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App-etite for Innovation Fuels Disney Sea Change

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On the surface, the obvious features of the Watch ABC app would easily qualify the network as B&C’s Multiplatform Broadcaster of the year. The app’s timely launch in May marked the first time a major broadcast network began offering a live 24-hour feed of both its national programming and local network affiliates for mobile devices and the Web.

But a look under the hood at the massive business—the technological and organizational efforts ABC put together to turn the concept into reality—makes the result even more noteworthy.

“Literally, every part of the company was touching this to get it done so quickly,” says Albert Cheng, executive VP and chief product officer, digital media, Disney/ABC Television Group. Cheng points to a concerted effort by network tech teams, their station group, program distribution arm and business affairs team to get all the necessary deals and technical infrastructure in place. “What was so remarkable about this effort was the number of people involved and the coordination across the whole company.”

ABC executives also stress that the app builds on a long history of technical innovation. “Watch ABC is part of the digital technology evolution that started for us with streaming ad-supported content on our ABC Full Episode Player and offering tkhe first iPad app with full streaming episodes,” says Anne Sweeney, cochair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group.

As part of that effort, ABC had been working for a number of years to secure the necessary digital rights. Meanwhile, technical teams led by Cheng on the digital side and Vince Roberts, executive VP, global operations and chief technology officer, Disney/ABC Television Group, in network operations built a groundbreaking cloud-based technical infrastructure that allows them to easily expand their digital innovations in a cost-effective way.

Also notable is that the network decided to work through the existing affiliate model rather than simply create a national feed; it is rolling out Watch ABC as an authenticated app with multichannel providers. “It… strengthens the distribution ecosystem by offering premium authenticated services that viewers want,” Sweeney says.

Looking ahead, Cheng expects Watch ABC to expand its features in 2014 with new devices, on-demand programming behind the pay wall and additional stations. The on-demand programming would give subscribers of multichannel video providers early access to full episodes, with free access to everyone else beginning at a later date, probably after the end of the C7 window. Some Hearst Television stations are scheduled to begin offering Watch ABC in early 2014. The network is working to get other affiliates on board, with the goal of making the app available in local markets throughout the country. “We want to get to the point where you could start driving west from New York City and pick up the Watch ABC feed from every local affiliate as you go across the country,” Cheng says.