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In 2005, Kenneth "KC" Estenson remembers Anne Sweeney, cochair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney/ABC Television Group excitedly returning from a meeting with Disney's chairman and CEO Bob Iger, where Apple's Steve Jobs had personally demoed an iPod that could play video.
"It was immediately clear to me that the crossroads of technology and great content was going to be the future of media, and from that time forward I knew digital was where I wanted to be," recalls Estenson.
That led the then-Disney VP to move into digital operations at the company, and later CNN, where he is now at the center of an ambitious effort to reinvent the news organization. "Digital is where the future is," CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker says, speaking strategically. "CNN can't be limited to being just a TV network. CNN has to be on every platform and device so that our content is available wherever and whenever consumers want to access us."
Attracting new, younger viewers on digital platforms is particularly important for CNN. While the cable news net has struggled for nearly a decade in the primetime ratings race, its digital operations have thrived, with 97 million average monthly unique users and a mobile website with 1 billion average monthly page views in the third quarter of 2013.
"The biggest single transformation change that is impacting us and the news business is mobile," Estenson says. "Nearly 40% of our consumption is coming off of those mobile devices and that will only continue to grow rapidly."
Learning to Innovate
Estenson's road to playing a central role in CNN's revitalization began right after college in 1995 while he was a high school teacher. The experience was "transformative in my life-not only in terms of teaching but seeing how young people were interacting with technology," he says.
Deeply impressed by the Charter School movement to reform the educational system and bring new innovation into school systems, Estenson then got a master's degree in education at Harvard. But while at school, he worked with the consulting firm Vantage Partners, where Disney was one of his clients, and in 2000, he was hired by Disney.
Here he was soon put to work on integrating Disney's recently acquired Fox Family operation. "It was a crash course in the media," he says. "I had to become an expert on everything from sales and distribution to real estate and broadcast operations."
Over the next six years, Estenson continued his focus on corporate strategy, eventually working in Sweeney's office. As Disney quickly embraced digital distribution, becoming the first network to make its shows available on ITunes and the first to make full network episodes available online for free, Estenson got more involved in these new technologies, and in 2006, he began to oversee the digital media businesses for Disney's wholly-owned cable networks.
In 2008, he moved to CNN to head up digital operations, which he says was less of a jarring change then one might think. Like the kids' business at Disney, CNN had heavily trafficked sites serving millions of people and it had a widely respected global brand. "At CNN, I'm part of an organization that is trying to do with the world's best journalism across platforms without slanting our coverage with partisan tendencies simply to get a higher rating," he says
With Estenson's counsel and under his direction, the news organization quickly became an early adopter of social media, forging alliance with YouTube, Facebook and other major tech providers, and notching up a number of tech firsts, which included being the first news channel to offer an iPad app and the first U.S. news channel to offer a live stream to authenticated pay-TV subscribers.
Under Zucker's leadership, those digital efforts have been significantly expanded. This year, CNN has been investing heavily in new technology that will streamline the delivery of content to multiple platforms, along with working on a redesigned website, new social media tools and a major push to expand mobile offerings.
Most of the new products haven't gone live, but average monthly page views in the third quarter of 2013 jumped by 13% to 1.4 billion over the last year and average monthly video starts jumped 16 million to 95 million.
All Roads Lead To Digital
To keep that momentum going, Estenson has also been forging new partnerships with major tech companies. "KC has a real insight into what is going on in Silicon Valley and that has been one of the major competitive advantages he has given us," Zucker says.
Finding new cutting edge technologies keeps Estenson on the road pretty regularly. "I may spend more time outside the office than any other CNN employee-in many ways at Jeff's behest," says Estenson.
During those travels or when he's home in Atlanta enjoying times spent with his three kids, Estenson admits to being a serious lover of music and food. "My waistline doesn't like the idea, but if I were to ever leave digital, it would be for something food-related," he quips.
At the moment, however, finding ways to spice up CNN's digital offerings and serve up new mobile products is the only thing on his career menu. "Mobile is the new gateway to news," he says. "When JFK was assassinated, my parents had to wait until they got home from work to see the news on TV. Now people are seeing events and hearing about them for the first time on mobile. So we are putting an enormous amount of energy into growing the engagement with the CNN brand across all these devices."
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