Project Columbus Sets Sail for Disney/ABC

Disney/ABC’s announcement that it planned to “virtualize” its master control operations was one of the biggest tech deals to surface during last week’s 2015 NAB Show. It was also symbolic of a much bigger trend, tossed around a great deal in Las Vegas, that promises to transform every aspect of the business—namely, one that emphasizes much greater flexibility.

Networks have long built huge, expensive technical facilities using custom-made, proprietary hardware. But as broadcasters faced increased competition from tech start-ups and over-the-top players, this big iron approach proved to be costly and cumbersome. Unlike tech start-ups that can quickly spin up and down services in the cloud to capitalize on new consumer trends, TV companies had to plunk down big-time on top-dollar operations whenever they wanted to launch a new channel. Since startup costs were so high, networks were forced to be cautious and slow—hardly the ideal pace for innovation.

But Disney/ABC Television Group is looking to push an age of discovery and tech evolution with what it calls, appropriately enough, Project Columbus. “In today’s business you have to be like a quarterback leading the receiver when he throws the ball down the field,” says Vince Roberts, executive VP, global operations and chief technology officer for the group. “We have to move away from traditional approaches to a world where we can lead the consumer down the field and take advantage of where they are going.”

Sailing to the Cloud

The seeds for Project Columbus were planted three and a half years ago. “I began sketching out ideas to reinvent ABC’s distribution,” Roberts recalls. “I wanted to find a way to be more flexible and agile so we didn’t have to build these big iron facilities every time we wanted to do something.”

Those efforts quickly led him to approaches that are already used by major financial institutions and corporations that rely on relatively inexpensive, standardized IT equipment based in data centers and controlled by software.

Two years ago, Disney/ABC embraced cloud and IP technologies for its Watch ABC app because the private cloud architecture made it much easier to launch new features and expand the devices and audiences they reached.

But no company had tried this for a whole major broadcast network, and few vendors were creating technology to make it happen. “A lot of vendors were worried about cannibalizing their existing hardware business,” Roberts says. “But when I met with Charlie Vogt [CEO at Imagine Communications] and Steve Reynolds [CTO at Imagine] they got it. They knew that the world was migrating from traditional big hardware to virtualized operations because that was the way you could stay relevant with consumers.”

Imagine Communications will be the key technology partner for the ABC project, supplying its VersioCloud, fully IP-enabled integrated cloud platform and its Zenium, software-defined workflow management platform to handle all the complexities of live broadcasts, including triggers, live caption data, loudness control and crawls and tickers.

None of this is easy or will be realized quickly, given the complexity of handling live sports and news feeds. “It is not like you can just put everything in the cloud and boom, you’re done,” Roberts says.

But Roberts hopes to have all the internal workflows in place at ABC by this fall so feeds could be sent to a satellite. Phase 2 could be to use the system to created eight feeds for its eight owned station. Then, in phase 3, they would begin to use the system to deliver network feeds to all the affiliates. “It will take a few years to completely roll out,” he says, adding that they are working on a similar IP, cloud-based system for the Disney Channel.

When completed, however, the company would be able to easily launch new services and even change its ad models. It could, for example, spin up a new offering with full seasons of shows; create separate channels for big sports events; or temporarily provide a separate feed for certain DMAs during a two-week advertising campaign.

“This is a fundamental change in our industry,” adds Vogt, who has been an outspoken proponent of cloud-based technologies. “To see a major player like Disney implement it is a big deal.”