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Disney/ABC Television'sDigital Pioneer

With all the hoopla surrounding Apple’s announcement of the iPad 3 last week, it’s hard to remember that the original iPad was greeted with some skepticism when it was first announced back in January 2010.

“There were a lot of naysayers,” in part because the iPad did not support Flash, which was widely used for streaming video, recalls Albert Cheng, Disney/ABC Television Group executive VP and chief product officer. “There were people who said if it doesn’t do [Flash] video, what good is it?”

But Cheng, who watched Steve Jobs make the iPad announcement live over streaming video, quickly saw the promise, as did Anne Sweeney, cochair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group. Within days after the first iPad announcement, Sweeney called a meeting of senior staff, which produced the idea of developing an app to stream full ad-supported episodes to an iPad.

Five weeks later, after overcoming a number of technical hurdles, ABC became the first of the U.S. broadcast networks to offer an iPad app with full streaming episodes.

The app is currently the sixth-most downloaded free app for the iPad, making it the only app from a U.S. broadcast network in the top 25. It is also an example of the kind of innovation that has come out of Cheng’s department since he was put in charge of digital media at the ABC/Disney Television Group in 2005.

“Albert and the entire digital media team play an integral role across our portfolio of channels and businesses,” says Sweeney. “Their contribution is invaluable, as now virtually every decision we make involves a digital or multiplatform component.”

Cheng began his career far outside the television business, working on defense department projects at Boeing after studying materials science and engineering at MIT. From there, Cheng moved to Boston Consulting Group as an associate and then got an MBA at Harvard, where he worked as an intern for Disney and BMG. After another stint as a consultant, Cheng landed a job in cable with Fox before moving to Disney in 2000.

Here he got extensive experience in the business strategies for distribution of Disney’s content over cable and video-on-demand and became increasingly intrigued by the enormous potential of digital media and video delivered over the Internet.

This was also a major priority at Disney/ ABC. In October 2005, the same week that ABC became the first network to put full episodes on iTunes, Cheng was put in charge of a newly created digital media group tasked with managing the group’s digital initiatives.

“It was a major priority, which put a lot of wind at my back and allowed us to do things that might have otherwise been difficult to accomplish,” he says.

Since then, Cheng’s group has produced a string of firsts. In 2006, ABC became the first network to make full ad-supported episodes available for free online. In 2007, ABC was the first network to make full episodes available on demand on a mobile platform and the first to stream episodes in high-definition. And the network was an early innovator in the development of sync or second-screen apps for its Grey’sAnatomy series and for its Academy Awards ceremony. Over time, those efforts have won four Emmys and produced nearly 20 pending patents.

More importantly, these experiments played a key role in helping Disney/ABC Television hone its digital distribution strategy.

“Early on, there was a lot of discussion about how this was going to blow up the traditional business models,” Cheng says. “But I think we’ve learned that the sustainable business models going forward aren’t any different than the traditional ones of advertising and subscription.”

As a result, Disney/ABC is now putting increased emphasis on TV Everywhere deals and products. As part of its deal with Comcast announced in January, Disney/ABC will be rolling out authenticated products that give subscribers access to content on additional devices. “We think TV Everywhere is a great way to meet consumer demand and further develop the models that have worked so well,” Cheng says.

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