according to one of Britain’s biggest broadcasters.

In this episode, Peter Russell, ITV Studios’ director of technology discusses his excitement at new ways of working, and the challenges around recruiting and retaining staff in a competitive marketplace.

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Listen to Hear:

  • The new relationship between producers and technology teams
  • Running proofs of concept to test out new workflows
  • The strategic role the cloud has to play now

Our Guest This Episode

Peter Russell

Peter Russell has been the director of ITV Studios’ technology since 2016. His role acts as a key technology partner for the ITV Production Labels (both in the UK and globally), news, sport and group marketing.

Peter's previous roles have included Director of Studios & Post-Production and Director of Production Technology at The London Studios, and Director of Technology for GMTV.

Much of Peter's time has recently been spent on the ITV site move to White City, but his passion has always been designing systems and fixing problems to make great content.

This is a pick and mix technology setup where, you know, we're not trying to force Production A into a workflow that really only works for Production B because that’s the tool set we have. –Peter Russell, ITV Studios’ Director of Technology

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, it’s Craig Wilson here, and welcome to the Making the Media podcast, and our final episode of season two. But don’t worry—we will be back in the autumn with season three.

But we are going out with a bang, as in this episode we are speaking with Peter Russell, who is the director of technology for ITV Studios in the UK.

His role acts as a key technology partner for the ITV production labels (both in the UK and globally), along with news, sport, and group Marketing. Peter's previous roles have included director of studios & post-production and director of production technology at The London Studios, and director of technology for the breakfast broadcaster, GMTV.

So, he has a huge amount of experience under his belt and knowledge to share. I began by asking him how he had seen technology change in recent years.

PETER RUSSELL: How my career started and developed remained reasonably unchanged, really up until probably 3-4 years ago and then just enormously catalyzed throughout the pandemic time when technology was really leaned on to see us go through that very difficult period. Yeah, I think it has changed massively, I think, in that that 3–4-year period.

Previous to the pandemic we were kind of talking about it, thinking about it, planning it. Then we started to roadmap it, and then suddenly it just happened in the space of a couple of weeks, and I think how it is best described for me is, I think that it really felt like technology went from a service provider, if you like, and that's probably being a bit mean, but , we were providing a technology service into productions and into studios in order to make the shows that we did and how that pivoted very quickly was we really stopped becoming that service provider and we became an enabler. , we suddenly became part of the business in a much bigger way than we had done before, and embedded in conversations right at the beginning of an idea. , in order to work with the teams and understand the brief of that and then sort of bring the technology armory, if you like, in order to deliver that through.

So, the way that we were engaged with the business changed very quickly and the services that we brought with us changed very quickly and just became part of a natural program, I suppose, rather than another business area they picked up with on the way through to making a show.

CW: Do you think that's been a positive change?

PR: Yeah, I do. Yeah, massively. I think, I've always strived to have that role previous, that, we were just engaged in the business. I thought we had so much to offer and so much to bring to early conversations about shows and productions. And it wasn't, that we were intentionally left out. It just wasn't a natural part of that stage of the program-making process. For me, that was a massive win. And I was really, really keen that we didn't default back out of, now, really, once we were kind of through some of those challenges that, we didn't end up just clicking back to where we were before, that we continued that relationship and that engagement and the way that we work with the business as our strategy for future. , everything we've done over the last couple of years was amazing, but it wasn't very strategic. And right now feels like the time where we are bringing the best of that couple of years with us. And determining how that fits and enables ITV to deliver its strategy in the coming years in, in lots of different ways, not just program making, but across all of our TV services as our next , 5- to 10-year plan, how will it feel to work for ITV and what technology will you use in five years time is now a really exciting conversation—much more exciting than the last couple of years which have been much more firefighting.

CW: I mean, a lot of technology decisions in the past historically have been, to put the best will in the world that have been engineering lead. So, the engineering team would go out to assess the solution and then perhaps bring that to market.

Do you think it's now much more kind of workflow-driven and driven more by the production team so they have a much bigger say in actually what's going to be delivered from a technology perspective?

PR: Yeah, I think that is probably the biggest change, I think, that I've experienced over the last couple of years.

First of all, the technology can do it. , you need pretty much anything, I've been asked over the last couple of years, the technology is there to achieve that. , in the past, quite often our road maps have been driven by the technology, by suppliers, by the functionality that they're able to offer with their latest upgrade or software or platform or tool, and that, has sort of started to determine some of the workflows that we've adopted because that's what the system and the toolset can do. And from my role, and certainly from some of my team, it was really about understanding the latest offering, working with suppliers, and then, bringing the art of the possible, I suppose, to productions in the business areas to say, “We're now able to offer this as part of this platform” or that, , this has just been released. That is kind of completely turned around the other way around, now, that it's now not a case of, let me tell you what it can do, it's you tell me what you need and then we can go and build the right tools or put together the right processes that can afford and enable that way of working.

And so I keep using the terminology in ITV that this is a “pick a mix” technology setup where we're not trying to force Production A into a workflow that really only works for Production B because that's the toolset we have. We are now literally able to build and then bring back down, , an entire production platform for a specific genre of show for that bespoke purpose. And I find it really, really exciting. It does make me smile when I talk about it because it's just such a fabulous thing to be involved in. It's not that I’ve never had to sort of pitch the wares of others over in the past, but not having to worry about the technology limitations and being able to pretty much deliver with our partners anything and everything that productions want to use and want to do within reason, … it's a fabulous place to be, I think.

CW: And how is that being embraced on the production side of having that kind of discussion?

PR: I think again, wanting to keep defaulting to the last two years, but it came originally out of necessity, and having to think differently about how we got and maintained our shows on air. I think that under the banner of breaking away from how we usually do things, it brought with it a new mentality. , across the board, this wasn't just the productions or operations or technology, it was all of us. , we all had to sit down and think differently about our approach and that time is now echoing through where we are now and has enabled us all to think slightly differently to where we would have done 3-4 years before.

We all, including myself, have to get out of the comfort zone a little bit. We all know what works and we rely on what worked. And, for regular formatting shows, what did the job last year kind of ends up being the default of what does the job for this year. In the main it still does because that's a winning formula, but there's a lot of change around it that we've been able to embed. That is, it's not something you have to sell. , it's something that we universally kind of commit to and agree to sort of try or proof of concept stuff. Or, , even just making permanent changes in there, but it doesn't feel like it's being driven by tech. It doesn't feel like it's being driven by anybody, it just feels like it's naturally part of the osmosis of the last couple of years that we all think slightly differently.

CW: It’s interesting what you said there, Peter, about doing proof of concept. I wonder if it’s something that we could explore a little bit about that because one of the things about proof of concept is they might fail, and I'm wondering if actually failure is just an accepted part of the process as opposed to someone going off “Why on earth have we done that.”

PR: I think our appetite for risk really, which is part of that proof of concept, again, has changed. Where we are going from here has to be different. If this isn't the time for change then I don't know what is, and there is an acceptance. Now we've done a couple of dozen of proof of concepts over the last couple of years and quite a few of them have not worked out, but we learned a lot from those and “fail fast” I think is the phrase that they use at the moment, and we have done that in those occasions and gone “Well, we knew it was a bit close to the edge, but it had to be done. We now know what did and didn't work.”

Sometimes just those lessons learned is enough for the next time you have to go to be a success. Sometimes it absolutely did not work, and back on the shelf it goes, and we'll dust that off perhaps another time.

CW: Is remote working now a part of that broader discussion that you're having about how productions are made? Do you think that's now embedded in, this is just how life is going to be within television, that remote working is part of it?

PR: Yeah, it brings with it some positives and negatives. There's some good stuff in there and some challenges in there. The fact that people within productions and operations and technology now have a more flexible life, a better work-life balance is great. You can see that with the quality of the work and the ideas and creativity that's kind of coming out that that flexible life is affording that more.

There are some challenges around it from a technology perspective. I used to enjoy downtime in order to get tech stuff done and some of our housekeeping out the way. Flexible working means longer hours of, sort of collective working because depending on people's day, around school collections or whatever it might be, people might start earlier, finish later, perhaps do a bit of the weekend in order to get some time off during the week or whatever it might be, and so from an engineering and support world, that's been a bit of a challenge in regards to ensure that we've got the right people available to support people using our tools at those kind of times.

I think there is still a bit of a nasty taste of necessity about remote working if I'm honest at the moment that it's something that we've all had to do for the last couple of years from necessity and how we can sort of build that into the future in the right way rather than it still feeling a bit like being stuck indoors because you're not allowed to go anywhere. That's a difficult—and we're working through that. Now we're moving buildings in London, at the moment. And across all of our sites, ITV has a smart working policy in there in regards to working how you want to work, when you want to work, in the way that fits your world as much as ITV’s. We're just starting to get a handle on having a proper strategy around that from a technology point of view, and where it fits, and where it absolutely doesn't. And people are very happy to get back onto, not necessarily an ITV site, but any site in order to work.

CW: I think one of the other things that that raises as well, Peter, you talked about flexible working there. The other thing I know that's happened within the industry is a lot of people have reassessed their view of the industry and whether they want to be involved in the industry, and as a consequence of that, competition for staff is increased because of the range of skills that are involved in television, and I'm wondering if that's something that you've seen as well.

PR: Most definitely, yeah. I think it is an interesting time, I think, in regards to attracting talent. And I'm talking in a technology sense, here, rather than all production. And retaining them, I think. Everybody has had to sit on plans over the last couple of years and not be able to move around and perhaps do what they wanted to do. Even within the business, within ITV, for example, we do do a lot of exposure to different areas. You can go and do a short-term placement or join a project in another team or whatever it might be in order to get a flavor of all of the things that technology does at ITV rather than the area you're necessarily in. That hasn't been possible as much over the last couple of years, and therefore, I think people do have a bit of an itch for different.

Technology, in particular, I think, is an area where the skillset has changed in regards to the fact that my traditional competitors, and I won't list them out, but I'm sure they would know who they were, aren't necessarily my competitors now.

When we have had people leave ITV to go off to change their careers and do other things, they are not going to companies that would have been on my list 5-6 years ago as a potential threat to me retaining key talent. And that's just because that technology skillset travels much wider as technology has become in such a boom over the last couple of years, and therefore there are transferable skills across lots of different industries, not just media, and therefore, that that is quite difficult.

I think that's also meant that there are probably more roles than there are people, as things currently stand, which means that some of the salaries that are being offered in the external market at the moment, and then the offers that are being made are substantial. And that really goes to reflect the fact that it doesn't matter what part of technologies you're in at the moment—it is really difficult to bring those people into your business, in order to develop that technology platform for whatever the services that you're offering.

So we haven't got an answer for it yet, at the moment. We're working through it, we realize it's not just a challenge for us but for the industry as a whole, and I've been working with others in some areas in order to tackle that. I don't think it's going to go away. I don't think this is a short-term thing, I think this is here for a good while, and so how we rebalance I suppose the roles that we offer and how we develop them is something that we're running through at the moment.

CW: We talked a little bit earlier Peter about how the pandemic has driven a lot of different things, remote working of course being one of them, and you also spoke about how you had ideas and plans perhaps before, but things have been accelerated.

An area where I know that that's been really true is, of course, is working within the cloud and looking at the cloud as a workflow enabler. So I'm interested in your view of how that has changed over the course of the last few years and the kind of things that you're looking to do in the cloud now that you perhaps weren't doing 3-4 years ago.

PR: Yeah, I think the cloud has really enabled yet further global shrinkage for us. It just feels that the world is that bit smaller again. And the cloud really has been enabling us to explore that further.

I think your key examples of areas where that's come forward quicker than perhaps it would have done previously are being able to share work, or use different suppliers for work, or being able to get material regardless of where you are on the globe. Having the material sat in the cloud immediately means that you can start using providers that you've never used before, or we can start utilizing different pockets of ITV in a slightly different way. We're not there yet, but that's a consideration that we're having. And by using different suppliers and providers and different talent, I think it does diversify your output. It does bring new ideas that you hadn't necessarily had internally. It does bring a fresh set of eyes or a fresh set of experiences that means that everything is just approaching in a slightly different way, and I believe that's to the massive benefit of not just ITV from a technology point of view, but as a whole. That the more we spread our wings and the wider the opportunity that there is for working with us regardless of your geography just has had benefit already, and I think again, under the banner of sort of now becoming our strategic future is absolutely firmly set in that space.

There are challenges around it, of course. The hybrid working I don't think is going to go away, in regard to the fact there will always be that on-prem need. I still have a slightly probably traditional approach that the closer to live you are, the more likely I am to be on-prem when it comes to sort of playout and studio inserts, that kind of thing. Having that in the cloud doesn't go down very often, if that's the right phrase, but it's still more than I would like, as in any system.

So I think we've still got some of that to do. I think hybrid is probably going to be here to stay in some of my areas for a good while yet. So while there are new challenges with it, the benefits far outweigh those, and I think those can be mitigated.

Speaking to some other customers and suppliers that are involved, one of the things that they're also now has a higher profile I guess is something like a green agenda. So reducing your physical footprint, reducing perhaps office space, and things like that. So again, is that something that ITV is looking at as it looks to its strategic future?

Yeah, it's a huge part of our thinking and has been for a good couple of years. It's always been there for ITV, but I think it's now part of our strategic objectives as a company. From the city to personally, it is across the board in regards to ITV's commitment.

Interestingly, as well, I think the appetite is hugely there. Everybody is an active part in that at ITV. It's not something that is just on our my ITV water cooler system of what's going on recently about not using plastic straws. It really is taken to heart right the way through.

CW: Just going back a little bit to the sort of cloud workflows and things like that you talked about proofs of concept, are some examples that you can talk about, about the kind of things that you've been looking to do? Is it storage in the cloud? Is it editing in the cloud? Is it newsrooms? What are the kind of things that you've tried out and perhaps have been a success?

PR: Yeah, bit of bit of everything really in regards to our thinking. We have X number of systems internally, so storage is certainly one that we've been giving some consideration to in regards to what assets that we would want to put in there and what makes sense to have in the cloud. Remote editing has been a really big one. Remote editing for us at the beginning of lockdown was usually dialing into a machine that was on an ITV site. That wasn't a remote working strategy, that was a necessity, but quite a lot of people have confused remote working with basically just dialing into something that exists somewhere in the ITV estate. What we've been really trying to do is move that completely to cloud in order to ensure that we can really access it from anywhere with the right backups to the right security—everything around the cloud has a stronger level of scrutiny around keeping our assets safe and secure. But remote editing was the first one that we really got into there.

ITV daytime with the absolute lead on that in regards to the work they’ve done with Avid and with Microsoft and support partners in regards to getting a system properly up and running, which it duly is and has worked very well. That's kind of set the benchmark for where we want to be on the kind of services we want to be able to offer our productions internally. But one of many, I suspect. I don't think there is again 1 build that's going to work for ITV, even just the genres of show that we have.

As you said, we have news in the mix there absolutely, we've got sport, we've got so many different areas that a lot of the proof of concept of have started to tailor into those business areas. News already have a big piece of work underway in that particular space. Our proof of concept initially was a clear up, because we don't have to use whatever we could at the time and therefore we had lots and lots and lots of different platforms and types of capability within it ITV, and we've sort of brought that together and started to consolidate that into again that more strategic vision of this is the approved tool from maybe the cost of it, the ease of use or familiarity of use of it, the security that's around it, the fact that we've got a contract and a legal agreement placed with that particular company, which therefore means it's on the preferred supplier list that kind of thing. So a lot of the proof of concept and work has been around remote working. Mainly focused around edit or view capability, some of that being studio output. So that people who are working from home had higher resolution, low latency, capability to see studio floors that were still running because they were integral to the workflow for that studio than working from home.

Some of the proof of concept stuff I think will be coming probably towards the second half of this year where we start tailoring that further into where we are heading.

CW: All of us at the moment are looking around and we can see that inflation is an issue for us in our normal lives—never mind what we're doing in work, so I'm kind of guessing from your perspective that there is an expectation from a budgetary perspective that you still have to deliver what you have to deliver and so as a consequence of that, efficiency is really important to how you're having to work now. So how do you factor all of that into when it comes to doing productions?

PR: So that's I mean, that's always a consistent theme, isn't it? In our entire industry as a whole, is how can we be more efficient in any production or any toolset or system or workflow that we have?

I think over the last 3, 4, 5 months, it's still there, it's just slightly changed because the cost of everything for all of us has gone up so substantially that we are currently in the realms of trying to make the same for the same and trying to top manage those increasing costs. So really the efficiencies we're trying to drive at the moment aren't necessarily about saving anything. They're more about maintaining what we are doing and our productions in that kind of form.

Again, there is no one answer to this. If there was, I would have most definitely put my hand in the air well before now, but there are lots and lots of smaller things that we're doing. I think there is a lot of repeated work that we do between companies that we could all be slightly better at working with one another to simplify processes between us. That's something that we've been working with several other names that, how can we work better between the two businesses? Because we work a lot with one another.

I think there are background tools that don't impact editorially where, again, we either use third parties for those when we're probably quite capable of doing it ourselves. Or, regardless if we outsource or insource it, if we push volume through it, we can make a saving through that approach. That tends to be more with background systems, and we've been going through that, so there's lots and lots of smaller work streams that we've got running in order to try and achieve that.

CW: Lots of challenges ahead, Peter, but I guess from what you said, an exciting time to be in the industry.

PR: Yeah, I think so. I don't know if everyone would agree, but I certainly think from leading technology for a producer broadcast at this time is a fascinating place to be with how the tone has changed, the opportunities that are out there, the tools that are available. In so many different ways and so accessible, it's without doubt the first time in my career where I don't feel that technology holds any choke on what we need to do or what we want to do to make great shows. It's there, it's capable of doing it. It's proven, and can be spun up very quickly these days. I haven't got to have 400 racks all sitting there ready to go and get the lorry parking spaces, really, and is available in a nature where we can just try it. Let's give it a go. Let's see what happens.

Even if we do all run on something, if we feel that that's necessary, we can do that. And for me, that is just a fantastic set of opportunities. We've got some stuff we've got to do, as always there are these things, there's some sort of core architecture and foundational sides of things that we need to address in order that we can start building more of that innovation on to those kind of platforms. Everything that we had three years ago we still have now. And that does mean that we've got some work to do in order to move this on into those spaces. Artificial intelligence has been a conversation that we've been having internally for 5-6 years. What I'm seeing these days is now close to enough for usage within our production process. It wasn't five years ago— it absolutely, is now. But probably the best part of all of this, I think, is that I now have people that are not in technology coming to talk to me about technology that they have seen, heard of, experienced, know about, read about, have seen on the television, wherever it might be, that they are keen on using, that they are selling to me and say, “Let's give this a go. Let's give this a try.” And that is golden territory, as far as I'm concerned, just fantastic to be able to have those kind of conversations rather than “Here comes technology again to talk to us for another hour about whatever is they want to do next.”

Total game changer, I think. And I'm so committed to us not going backwards, to us staying, keeping that temperature up and running and keeping that pace going. I think the other part of that for me is that a lot of the things we've done in the past we buy it, we build it, and then we run it, and it runs for five to eight. As you all know, in our world, and then we replace it. And there's not really very much happens between the finish the project and the replace. That's not the same in this world. We could be adding functionality, we could be making changes to it, we could be adding requirements to it, we can have a road map for it, we can develop it… It's never really done. It will meet an initial brief, but we can constantly add, build, change, develop that system forever and a day, and that I think is a really special thing and gets me really excited.

CW: It's great to talk to you, Peter, and your excitement and enthusiasm really really comes across.

There is a final question I ask everyone on the podcast, so I'll ask you: What is it, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?

PR: Oooh. I haven’t anything that keeps me awake at night. I don't think there is anything particular. I suppose the one area that does keep me awake is being able to move fast enough. Will we be able to deliver these things at the speed that's required because there is such appetite for it? And it does feel that everyone has been in a holding pattern personally and professionally for so long that we're now all ready for change, and we kind of want it now. And being able to deliver that in the way that it's needed and in the right ways, and ensuring that all of the other due diligence is done, such as keeping our assets secure, and keeping our systems awake, and alive, and partnering with the right people with the pace of the desired change. That is probably one of the areas where… does it keep you awake? Probably not, but it certainly nags in the back of my head.

CW: I said to Peter after we finished that I think that was longest pause anyone has had when I asked that final question. But good to know he enjoys a good night’s sleep. Thanks to Peter for sharing his insights.

If you want to find out more about how Avid is enabling workflows in the cloud, then check out the show notes where there’s a link to our web pages on just that subject, covering areas such as cloud-hosted editing through Avid | Edit On Demand.

You can also find a link to an article on the Future of Integrated Media Production in a Distributed World. There is no doubt things are changing.

As always, get in touch. On social I am @CraigAW1969 on Twitter and Instagram, or email us, we are [email protected]. And of course, please leave a review, like, share, and subscribe to the podcast to get notified when new episodes are out.

And speaking of episodes, while we are taking a break, we are not going away completely. We are going to be re-releasing some of our favorite episodes every couple of weeks through July and August in case you missed them the first time around. So you can listen to great insights from senior leaders at companies such as the BBC, the Olympic Broadcasting Service, ABC News, and more.

Morwen Williams, BBC: Versioning takes up an awful lot of time and to get those versions right for the audiences who want to interact with it on that platform, and so one size does not fit all. And we know that, we have learned that, and people, if you just put a big television package online, it doesn't work. It just does not work.

Trevor Pilling, Olympics Broadcasting Service: The Olympics are serious, but they're also a lot of fun, and to try and get that emotion conveyed through whatever technology will take us to a consumer, you know, we want them to feel something from watching the content.

Darren Long, TV Executive: I think for many years we built broadcast systems that were built for us—for us broadcasters, because it made us comfortable, it made us happy, made us feel like we were in control and we were delivering a service to our customers, but truly, sometimes it was built for us.

Some great episodes there to catch up on. All that remains for me is to thank Peter, and in fact all of our guests who have contributed through our second season.

I would like to thank the rest of the podcast production team here at Avid for all of their help—Matt Diggs, Wim Van den Broeck, Owen Lynch, and also our theme music composer, the fantastic Greg “Stryke” Chin.

But most of all, thanks to all of you who subscribe and listen to the podcast.

That’s all from me, Craig Wilson, for now, as we close out season two of the Making the Media podcast.

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