APRIL 29, 2022

Making the Media S2E10: The Sky’s the Limit

Making the Media S2E10 Featuring Darren Long

What do broadcasters need to do to capitalize on the streaming revolution? And what skills do their staff need in order to deliver continuous innovation?

In this episode of the Making the Media podcast, host Craig Wilson talks in-depth with former Sky executive, Darren Long, to get his take on the hot topics.

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Listen to Hear:

  • The investments needed to deliver new experiences to viewers
  • How to strike the balance between broadcast engineering and IT skills
  • The flexibility cloud-based workflows can provide

Our Guest This Episode

Darren Long

Darren joined Sky at the birth of the company, back in 1989. He was one of the pioneers changing the way the world watches sport, overseeing the technical operational developments and innovations across Sky Sports, from simple ultra-motion replay, HD, and 3D, through to today’s interactive and digital developments that now appear in most sports broadcasts.

Darren was the stakeholder in the conception and development of the UK’s first sustainable broadcast facility, Sky Studios, that has fourteen production studios, over 77 post-production suites, and one of the biggest integrated tapeless systems in the world which runs all of Sky’s linear, online, and OTT playout.

In November 2012, Darren took over the leadership role for Sky Production Services (SPS). Darren was responsible for 760 full-time employees split across four groups that deliver key production services to all of Sky’s content creation teams—production studios, post-production, content services, and business planning & programming. The department encompasses a vast range of skills including cameras, sound, lighting, media management, graphics, and video and audio post-production.

Darren was also responsible for setting the vision for Sky’s group content operations workflow in its strategic IP program for content distribution. This program is moving all Sky’s group content operations and processing systems into the cloud and integrating into the wider Comcast businesses, ensuring everything Sky does is done in the most efficient and timely way.

Darren’s last role at Sky was as group operations transformation design in CT&I, looking at how we transform the operations as we move into these new workflows and align our business models.

We're in a new world of discovering obviously greater opportunity, and that does mean that we're going to have to find new ways of doing things.” – Darren Long, TV Executive

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, Craig Wilson here, and welcome to the latest episode of the Making the Media podcast. It is great to have you with us.

Our guest this week is Darren Long, who has spent the past 33 years working with Sky in the UK and Europe. He joined the company in 1989, initially working on Sky News but then became instrumental in some of the key innovations delivered by Sky Sports as it pioneered the way in which sports coverage was delivered and consumed.

Moving on from sports, he headed up Sky Production Services, managing a 750-strong team supporting Sky’s content creation departments, and has worked to move many of Sky’s content operations and processing systems into the cloud. After Sky’s acquisition by Comcast, he was also involved in the work to integrate them into the wider Comcast business.

His last role was in group operations transformation design, so as you can tell, he has been in at the sharp end throughout his career.

With a lot to discuss, I began by asking him to pick out some of the key, transformational moments which he had witnessed.

Darren Long: So, the first point obviously was the start of satellite TV and a multi-channel environment and that was a real turning point, not just for Sky as an organization, but for the population. They traditionally had never paid for TV, so this was a completely new thing. I would say that's a marker in the sand, and then if you look at it as we moved on throughout that, which obviously, building all of the channels then Sky Sports came along, and then changed the way that everyone saw sports.

And look, I don't want to be arrogant and say “Look, Sky Sports lead the way” but we lead a lot of things in innovation and technology and I think, you know, there was another point, and I saw it right when we went to HD, it was a perfect point, is where the old tube televisions were being phased out. It was all around the environment, and flat screens came in and it was absolutely that pivotal point where we said, “Right, we're going to do HD now.” And it was just another turning point.

So again, I saw that as another marker in the sand where basically we said “Well look, that's a real change.” Because that gave the customers an opportunity to get much bigger TV sets, a bigger environment than they would normally have traditionally had, and so as we move through that, then we see all the things that have then come along from an OTT point of view, and over-the-top streaming service. And I think that was the next pivotal point which gave people choice and opportunity to stream content to every single device and way that they wanted to do it. So that was their next marker in the send.

And I think, look, where we're going as a world is a consumable world where we want to watch things when we want to watch things. We've been driven over the years by our sort of reliance on schedules and times and look, you know, Craig, we're having this conversation, I had to be here on time, had to make sure that I was, you know, sitting in front of the PC, but our normal lives aren't like that. Our normal lives are going to be governed by how much time we have going forward. And I think where we are now, today, is about how we give people choice and opportunity to decide what they want, when they want. And I think people have now got used to this new way of working, which is this binge way of working, which is “If I've got some time, I'm going to binge now. If I haven't got some time, that's fine because obviously I can literally not look at that device, know, that I'm not based on the schedule.”

So I think this is the new pivotal point and I think where we're going. And this is the really exciting thing for me—I don't think we've even scratched the opportunity going ahead because I think we've been traditional at delivering services to our customers. In other words, we deliver to a CDN, they go to the CDN, they pull that content, and they watch that and they consume that content.

I think the new and the next phase is going to be really interesting when we don't start moving content around, but we give them the essence of that content through the internet, and I think that's when I can see the supply chain really changing and really altering when actually the relationships is based on, how can I say, a set of encryption that allows you to access the content you want, but without moving that content away from those broadcasters or those streaming partners.

So I think along that route, Sky starting multi TV, HD, pivotable with the screens. I think then we move into the new world of streaming and opportunity and now the future really is exciting because we've worked out that actually, we don't need to be all sitting in our offices to do this. We've got opportunities to do this remotely. We've got opportunities to cover events remotely. We've got opportunities to grow our business outside of probably where we were thinking three years ago. And that for me, I think, is the exciting thing.

CW: Yeah, a lot of what you've talked about there really is about being very customer driven, customer focused. How challenging do you think it's been for the technology to keep up with that?

DL: Again, really good question, and I think when you look back, it's really important to understand that it isn't just by luck this has happened. So, for instance, you know, as I said earlier, going to HD was also on that marker of bigger screens. So that wasn't luck, it was an opportunity, we took that opportunity, and it changed the way that people watch TV today because obviously they have much more immersive experience.

I think where we're going to—and I think this is the important thing—is it was driven by again the terrible pandemic that came along from a streaming point of view and the understanding by the customers about the ability to watch when they needed. But we had some opportunities that were driven by technology that probably, I would say, just about there, not quite, but just about there, and enough to allow all of the broadcasters to keep going, to deliver the services to that customer, and for that customer to probably challenge themselves in ways they wouldn't have done before.

So traditionally, people would have been driven again by sitting in front of that box in the living room, and I think everyone's perception completely changed, which is they were stuck in either their rooms and they may not have had a big TV in there, and they wanted that experience, and all the streaming partners out there gave them that experience. They gave them the opportunity to watch it when they wanted. They gave them opportunity to have that content in a multi-episode format, and I think, from a technology point of view, we were just on the cusp, and I think we've learned over the last, you know, let's call it couple of years, what works, what doesn't work, and now I think we're in sort of this new world of discovering obviously greater opportunity. And from a technology point of view, that means we still need to build out some infrastructure and some opportunity to grow our business now past where we were traditionally.

And I think we're probably now needing a bit more understanding of cloud distribution, and like I say, the opportunity to put in sort of rights management really embedded within the content, but in a way that really gives the customer a completely different experience to what they're doing today. So I think this is evolving. And I think all we've done, though, is like the touchpaper and allowed people to experience entertainment in a completely different way, and that means that's driving our businesses across the industry to kind of step up a bit more. And that does mean that we're going to have to find new ways of doing things.

CW: One of the newer ways of doing things that a lot of people within the industry now are looking at, is, of course, actually changing that relationship between CapEx and OpEx, looking at subscription there, not just as a source of revenue, but subscription as a part of that relationship with vendors. So I'm interested in your view of that changing and evolving business model from CapEx to OpEx. Do you think that's the direction of travel within the industry now?

DL: Yes, and again, I'm going to say a statement that some people won't like. I think it's a good thing. I think for too long, we really didn't know the value of content and that I mean from glass to glass, which is, how much does it cost us to produce it all the way through, to how much does it cost to distribute it per customer? Because we have a lot of hands in between, we have a lot of organizational structure that is driving that distribution of content.

So what this is going to change is that move from our traditional sort of CapEx, heavy buying  equipment, you know, to sit there for 90% of the time, probably not doing anything, and 10% of the time doing something, is that we're going into a much more consumable world. But that does mean that we will buy our services as required and it does mean that we can be having honest conversation with our customers again about what it really does cost to deliver our services to them, because I think when you run a CapEx world, it's a real sunk cost. Everyone forgets it. They pay £1,000,000 on, let’s call it a newsroom system, and effectively it sits there and everyone kind of forgets it until it breaks. And then it's all “We're going to replace it again, and we’ve got to go for a new fund of CapEx. And what that drives is a really bad habit.

Number one, it drives a lack of innovation, and number two, it drives the finance people to constantly, you know, say “Can you just keep it for another five years?” Which means that, you know, you end up in a situation where you have a real sort of capital debt because to kind of change things and alter things, you've got to pay now huge amounts of money out to actually innovate and bring new technology to the industry.

And that worried me for many years because I saw this sort of capital debt building up. You know, you build a lovely new infrastructure and build up new buildings and new ways of working and it's wonderful, for the first two years, it is amazing. You get to seven, eight, nine, ten years, and then you start looking back and you think “Wow, how much did we spend before now? What do we need to spend to do that going forward?”

So this new OpEx way, or pay-per-play or pay for use is something that probably from a finance point of view, I know is a very difficult conversation to have within the finance department around how do we use capital or cash in the business instead of, you know, having these sort of tranches of CapEx that we need to put into play. But I think as we grow and we learn, what that's going to drive is innovation because we can buy things when we need to innovate. It means that we're not going to be stuck with hardware and software that ultimately just runs out of date, and we end up with people worried that it's either going to fall off air or we can't keep up with, you know, the companies that are using, you know, cash to do their services.

So, I think if I'm honest with you, I was always worried about the CapEx OpEx model because it just didn't feel a sustainable model that would allow us to innovate and to change our industry. And it made us very heavy, very slow, and also, when you look at some of the players out there that didn't think in this way, and now the Amazons, the Googles of this world. you know. Their mindset is always “We spin up some services, we're paying for some power, we're paying for some compute, and we get our output, and that's what we need.” And I think that's not a bad place to be, and I think that's an exciting place for everyone in the industry to play in. It just means the mindset needs to change.

CW: Yeah, things like remote working and remote production clearly is something that in particular in the last couple of years, has just exploded. I mean, I think partly obviously because of the circumstances of the pandemic and partly also I think because of an acceleration of some things that were actually already going on.

So you know I'm interested in what you think that means perhaps for talent that's involved and the opportunity that means, because it's not necessarily based around exactly where you live.

DL: Oh, it goes without saying. And look, I don't want to sort of say the obvious but I mean I was always limited—if I look at when I ran production services, I had, let's say 100 editors who worked for sort of post production. And there were days where we would really struggle sometimes when we were super super busy to get the right resources and people-wise it was either a case of trying to drag people in because they were the best colorists or the best audio dubber. And so what we have now, and I think this is the most exciting thing, is that you know, if you look at the toolset that is available for people sitting in their living room and the ability to have Avid sitting on their desktop remotely in Glasgow, Edinburgh, or wherever it may be around the world, you can now decide who's the best person to do that role. Not now “Who we got?” And I think that's the real sea change.

And I think if you look at our industry as a whole, we've always been governed on places, you know, we're going to an OB today, it's at Man United Old Trafford. We're going to be doing that and we're going to take all of our people there and we're going to have one edit suite and we're going to have 5 EV operators or 10 operators and 25 cameramen and 5 sound people. And sometimes that was really difficult. Because, you know, we might have had 30 OBs across the weekend. It's like, oh how are we going to do this?

The opportunity now is completely different. For remote production, if you look at it now, you could get one crew doing 2 football matches where traditionally, you would lose a whole crew for three days—travel up day, rig day, and then a live day, and then a travel back day. That's three days of really brilliant people who were completely out for that period of time. You don't have that now. You have people going to a gallery somewhere, there may be the ability to do multiple events—they could suddenly go from a football to a rugby. You've got the ability to suddenly say, “Actually, you know, I need that editor that we used last week.” Either sitting in Glasgow at the moment—not a problem! So let's just get him to deliver the content to him and we'll get him to edit it and deliver it back into our man. And that's where the opportunity really grows now.

And I think we've just got to learn that. And we're getting better at it. I think that decentralization of of services that you can call upon and working with Avid in their newsroom systems and working with their post-production systems remotely… there is so much opportunity ahead, and what we've got to do is just kind of get our mindset now in this new way of working. Which is: It isn't about people coming to a place of work, and that's the only place they can do their job. It’s giving people the opportunity not sometimes they have to travel.

I'm sure if you were sitting in an edit suite and I said to you “You have 8 hours to do this edit.” You've got to factor in, well, it's going to take me an hour to get in, an hour to get home… so actually that 8 hours is now 10 hours and when I get in, I want my cup of coffee, and I want to probably get ready and prepare myself.

Instead, let's get up, get to your suite, and you might sit in your study, and you've got opportunity, and that for me is a game changer. We all like going to different places to work because we're very good at communication. That's what we love doing with everyone, you know, we're humans that love communicating. But it's giving choice now. It's giving choice to the producers, it's giving choice to the people working in the industry. And that's what's exciting for me.

CW: Do you think we're still in a broadcast industry or is it now an IT industry?

DL: It's an entertainment industry. It's an entertainment industry that has a backbone within broadcast IT. And I think, you know… I'm being careful when using my words here because obviously people will hold their hand up and say well that the quality is going out of production and you're trying to get us to effectively do our work on narrowband broadband. No, I'm not, I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is, ultimately, we're here to serve the customer. And I hate to keep saying this, but it's true. And it's the one thing which we must never forget.

I think for many years we built broadcast systems that were built for us broadcasters, because it made us comfortable, 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.

I think this new IT world, so this broadcast IT world that we're now in, gives us a much greater opportunity. So we are definitely needing talented, very talented people, that have completely different skills. The traditional sort of broadcast engineer needs to be very IT savvy now. Everything they do needs to be about how do they spin up services, how do they ensure that remote productions remedies will work well and thinking of new innovation. And so they've got to be greater innovation, they've got to be great at IT and understanding it. And also, they've got to be very, very adaptable.

Because again, you know, when I came into the industry, you learned a skill. You're actually a vision engineer. Vision engineer was doing, racking, understood about cameras, understood about, you know, putting content onto tape. Now what you're doing is, you're asking, let's say the new form of sort of broadcast IT engineer to be so computer literate, to be understanding of why a stream is erroring. Understanding of those skillsets that you wouldn't traditionally have had in sort of, what I would call the old broadcast world.

So yes, to answer your question succinctly, yes it is very much an IT world now. And it's about how we stream bits and bytes around to give our customers the content they want.

CW: I guess a consequence of that, as well, of course, is the rise in importance of security. Now I remember having a conversation a number of years ago with someone who was talking about their organization, and they said that they would describe themselves as one of the biggest potential bullseyes that there could be for people attacking them, you know, for hackers to get involved with them, as well. So I guess security has to be a critical part of what we're doing in the future.

DL: Yeah, and I, I think this is part of that sort of “Has technology kept up with where we need it to be?” I think this one is probably no. I think we have to become a lot more understanding of how content can be protected and also the relationship between, you know, the customer, and the distributor, and how we're in the future going to ensure that we know that it's Darren long on the other end of that sort of OTT stream, because we have a way of being able to authenticate that.

And I don't want to go into a world which makes it difficult for the customers, it shouldn't be. It should be frictionless, it should be easy for the customer. But equally, in a world where rights are so expensive, and if you look at Olympics or even Premier League or any of the major events that happen around the world, you know you're buying those rights in inordinate amounts of money. And for the sort of… how could I say, ability for hackers to then, you know, stream that anyway they want.

So this is the part of the technology we need to get so much better at. About safeguarding our storage of our content, so making sure that when we put it into—we know what we're doing with it. We know that five editors have touched it. We know the editors, we know where it's been, we know how it was used. We know that the stream is now being delivered to the CDN, and we know that relationship between the customer and that CDN, and because we have a really good way of ensuring we embed that encryption into the system.

So this is the part which I think you'll see a big change over the next few years as rights holders become much more aware of their want to protect their rights, and the broadcasters learn that if they don't protect the rights holders rights, they won't get the content. And so you look at sort of some of the security processes like TPM which obviously audits companies to make sure that from storage all the way to distribution, their content is good and protected. That will just get harder and harder as we go on because as we've seen with our own banking systems, you know, the authentication of the way that you now use your mobile app is getting more and more sophisticated because unfortunately the people wanting to get hold of that content is becoming more and more sophisticated.

So I think security for me is probably the Achilles heel of most of us in the industry today. And it's probably one we probably don't pay enough attention to, enough money to investigate how are we going to do this, and it's probably the one area that probably not the most exciting for organizations. But going forward, and I truly believe this in the next you know, two to three years, those companies that don't invest in really clever ways of ensuring great encryption and great relationships between their customers that ensures that content goes nowhere else are going to be the companies that really suffer. Because you will find that rights holders will rather sell to those organizations that they know are protected rather than those organizations that just gets plagiarized everywhere.

You know, we need to recognize that the world has changed in the last two and a half, three years because of COVID, but that has given us rise to more opportunities to stream content which has given rise to more opportunities for people to, how can I say, use that content, whereas they traditionally would have probably sold it on the market for a VHS or whatever a DVD.

So we've got to catch up. We've got to get much better at this, and it's the one part, if I'm honest with you, I think we're still behind the times on and need to do a lot more about.

CW: Darren it has been really great to talk to you on the podcast. You know, I think so many different things to pick out from our conversation, so thanks very much for that. And there is one question I ask everyone on the podcast, so I will ask you. What is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

DL: I think it's the excitement of the industry that keeps me up at night. And what I mean by that is that the mindset of our customers has changed hugely in the last two years. And the concern of people like myself, is “What's the next thing? How do we innovate? How do we keep pace? How do we keep ensuring that we're always one step ahead of that sort of innovation that allows people to watch content.

So, if I'm being very honest with you, it's about the things we don't know. It's about the things we should know, and we should keep innovating. And I think it's being restless. And I think for me I've always been restless. I feel there's no such thing as a perfect way of doing something, in my mind. You do something perfectly and then you make it better. And I think this is what keeps me sort of constantly thinking “Where do we need to go next?” And if I'm honest with you, just if you allow me one more second just to kind of talk about this, the industry needs to work together more. The industry needs to be greater partnerships, and I mean truly across whether broadcasters or facility providers or manufacturers and suppliers of hardware and equipment. We need to be much more together. And what's keeping me awake at night is making sure that there's a voice out there to keep reminding people: If you don't innovate, if you don't keep thinking, then guess what? You're going be the next company that people remember failed, but don't remember survived and were successful. And I want to make sure that this industry keeps doing that and those companies that are out there today never rest and are constantly thinking “How do we make things better?” That for me is what keeps me awake at night.

CW: Striving to make things better. Not a bad way to end, I think.

Thanks to Darren for joining us on the podcast and sharing his perspective on the state of the industry. Why not check out the show notes to find out more information about how Avid is deploying editing and storage services in the cloud with Edit On Demand. And to get the lowdown on how AI is being viewed in another podcast episode?

Get in touch! Let us know what you think. You can email Makingthemedia@avid.com. Or, on social, on both Twitter and Instagram, I am @CraigAW1969.

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That is all for now. Thanks to our producer, Matt Diggs. Thanks most of all to you for listening. Join me, Craig Wilson, next time for more informed chat with the people Making the Media.

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