Matthew Zelesko: Injecting a Startup Mentality

As viewing habits change and new technologies and video formats emerge, it takes a mix of leadership, engineering talent and old-fashioned intuition to be ready for what’s coming. The editors of Multichannel News are recognizing two technology executives — Time Warner Cable senior vice president, converged technology group Matthew Zelesko, representing the operator community, and ESPN executive vice president and chief technology officer Chuck Pagano, representing programmers — for their entrepreneurial spirit and ability to maintain their competitive footing amid an ever-shifting video landscape.

When Matthew Zelesko was the CEO of over-the-top video startup Joost, speed and agility were the name of the game. Debate what needs to be debated, resolve it quickly, make a decision and push forward. Innovation, after all, waits for no one.

The cable industry, not known for making speedy decisions, is undergoing a transformation as video breaks free of the set-top box and weaves itself into gaming consoles, smartphones, tablets and standalone video-streaming devices. Because multiscreen video is also the domain of many fast-moving startups, the cable industry has had to adopt the kind of posture typically found in those bleeding-edge upstarts — be on the constant move, be willing to experiment and take risks. In other words, don’t get caught flat-footed and find yourself constantly on the chase.

It’s that sort of ideology that Zelesko, who has spent more of his career at startups than at large, established companies, has brought to the No. 2 U.S. MSO and a team that has established a culture that rewards speed and breeds innovation.

Zelesko, who joined TWC in the summer of 2011 and today serves as its senior vice president, converged technology group, said the lessons he learned at companies like Joost can be applied to TWC as the operator pursues its support of IP-connected consumer devices and blazes a fresh path for its own gateways and set-tops.

“If there’s one thing that I’ve learned across all the startups, it’s the importance of making a decision as quickly as possible,” he said. “The more that you deliberate and debate it, the more time you’re losing. In the startup context, that time is critical. I think even in a large company like Time Warner Cable that time is increasingly critical as well.”

And TWC is now tasked with making quick decisions and rapidly developing new compelling apps and products to ensure that its platform remains relevant as consumers shift their viewing habits to a broad array of devices that can be accessed in the home and on the go.

While TWC, like many other pay TV operators, focused on video delivery to browsers and to iOS- and Android-powered mobile devices, it’s also been out in front with apps tailored to run on big screens, including the Xbox 360, Roku boxes and newer-generation Samsung-made Smart TVs.

“As the screen size goes up, the viewing time, we’ve observed, goes up as well,” Zelesko said.

It’s been a fragmented experience early on. TWC, for example, offers more than 300 live TV channels on the Roku and Xbox 360, and only VOD on Samsung TVs. But that’s about to change. Barring delays caused by holiday certification cycles, TWC expects to offer live and on-demand video on all of those platforms by the end of 2013.

And more should be in store for 2014. Given its success on the Xbox 360, the new Xbox One console “is a clear target for us,” Zelesko said.

Zelesko said he is generally enthusiastic about sub-$100 streaming devices, such as Google Chromecast, the $35 dongle that streams video to TVs. “It’s safe to say that we’re talking to each one of these consumer device manufacturers,” he said. “They all have compelling and important platforms for us.”

But supporting an expanding array of CE devices presents an operational challenge that won’t simply vanish. Meeting that challenge, he said, starts with “acknowledging that there’s going to be diversity.”

Zelesko said TWC is pursuing an even loftier goal — evolving the TWC TV app from a complementary video component to one that can replicate all of the functions of a set-top box, essentially establishing a system that encourages a bring-your-own- device regime.

“The prospect of a customer buying a box for $99 and using that as their set-top … as an additional outlet in the house or a house full of those is a really exciting proposition for us,” Zelesko said.

Although TWC is focused on platforms that fall beyond the traditional set-top ecosystem, it still hasn’t lost sight on how it can bring advanced features and functionality to its own devices.

Zelesko, for example, is also pouring energy into a cloud-based navigator for leased set-tops and gateways that is currently being tested by employees in New York and Syracuse, N.Y.

But it’s an admittedly complex system, representing not just a new interface and new navigation architecture, but also a new hardware architecture. TWC, he said, is managing that complexity by scaling it up slowly.

But this cloud-based approach will allow TWC to evolve and change the UI at comparative breakneck speeds. Zelesko estimates that TWC is putting out new releases to beta participants every two weeks. “We think that will eventually move to daily releases,” he said.

Although Zelesko won’t speculate on when TWC will deploy its new UI across the board, he fully expects to have it in front of live customers in 2014.

In addition to his leadership inside of TWC, Zelesko is also taking on a higher industry-wide profile, serving on the board of Reference Design Kit LLC, the set-top software joint venture formed by Comcast and TWC earlier this year. Zelesko will be setting an RDK path at TWC while also advocating for other MSOs to adopt it.

For TWC’s part, the RDK will factor into TWC’s next-generation IP-based gateways and video client devices, aiming to fix on a common software stack and platform that will reduce complexity and can be applied in devices that support not just video, but voice and data.

“I think the RDK will be that [unifying] platform,” Zelesko said.