by Edward Qualtrough

Fox Networks Group SVP CIO Ben Hope bringing 21st Century Fox into the 21st century with real-time data revolution

May 23, 2016
IT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

Fox Networks Group SVP CIO Benjamin Hope is bringing 21st Century Fox into the 21st century by tearing down the silos in IT and building a data platform and ecosystem to succeed in turbulent conditions threatening the traditional TV business model.

Speaking at the Tibco Now conference in Las Vegas, Hope acknowledged that disruption had been affecting the media industry and explained the organisation’s two-year journey to tackle what they thought would be an insurmountable challenge.

“The market place headwinds have been hitting us in the face for quite some time,” Hope said. “But I think what’s really changed in the last three to five years is the speed and acceleration of how it’s affecting the business at an exponential rate.

Hope said the biggest challenge had been the emergence of over-the-top digital offerings from the likes of Netflix and Apple TV, as well as new behaviours of viewers wanting to consume content on their own terms on a device of their choosing at a time most convenient for them.

Fox Networks Group is responsible for some of the leading shows in the TV industry, including X-Files, Empire and 24 on its entertainment channels, National Geographic, The Simpsons, Fox Sports showing NFL and Major League Baseball, as well as 22 regional sports networks. Internationally it has 350 channels in 35 languages reaching 1.7 billion plus people across Europe, Asia and Latin America, and produces much of its own non-linear digital offerings like the disruptors threatening it.

Breaking vertical silos

But despite its footprint, pedigree and Fox’s belief that content will always be king, Hope said that the challenge of audience measurement across all those geographies and distribution channels working in different currencies was a major issue, as well as deteriorating margins across a broader range of platforms, while holding on to the margins on your most cannibalised revenue stream.

“But the biggest challenge to IT is that we as an organisation were set up vertically, we were set up by distribution channel with different data sets, different systems, different people, different processes – and now with a 90-degree shift in the industry we need to be able to look at things horizontally,” the CIO said.

“Content will always be king, but the difference now is no longer can the audience find the content, but where can we find our audience, and to do that what you really need is good data.

“Our data system 18 months ago was anything but 21st century; one of our biggest business intelligence tools was Microsoft Excel, and all of our data was separated from the decision-makers who needed to understand the data across all of the organisation’s distribution channels.”

Enterprise data platform

Hope, in his role as SVP CIO at Fox Networks Group for eight years, set off on a journey to create a single enterprise data platform using their own first-party data as well as third-party data from organisations like Nielsen, with the strategy to look at data as a service and not just as data itself.

“Tibco is the bus which moves the data around our ecosystem,” Hope said, continuing that “we had a bake-off” when asked about why they went with the provider.

“It was one of our great decisions; we looked at functional fit, economics and speed to market, which was very important to us because we were so far behind and Tibco hit on all cylinders; we are very pleased with the outcomes and our partnership.”

Hope, who has also had executive roles in sales and operations at NBC Universal, said that they used the Business Works tool to use real-time data to improve on-air promotions and scheduling in real-time, but that one of the biggest wins came in using Tibco to help improve BPM and workflow by moving data around the business and help automate processes at the organisation.

“In 60 days we have already eliminated between 30 and 50 manual workflows,” Hope said. “It doesn’t sound like much but it’s a start, and we want that to be 10-fold or 100-fold over the next few years.”

Rebuilding Fox ecosystem

The organisation’s biggest problem had been data quality, and by syncing data between the various disparate systems, Hope said that they were setting up the organisation for success and that this was just the start of the journey for Fox.

“From where we started, we’re now moving into the 21st century as 21st Century Fox and Fox Networks Group. I see that this is simply going to explode; it’s the start of the journey not nearly the end of it,” he said.

The next phase for Hope and Fox is to “rebuild an entire ecosystem” and re-platform their 25-year-old sales systems and applications, and while they were be turning to some off-the-shelf apps that model is not enough, and they will need a tech partner like Tibco to play a major role in that ecosystem by moving all the data around the organisation and systems in real-time.

At the Tibco Now conference in Las Vegas, its first user conference since November 2014 when its new private owners Vista Equity Partners were introduced, the organisation was reflective and transparent about its strategic direction of innovating at the core and on the edge, undergoing its own transformation, embracing elements of open source, a focus on Internet of Things and having a willingness to disrupt its own business to reach new markets, customers and revenue streams.

Interconnect everything

Matt Quinn, the CTO who was part of the IPO and subsequent de-listing 15 years later, distilled the company’s cloud-first focus as “augment intelligence; interconnect everything”.

Tibco CEO Murray Rode, the former COO who took over from founder and previous chief executive Vivek Ranadive, said that Tibco was undergoing its own transformation, reflecting how they were trying to respond to the market and needs of their customers.

“The common threads from all these discussions are the core versus the edge dynamic,” Rode said. “It implies a reasonably big culture change; a cultural change on product, culture change on sales, culture change on how you look at your customer interactions.

“If you are going to address the edge, the organisation needs to act a little more open to this dynamic – the business needs to adapt to it with a subscription model rather than proprietary. Customers are shifting of sorts from a Capex to an Opex model; they are getting smart around how they buy.

“It’s necessary to be much more open and integrated with whatever the current themes are in the market.”

Disrupting your own business

The Tibco response is a pseudo-dichotomy of having a willingness to cannibalise your own business while relying on your core principles, history and expertise and adapting in a way which comes naturally to Silicon Valley technology, Rode explained.

“We need to be able to support those kinds of themes with these new buying patterns,” he said. “It’s not necessarily cannibalistic, it’s a new market with horizontal opportunities appealing to that edge buyer.

“We have a hard core history in real-time trading systems. Today that is the consumer expectation; it’s real-time – it doesn’t necessarily have the same heavy duty transactional relationship but it is real-time.

“Real-time now pervades every interaction we see with our customers.

“Most Silicon Valley tech companies are very good at innovating, it’s a constantly competitive environment with lots of demand for people. All these forces keep pressure on us to change with the times so cultural change is not as hard as at a traditional industry – we have always had to be adapting to changing market needs.

“We have to be focused on innovation, with a willingness to cannibalise ourselves and eat into a historical market in a way which responds to market demand and be easier to work with for customers.”

AI and 3D-printing will revolutionise every industry

US inventor, futurist and author Ray Kurzweil, a keynote speaker at the Tibco Now conference, echoed Rode’s sentiments and suggested this approach, as well as a willingness to be active in open source markets, were critical strategies for all businesses.

“No industry can rest on its laurels and think their business interests can be maintained,” he said. “Artificial intelligence and 3D-printing will revolutionise every industry.

“You can’t rely on one business model to stay competitive. You need to be able to cannibalise your own business model.

“And look at the co-existence of the free and open source market and the proprietary market in music, books and films. These markets have actually grown, not shrunk, and that’s going to be a model for the economy of the future.”