Hot Seat Q&A: Turner CTO discusses FilmStruck OTT launch, Netflix competition, VR and more

Jeremy Legg hot seat

Turner Broadcasting has a lot of irons in the fire, and CTO Jeremy Legg is watching over all of them.

In the role of CTO since 2015, Legg has helped along Turner’s efforts to transition its broadcast operations away from SDI toward an IP infrastructure, which will allow Turner’s broadcast and software teams to better integrate.

“It will allow us to dimentionalize our broadcast plant and think about personalization of content, multiplexing, targeted advertising, cloud DVRs and a whole variety of capabilities,” Legg said.

Under his watch, Turner acquired iStreamPlanet, which Legg said has been central to all of the post-playout formatting necessary for Turner’s content. That content is ultimately destined for various OTT and on-demand platforms.

When FierceBroadcasting caught up with Legg, Turner had just launched its direct-to-consumer classic movie product, FilmStruck, and we discussed what went into that product launch as well as how the media sometimes unfairly compares big media companies to Netflix and how augmented reality could be more relevant for programmers than virtual reality.

FierceBroadcasting: Has Turner’s OTT strategy changed as more direct-to-consumer and virtual MVPD offerings have entered the market?

Jeremy Legg: There’s a whole business model discussion associated with that as well but from a technology standpoint, OTT and SVOD services mean that manufacturing process for pre-playout has to be done for on-demand content. You are creating mezzanine quality, super high-res files that are going to be ingested into a broader direct-to-consumer platform.

From a tech perspective, it means that rather than creating those master copies that you might playout on a linear network you’re ingesting them into an OTT application. That’s a very different process than the way you would handle it for TV Everywhere.

FierceBroadcasting: Can you expand on how it differs from the TV Everywhere process?

Legg: TV Everywhere is generally ad-supported content and most SVOD services are not. So you’re manufacturing process changes and you’re not worried about C3 or dynamic ad insertion in an underlying file.

What’s happening across the industry is that people are having to develop very flexible content supply chains to enable content to come out in the format appropriate for the device and product a consumer is using.

FierceBroadcasting: You’ve talked about the need for big media companies to have a single app platform and code base for all their brands. How far along is Turner in achieving that?

Legg: We bought part of a company called You.i TV and we’ve released a series of different applications leveraging that platform, including the FilmStruck application that we just launched.

This is always a challenge for companies like ourselves. The press always likes to compare big media companies against Netflix or Hulu and there are valid reasons why those comparisons are drawn. But there’s also, in my opinion, a failure to recognize a lot of the differences between what we manage versus they manage. Netflix obviously does a very nice job with their product but they have one product and one app. They have thousands of people, even just on the technology side, focused on building and delivering a single application.

For companies like us, we have north of a dozen brands and we have multiple different products, many that span across brands. You have to manage and deploy a lot more products and within those products you have a lot more use cases. We have live programming, Netflix doesn’t. We have simulcast programming, Netflix doesn’t. We have ad-supported content, Netflix doesn’t.

As we look at the world, and I would venture to say this is true for any big media company, you have to make decisions about how you approach a heterogeneous device marketplace with consistent platforms. One of the things that Netflix has done is, they have their own app platform. They built it from scratch and that’s how their able to get out on so many different devices. We were faced with that prospect and decided to partner with someone we felt had a very good platform. What that is now allowing us to do is that we can now get out on many platforms at once.

We’re getting out fairly quickly and the beauty is that I don’t have to spin up teams for every platform and maintain a separate code base forever. I can deal with just minor deltas between the platforms with a single team.

FierceBroadcasting: Once you have this centralized platform, where do you focus? Is personalization a big focus for Turner within its various brands’ mobile experiences?

Legg: Absolutely. What the focus really becomes is building great products. The transformation that’s begun within our company is that we now really focus on product and product management as well as tech. If you look at what we’ve done with FilmStruck, it’s a really beautiful and elegant user experience. That’s a change in how we think and how we think about consumers and personalization is a component of that.

FierceBroadcasting: It’s been about two weeks since the launch of FilmStruck. Can you talk about why the launch was delayed?

Legg: The delay was because we caught some stuff in QA and testing that we could have gone to market with but decided we didn’t want to. We wanted to perfect the product. These things are evolutions. You never release a perfect product. Releases from Apple and other companies are constantly being upgraded and perfected.

FierceBroadcasting: What was the building process for FilmStruck like? A lot of that content was previously on Hulu. Was transitioning this content from AVOD to SVOD fairly simple?

Legg: Simple? I’d say no. If you take theatrical libraries, particularly classic movie libraries, the films come in all kinds of different formats. Many of them are filmed in 4:3. They’re not made for 16:9. Many have multiple languages and subtitles. So as you try to deliver a consistent look and feel on an iPad or an iPhone versus a television set, it’s not simple to get all that content format. Video doesn’t just reformat because it’s on an iPhone. When the play button is pressed, we need to know what type of device it is. It’s hard to do but we pulled it off and we’re doing well from a subscription standpoint. We’re optimistic.

FierceBroadcasting: Could you talk a little bit about Turner’s plans in terms of using VR and AR for live sports?

Legg: Things that we look at there are experiences. Why can’t everyone have a front row seat to an NBA game as opposed to just watching it on TV? We’ve made investments in companies like NextVR and we have internal R&D teams that are perfecting some of those experiences. But it’s pretty early days. This is definitely an area the company cares about but we’re also evaluating what the appropriate applications of VR versus AR. They are very different experiences.

With AR, you’re more aware of your surroundings and the devices have different form factors. With true VR experiences, you’re immersing yourself. I’m personally a little more bullish on AR rather than VR, outside of the gaming category.

FierceBroadcasting: It’s interesting to hear you say that because it seems like a lot of the focus from programmers is on VR.

Legg: I think VR has been worked on longer and AR is little trickier. One of the concerns I have with VR, and I’m not saying VR won’t be successful, is as a consumer you literally have to put on a set of goggles and you’re in a different place. You really can’t interact with your surroundings much. You have to be careful about walking into a wall. For categories like gaming, I totally get it in terms of VR. But how far people will be willing to go with VR outside of gaming will be interesting to see.