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A Champion Innovator

Andy Setos has made a career of being ahead of the curve. Whether helping the industry move forward on the broadcast flag, bringing stereo television to MTV, or moving Fox broadcast operations to tapeless operations before it became the rage, the president of engineering for the Fox Group has set his own advanced pace.

"Every innovation needs a champion," he says.

His most recent effort was to build support for the broadcast flag from both broadcasters and the government. He considers it one of the most important developments that he has been involved with because the social aspect overshadows his other accomplishments.

For the uninitiated, the flag isn't a flag at all but an invisible electronic encryption on programming that will ensure that content broadcast over the air can't be pirated. "It was difficult to thread the needle to bring the idea to the marketplace," Setos says. "I'm cautiously optimistic that it's going to happen because the FCC is in the last stages of implementing the flag."

The flag issue may seem confusing and vague, but Setos is sure it's crucial. "Broadcasters have a significant stake in maintaining the exclusivity of their territory," he explains. "If you sell a program in more than one market or country and you don't have protection, why would you sell it to that station or distributor? It's like having a movie theater when anyone can walk in without buying a ticket, sit down and watch the movie, and then leave with a copy of it."

The flag is an example of the kind of issues that face an industry that, Setos says, wasn't faced with much decision-making in terms of innovation 20 years ago. "In the '80s and early '90s, making TV got very easy, and there was a lull in innovative production and distribution technology," he explains. "The belief was, don't over-exert yourself, go with the flow, and don't spend more than you need to spend."

Since those simpler days, technology has become a whirlwind of innovation, with a dizzying array of options for acquisition, storage, transmission, you name it. The trick, he says, is to know when what's new is also what's necessary.

Take his work at MTV. The 24-hour music channel was ready to launch, and Setos, who was vice president, engineering and operations, at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment and oversaw the network, decided it was time to tackle stereo audio. After all, if a music channel isn't a perfect reason to go stereo, what would be?

"I thought very strongly that a music channel without stereo would be like a black-and-white TV," he says. "People really didn't experience stereo TV day in and day out."

He met resistance and skepticism. Even the record companies balked, because they didn't want to have to produce the videos with a stereo track. Two years after he began his campaign, the Michael Jackson video for "Thriller" arrived at MTV and not only changed the idea of what was music video but was also the first to have stereo audio.

Setos says resistance to innovation is common. Favorite excuses include it'll never work ("It's easy to say it'll never work but hard to say we can try to make it work," he counters) or it won't make a difference or isn't important ("People are set in their ways, and change is tough and disruptive"). The key to overcoming that resistance is to make a solid argument for how new technology will allow an operation to save money or improve the on-screen look or experience.

"The big challenge with innovation is not to get hooked on it for its own sake," he adds. "If you're a blood-thirsty innovator, the danger is you'll forget why you're innovating to begin with."

Setos tries to keep that perspective: "I don't get excited about a new hammer. I look at it and see if it helps me do something faster, better or cheaper."

Sometimes, however, the steps Fox and Setos have taken have, at first blush, run counter to those values. Five years ago, Fox became the first U.S.-based network to build a tapeless broadcast facility. Based on video- server technology, it allowed programs to be sent throughout the facility as files, eliminating the need for videotape machines, videotapes, and the usual sneaker-net.

It was an expensive undertaking, based on cutting-edge technologies, but it had a return on investment that justified the effort. "In terms of labor savings and savings on videotape or VTR heads, it paid for itself in a year and half, even though it was very expensive and costly to install," says Setos. "That isn't a glamorous innovation, but it's important."

The Fox network approach to HDTV exemplifies the cautious approach to glamorous technology. While the other broadcast networks have already committed to prime time HDTV, Fox has taken its time, rolling out standard-definition widescreen broadcasts. That will change this September, however, when Fox begins to offer HD programming in prime time.

"Our decision in general was not to rush into HDTV because we didn't want to spend a lot of money on nothing," says Setos. "It's not about stunts but sustaining an effort. In September, our prime time and sports broadcasts will be in HDTV."

Not succumbing to the effort to keep up with the Joneses underlies another Setos value: Know your own costs and challenges and make a decision based on your own business fundamentals. For example, when Fox completed its server-based facility, he wouldn't recommend that the typical station undertake such a project because the amount of energy needed to sustain the facility was beyond them.

"There is no ready-made solution for a problem," he adds. "You need to study everything, gather as much information as possible, and understand what is coming down the pike. There are plenty of developments that have no effect on a business. 'A little better' doesn't mean 'Embrace it.'"