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Digital Leadership Awards: Digital Video Vanguards Lead the Pack

At this week's Next TV Summit (Sept. 9-10) in San Francisco, B&C and Multichannel News will present three media executives with Digital Leadership Awards, recognizing achievements in content, entertainment and technology.

They are: Albert Cheng, executive VP and chief product officer, digital media, Disney/ABC Television Group; James Packer, president of worldwide television and digital distribution at Lionsgate; and Blair Westlake, corporate VP, media and entertainment group, at Microsoft. Their profiles follow.

Feeding a Media Giant's Startup Mentality

By K.C. Neel

Albert Cheng works for one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, but his digital media group operates more like an entrepreneurial startup. That helps Disney/ABC Television Group to act and react to market demands and technological advances much more quickly than its size and scope would suggest.

Cheng's team envisioned, created and launched the first service that enabled authenticated users access to both live, linear network streams and on-demand episodes on iPad tablets, which on its own would be enough to earn a Digital Leadership Award. For Cheng and his crew, though, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Disney was also the first programmer to offer full episodes on iTunes in 2005; the first to offer full episodes on-demand via a mobile platform with Sprint in 2007; the first to stream episodes online in true 720p HD; and the first to offer expert and user commentary with full episodes online in 2009. Cheng and his team also developed an iPad app for Disney shows in just under two months.

"We were all watching the launch of the iPad in our offices in February 2010," he said. "We had this idea that we should make our programming available on that platform. We launched our iPad app five weeks later, in April. Everything was designed and implemented by our group."

Prior to his current role, Cheng served as senior VP, business strategy and development for Disney and ESPN Networks affiliate sales and marketing, where he was responsible for developing business strategies to increase distribution and generate revenue streams from new products and services. He also oversaw the development of interactive products for DisneyABC Cable Networks Group's channels, which at that time included ABC Family, Disney Channel, SoapNet and Toon Disney. He came to Disney from Fox Cable Networks Group, where he was director of distribution strategy.

"For the last eight years, my role has primarily been to remain focused on consumers and how technology is changing their perceptions and expectations," Cheng said. "We know we need to be available in as many ways as possible. And that includes not just watching TV. It's the whole experience. I believe there's going to be more personalization. No one wants to fight their TV.
"We're still in the early stages of consumer and education in terms of TV Everywhere," he added. "Consumers don't want to understand our business. They just want it to work. And how we communicate the value of TV Everywhere is so important."

Exploring a Golden Age of Distribution

By George Winslow

Newer digital platforms have raised fears that long-standing business models are ripe for disruption, but Liongate's Jim Packer is a veteran distributor who welcomes them. He believes rapid technological changes have started a whole new era in studio distribution of movies and TV shows.

"The great thing about Lionsgate is that we don't look at these new platforms and say, ‘Let's wait and do something later,'" Packer said. "We have actually embraced them and worked to figure out ways to make new product for them."

The studio's success in that arena has come on several fronts. Theatrically, Lionsgate has adopted a very flexible, innovative windowing strategy. In TV, it has produced a number of original shows for subscription overthe-top video providers, including Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and Hulu Plus' Deadbeat, and has expanded distribution of its content through Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and other services. Lionsgate's successful strategies have earned Packer a Digital Leadership Award, to be presented at this week's Next TV Summit.

Packer drew on his years of experience at Walt Disney Co. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to build an innovative international distribution team. "We had to sell 100 episodes of [the Charlie Sheenstarring] Anger Management before it even went on the air," he said. "That would not have been possible without a very nimble, forward-thinking sales group." And that adds up to a bright future, Packer said. "When people talk how we are in a golden age of TV right now with all the great TV being created, I think you'd have to say it is also the golden age of distribution, because there are so many different avenues and ways to get product to the consumer," he said.

Packer's path to digital leadership at Lionsgate included eight years at MGM, culminating in his appointment as copresident of the studio's worldwide television operation. He also created and managed the MGM Channels Group and was instrumental in launching MGM HD, the studio's first wholly owned channel in the U.S.; the Impact video-on-demand network, launched in partnership with Comcast; and This TV, a digital broadcast network in partnership with Wiegel Broadcasting. He was also a key player in the launch of the Epix multiplatform channel with Viacom and Lionsgate.

At Disney, Packer spent 15 years working in Buena Vista's domestic television distribution business, ultimately managing the distribution and syndication of Disney content in more than half of the U.S.

Steering Microsoft to Video-Delivery Success

By K.C. Neel

Microsoft has been angling for a position in the cable business ever since the company invested $1 billion in Comcast in 1997. After a few failed attempts, it would appear the software giant has finally hit its stride and now stands poised to become a major videodelivery player, thanks in large part to Blair Westlake.

Westlake, who joined Microsoft in 2004 after more than 20 years in the entertainment business including stints at Universal Television& Networks Group and GemstarTV Guide International, is being honored with a Digital Leadership Award at an opportune moment.

The software power made inroads into multichannel video via carriage deals with Comcast and Verizon Communications that allow authenticated customers to receive programming through Microsoft's Xbox360 gaming console. But the company's biggest and most wide-reaching arrangement has resulted in the recent launch of service with Time Warner Cable, whose customers now have access to all of the MSO's programming using the Xbox360.

"This was really the culmination of a track we have been on for the last three years," Westlake said. "We realized there are 100 million TV households being served by multichannel-service providers and [most] of those people are going to get the vast majority of their video content through a device in their living room. So why reinvent the wheel? We have a significant number [78 million] of consoles in those same homes.

The stage was set.

"We decided our Xbox was the best way for service providers to deliver TV Everywhere," Westlake added. "Time Warner Cable was the first operator to offer the whole video package."
The arrangement with TWC demonstrates how MSOs can eliminate the costs of multiple set-top boxes in the home while giving customers more flexibility on devices. Programming lineups are self-installed via an app, reducing operator costs. And the Xbox's technological advancements afford customers more bells and whistles without costing an operator big bucks.

Westlake was originally trained to be a lawyer and was hired by Universal to oversee legal issues at the company's theme park in Orlando, Fla., in 1982. He later migrated to the home video business and worked his way up to chairman of Universal Television and Networks Group in 1997. In 2001, he joined Gemstar-TV Guide as VP. Then, after a short stint consulting media companies, he was lured to Microsoft to oversee the company's new media/entertainment/technology convergence group.

"I have always liked the idea of marrying technology with entertainment," Westlake said. "It's been an interesting and winding road, and I have enjoyed every minute of it."