As more companies launch direct-to-consumer services, experts in data analytics such as WarnerMedia’s Duan Peng will be increasingly important to the future of the media and entertainment industry.
“The media is in a transformational journey to a direct-to-consumer focus, and data is really the core and center of this whole transformation of the business,” said Peng, who runs rapidly expanding global data and artificial intelligence teams at HBO Max.
Like a number of others who have assumed prominent positions in data analytics at media companies, Peng came from a background in economics and the financial services, areas that have long embraced the use of big data.
After getting a bachelor of arts in international economics at Beijing Normal University, she moved to the U.S. to get a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Miami in Florida in 2007, studies she said that fueled her lifelong “fascination” with using data and statistics to understand economics and consumer behavior.
Peng then moved into the financial services industry, honing her expertise in data analytics at Hyundai Capital America, HSBC and Ameriprise Financial. By the middle of the 2010s, though, she was becoming fascinated with the idea of using her skills in the entertainment industry. “There was starting to be a lot of innovation in media with a lot of newer technologies and direct-to-consumer business, so I made the jump from Wall Street to Hollywood,” she said with a laugh.
In 2016, Peng joined NBCUniversal-owned Fandango. She led and built up Fandango’s data science analytics team before moving to Fox in 2018, where, as VP of data, she led a data analytics team that worked on the launches of subscription services FX Plus and Fox Nation.
After Disney acquired 21st Century Fox’s cable-network and studio assets in 2019, Peng was named VP of data at Disney’s DTC operations. She led teams for data science, machine learning, AI engineering and analytics for such services as Disney Plus and ESPN Plus.
Since joining WarnerMedia in 2020, Peng has led global data and AI groups that are playing a central role in the global launch of HBO Max, which had about 44.2 million subs at the end of the first quarter of 2021. The company is now forecasting 120 million to 150 million subs by 2025.
Whether the recently announced merger between AT&T’s Warner Media and Discovery will make it easier to beat those projections is an open question. But there is little doubt that data analytics and consumer insights will play a key role in HBO Max’s future as it launches an ad-supported version, and as the merged Warner Media and Discovery operations work to expand their streaming services.
Bettering the HBO Max Experience
In the meantime, consumer insights have already improved the HBO Max experience. After the launch of HBO Max in 2020, Peng’s teams developed better, more personalized content discovery tools and algorithms that made it easier to find content and boosted viewing.
Another success has been the creation of tools and insights to help the company “improve the way they acquire and develop content to drive acquisition and engagement,” Peng said.
Looking forward, Peng is also excited about ongoing improvements in AI and data science, which will help companies improve and automate more processes so they will be able to quickly improve their streaming products.
“You will see more and more use cases for machine learning, automation and AI that will help drive the business,” she said.
Peng is also excited about all the young women she sees entering the industry.
“I love that more women are coming into this space and being part of this exciting transformational journey in the media industry,” she said, adding this advice to younger women: “Don’t be afraid. Just stand up for yourself. Be yourself and continue learning and growing. There are going to be some really great career paths for you.”
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