by Mark Chillingworth

Channel 4 turns 30 but stays technologically tuned in, says its CIO

Nov 01, 20126 mins
CareersCloud ComputingIT Strategy

Cloud computing, Hadoop data management, mobile devices and improving broadband access are converging as the challenges and opportunities for CIOs. These technologies all correlate to one another and it is the users, both as customers and within the enterprise that are creating the challenge and the opportunity for CIOs. This can be clearly seen in broadcasting and earlier this year CIO caught up with Channel 4 CIO Kevin Gallagher to discuss what the plotline of this story would be.

Channel 4 launched onto the UK media scene on November 2, 1982 and in the last 30 years it has carved itself a well-respected niche with viewers and advertisers. The latter is important, although a public service broadcaster like the BBC, Channel 4 is completely commercially funded, largely though advertising, but also rights sales, DVD and other smaller income streams.  Advertising revenue mean the last few years have been tough, as they have for all advertising funded media organisations.

Channel 4 is famed for its boldness and investment in content and despite a tough marketplace, the organisation has continued the same boldness towards its technology strategy under CIO Gallagher (pictured).

“We must keep the core channel and content strong and everything else builds on that,” Gallagher says of the business strategy. Technologically that means that Gallagher and his team have to ensure that Channel 4 supports multi-platform media and he says its 4OD on demand service is performing well on games consoles for example. Channel 4 doesn’t produce content in the way the BBC does, but has a commissioning model that has enabled the UK’s independent television production marketplace to become an important pillar of the UK creative economy. Gallagher says that commissioning model now extends beyond television content into online material and applications to ensure the Channel 4 brand has that edgy and creative feel to it no matter the access route to it.

“It is a very exciting place to work. One of the key things about Channel 4 is that everyone here expects to succeed. All eyes are on success, so no energy is wasted on politics. You have a very clear goal and that brings on the challenges.”

As it matures to a 30 year-old it can at least look at 2012 knowing that its coverage of the London 2012 Paralympic Games was highly successful, further enhanced the channel’s brand name for edginess – think of those bold trailers and adverts of being superhuman – and that its place in the hearts of viewers is healthy.

“My challenge is to build on the core platform while keeping the cost of diversity down,” he says of the multiplatform media challenge. The holy-grail for Channel 4 is a single platform that carries content from commissioning to play out.

“The television programme is the core of the system,” he says of the importance to focus on the product not a technology. “Allocated to that are digital rights, commissioning details for play on different distribution media and there may even be different versions for pre- or post-watershed.

“With our US content Flash and iPad versions need very strict digital rights management (DRM) as the US studios are very keen on keeping DRM strong and we have to protect that very very seriously,” he says.

The recent trends in technology development have been a major help to Gallagher, especially technologies such as cloud computing when it comes to delivering video on demand.

“If you have your own infrastructure sooner or later you have to say no,” he says of the freedom cloud computing has given him to say yes when producers or channel heads see a potential spike in demand coming or an opportunity to offer additional media interaction with consumers.

“The elasticity is great. We have websites that are phenomenally popular for an hour a week. So the ability to predict that, spin up servers for that site and then spin down for the demand slow-down is great.

“We tend to have large spikes in traffic driven by calls to action on air.  These can be very large, sudden and are difficult to predict in terms of scale.  So if there is a property programme with Sarah Beeny and she encourages people to add things to their online scrapbook (see below) it has a noticeable impact on traffic.  We therefore have a good idea of when they are likely to occur but sometimes the popularity of a programme and the online traffic it drives can surprise us.  A pleasant surprise was the Plane Crash show where we had over 150,000 people ‘checked in’ to the online app,” he explains.

A future challenge for Gallagher is reacting to how consumers will use services such as the Channel 4 scrapbook, a form of televisual that enables viewers to save and store and share links to content on Channel 4 and other websites for personal usage.

Services like Scrapbook and on-demand channels not only broaden the Channel 4 offering, but also increase the levels of data it can capture about its audience. Gallagher is already using Hadoop data tools because the volume levels are high, but the real challenge with this technology he says is finding skilled staff.

Gallagher has a buy not build IT procurement policy, although admits that can be challenging in the broadcasting world. Even the sales systems available on the market have required a high level of involvement and a refresh will be required soon to meet the demands of the sales teams and their clients. To prepare for these developments and keep pace with viewer demand Gallagher has done a lot of infrastructure investment over the last two years.

IT at Channel 4 consists of 120 people on site, 60 of whom are staff, the rest contractors. Computacentre, KIT Digital and NIIT are the main suppliers, with SAP and Business Objects for data management.

“We’ve always been about finding the suppliers that are the right size for us so that we can influence them and all of our partners perform really well for us,” he says of his supplier relationships. “It is a constant dialogue.”

Looking ahead Gallagher sees data analysis as being the biggest challenge and opportunity for technology at Channel 4.

“We talk about data a lot and we have an audience insight team that is driving registrations, we already have five million registered users. So the next challenge is what we do around personalisation that will drive business benefits, but also be more attractive to viewers as well.”

Read the CIO interview with former Channel 4 CIO Ian Dobbs