High-definition leadership

High-definition leadership

Damian Swaffield says the job of general manager technology at TVNZ requires a fine balance between traditional ICT and cutting edge online and digital channels.

To the viewing public, broadcast free-to-air television is essentially about breaking news, reality TV, sitcoms, movies, sports and other forms of entertainment.
Damian Swaffield has quite a different perspective.

“It is a creative organisation that delivers quality content underpinned by [being a] supply-chain business,” says Swaffield, general manager technology, TVNZ. “In essence, we acquire, we produce and then we distribute through multiple channels. As our vision statement indicates, ‘We inspire New Zealanders on every screen’.”

There is a great deal of complexity and creativity wrapped around the process, but at a fundamental level a number of principles from supply chain optimisation and lean manufacturing can be applied, he says.

As well, there is the creative side of the business. “Creative considerations can often overlay all other considerations,” says Swaffield, “so you have to think about the quality of programming and the message within. The creative part of the process is very important.”

His role as general manager of technology is, he says, one of “maintaining a balance” of all these parts of the business.

Deconstructing the business

When Swaffield joined the public television broadcaster, he applied a skill honed from his previous experience as a consultant at KPMG.

“I don’t have the technical hands-on experience for broadcast or the interactive digital media,” he explains, “but I have the ability to deconstruct the business quite quickly based on skills I learnt years ago in the consulting business.”

He moved quickly to create a strategy for the technology group, covering the critical projects that needed to be put in place to support the business.

“I had that in front of and approved by the Board four months after I started,” he says.

Swaffield knew the broadcast sector was “going through such a profound change” when he joined TVNZ 19 months ago.

“It is one of the things that attracted me to the role,” he says. “TVNZ is a business going through a period of significant change, as it moves from being a linear broadcaster to a digital media company.”

TVNZ is in the forefront of all that change, he says, from the growth of digital channels and platforms to more interactive websites.

“I am lucky,” he says of his position, “my role is across the broadcast domain and the whole digital media including online platforms and IPTV, and also the traditional corporate IT space.

“I have done that to death,” he says of the latter. However, the new frontiers in his work at TVNZ are those that involve TV and digital media in a transforming market place.

It is “getting video across the internet in a manner and experience that makes people want to see it, at a quality people want to see, while making money from it. This is an interesting business challenge”.

The engine room

Swaffield and his team are working on three major projects simultaneously: a new advertising sales system; a digital media project to reposition TVNZ’s website for an enhanced news offering along with a new entertainment offering (providing “catch-up” TV on a PC); and a third project focused on the removal of tape-based work practices and the digitising of TVNZ’s workflow and transmission or play-out function.

The advertising project is a business system to sell and manage the broadcaster’s advertising inventory, either directly or through advertising agencies. “It is the engine room for the business, analogous to airline inventory management or hotel inventory (room) management. It is the guts of how we manage our $300 million revenue stream,” he says.

TVNZ is upgrading the system and it should be live by this year. This new sales system, the website enhancements, the enhanced content delivery over broadband, online ad serving, as well as the management of online rights and significant upgrades to channel scheduling systems, took up a great deal of his teams’ work hours last year.

He says the job involves keeping pace with a massively transforming media landscape; along with the changes in consumer focus, understanding of consumer behaviour and trends in media consumption. He says much of his work involves playing with “funky technology” within the video space and that TVNZ aims to provide video content to people in an appropriate form and appropriate time frame.

He cites TVNZ’s partnership with Google and YouTube during the Beijing Olympics, and with the simultaneous broadcast of the 2008 New Zealand election coverage. This included the user-generated question loop through YouTube, which he says has been done only twice internationally. The first instance was during the US election of Barack Obama as Democratic presidential candidate.

In the case of “catch-up television”, Swaffield says the aim is that “almost 100 percent of what we show on primetime TV is available online, instantaneously”.

Distributing content on multiple platforms requires “what is called ‘360 degree rights’”. These rights, across multiple platforms, he says, “are going to allow a profound change in viewing behaviour”.

A transformational activity

The third project, moving from tapes to a file-based workflow environment, is a “transformational activity”, says Swaffield. The project, called Nexus, should be completed during the second or third quarter of 2010.

It includes deployment of media management asset technologies that will allow TVNZ to move to a complete file-based model for production, editing, post production, transmission and distribution. “Our entire value chain will be file-based from next year, in that we deliver a full HD television and HD content experience.”

TVNZ has also launched two digital channels, TVNZ 6 and 7 on Freeview, running in a purely file-based digital environment. But when Project Nexus goes live, everything will be file based.

A simple analogy to explain this digital transformation to a file-based environment is to compare it to the changes in residential homes when dealing with home movies or photographs. “We used to take photos or home movies with (video) cameras and then have the film developed and the print physically stored. Today, we use digital cameras or camcorders to capture memories, copy the result direct to our PCs or storage devices and use edit software such as Photoshop to manage, enhance and playback. We manage the lifecycle of our home media digitally. We may never actually copy it to tape or print a physical copy of it.”

He says while this is a simple analogy, applying it to TVNZ is quite different. “Think about this approach applied to thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of television prepared and transmitted every year, through a variety of distribution channels, and you get a sense of the complexity and challenge of this transformation.”

“When we go live [with Nexus], our current media library will be entirely file-based. “We are still discussing to what extent we digitise our back archive he says, referring to the massive TVNZ archives. “As a commercial organisation, we have to determine whether there is value in completely digitising the archive.”

He says TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis has profoundly transformed the business.

“He has created a clear strategy, put a talented team together with clear goals and focus and started the move to a TV and digital media business model,” Swaffield says of Ellis, who returned to TVNZ after a period as the managing director of EDS.

As one of the largest stakeholders in Freeview, TVNZ has boosted the number of channels in the free to air television sector and launched high-definition television through the digital terrestrial platform. Swaffield’s team provides technical support for the Freeview environment and provides the assistance in design and deployment for the setup box.

High definition, he says, is as much about the quality of the audio experience as the quality of the picture. Viewers expect a great sound experience, not just a crystal clear picture.

Storage, he says, is also a big issue, and as the CIO of a TV and digital media company, he faces some industry-specific challenges.

“We have a significant focus on media lifecycle management, and a tiered storage architecture to manage not gigabytes but petabytes of media, we go straight past terabytes. For example, an hour of HD television requires about 80GB of storage.”

He also cites TVNZ 6 and 7, which are smaller non-commercial channels. “We have about 64 terabytes of storage available to them and that only holds 1500 to 2000 hours content.

“We just have a lot of storage and fast networks to move video at high speed from point A to B. We make sure it is transmitted to every platform required and this may mean a transcode down to a lower resolution. Doing that sort of work is complicated, it requires significant computer power and storage requirements.”

Focus on people

He says the multifaceted ICT responsibility across the TVNZ group is made possible by his team of 80 people. “They are a great team and very passionate about the business of broadcast and media,” he says.

Swaffield counted on his executive background to lead the team. “I have got a background in the service industry, in 24x7, 365-day-a-year businesses and I bring a strong commercial and business focus,” he says, having been general manager information services at Skycity. “I believe I was hired for my leadership background and experience, and my reputation as a change driver”.

“I was also in the entertainment business at Skycity. It was a different proposition as hotels, casinos and restaurants are much more of a physical environment and experience. But a lot of the same business fundamentals and principles apply. It is a service business where the consumer experience is paramount, and the delivery of products and experiences through multiple channels applies.”

One of the pillars of his strategy at TVNZ is around people. “We had to change the paradigm under which people were operating and have spent a lot of time over the past 12 months really focusing on that. It is the key enabler to all the bits and pieces in developing talent, acquiring talent to change some of our fundamentals in terms of how we work, looking at customer engagement models, agility and so on. Those initiatives are taking a bit longer than I thought it might, but they are so integrated we are able to keep pace in what is a very dynamic and changing business.”

His team is structured to focus on a number of areas: strategy and architecture; planning and improvement which covers governance, improvement and service management; a technology manager who looks after news and current affairs and broadcasting; business systems to facilitate advertisng sales, finance and HR; an enterprise integration and development team that looks at the digital media and web business; and IT management responsible for storage, servers, networking, infrastructure and the service desk.

They are all equally important and each area requires different skills, says Swaffield. However, while this structure works for now, it may change in the future as the technology team is undergoing constant review and assessment of its competency in relation to the business.

As the largest broadcaster in the country, Swaffield says TVNZ closely observes overseas businesses such as Foxtel, Discovery, ESPN Singapore and the BBC.

“We see what other people have done and we have to partner internationally. Our lessons are international.”

He says for TVNZ, and he could easily be speaking for any number of New Zealand CIOs working with offshore providers, vendor management “is always a long-distance relationship”.

The broadcast providers are mainly based in Europe or the US. For instance, TVNZ is about to implement a new advertising sales management system that was developed by a company called Solutions for Media based in Cologne, Germany.

“Having an effective relationship with their chief executive has been an important contributor to the success of that project,” says Swaffield. The project was underway when he joined TVNZ.

As such, he spent a lot of time building a relationship with the chief executive, including meetings at broadcasting conventions in the US and Europe. “I am a co-sponsor of that project and it has allowed me to assist this organisation to make sure the project is a success.”

Ten years ago TVNZ started working with Pilat, a UK-based company that provides the broadcaster’s channel scheduling system. When the relationship started, Pilat was a small company, but has grown phenomenally since then. “We had fallen off the radar of their top customers, because they were so busy growing the business and signing up new customers,” says Swaffield. “We spent a lot of time, myself and some of my senior colleagues, re-engaging them as a customer, partner and vendor to make sure they understood our future business challenges and we are very happy with the relationship we now have with them.” He says this extra effort is important because Pilat is working with TVNZ on their business critical, file-based workflow initiative to digitise the business.

“The relationships that concern me most in this role are those long-distance relationships, the unique ones around broadcasting and media.”

A balancing act

Swaffield does not see any downside to his job, except that “it can be quite full on”.

“There is lot to do, there are a lot of different threads to manage. We are running a number of long-term investment projects concurrently, so multi-tasking is necessary,” he says. He describes his relationship with the TVNZ executive team as “really positive”.

“I have been developing the role of trusted adviser with my colleagues and the journey is progressing really well. As with all journeys, there are times I don’t want the journey to finish, because I always think there is more work to be done.

“The technology team has changed significantly and grown and matured as a team. I have seen a massive change of how the team interacts. Based on the interaction improvement and collaboration, we are now doing far more, which is great.”

He says there is, however, still a range of things the group still wants to achieve. “I am concerned we get the most from our team and that our team works most effectively together.

“I am not worried about our ability to deliver technology, that comes with the territory. I am focused on our ability to understand our customers’ business needs and that we continually deliver value in an agile manner. And that we ensure effective management of internal and external relationships and partnerships.”

As a tactical example, the technology team delivered a broadband-enabled remote office set up that allowed TVNZ to do an outside broadcast for this year’s Waitangi Day celebrations. “Everything was running over IP and broadband, which was a first for us. But it gave us a huge amount of flexibility at the time and that is reactive, quick-response stuff.”

Agility is important in a market undergoing profound change, he states. “If you are not agile you are lock stepped into an 18 to 24 month planning and investment window. If your business changes or the needs of your customers change, you are locked into that approach. You can’t meet your customers’ needs.”

Some of his team were recruited specifically for their experience with overseas broadcasting, to help deal with the issues New Zealand media faces. One of his senior team members came from a senior role at a large commercial station in Ireland, while another came from a senior strategy role at the BBC. “With our experience we seek to understand challenges the business is facing and guide our colleagues to challenges and opportunities that they may not have thought about previously.

“It is getting ahead of the game,” he says. “Our job is to join the dots for them, as it is for other parts of the organisation.”

Interestingly, he shares a common experience with TVNZ’s news team in that, in his current work, “Everyday is different, with a constant need to react to changes in circumstances”.

“In a dynamic business that operates around the clock, the challenge is to ensure the baseline operations are slick, robust and effective and provide an excellent customer experience.

“We then focus our remaining resources on managed plans of improvement and innovation, ensuring that TVNZ is well placed for a changing media landscape and rapidly changing consumer expectations.”

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