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By Julian Wright

Next-Gen Tech Leader Insights: Rob O’Brien

As head of international technology at ITV Studios, Rob O’Brien is always on the lookout for new technology that can allow the company to work more flexibly and develop new workflows.

Based in the UK but with operations in 12 other countries, ITV Studios is a television production and distribution company owned by the British broadcaster ITV plc. Best-known for its output for UK channels such as ITV and Channel 4, ITV Studios is also intensively involved with broadcast production and distribution in the US, Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Israel, France, Spain and Scandinavia.

Overseeing the non-UK technical operations from London, head of international technology Rob O’Brien concisely summarises his main role as being to “maintain, organise and innovate. I spend a lot of my time looking at innovation, managing technical teams, and heading up the shift towards a new landscape – which inevitably involves a great deal of research around the cloud and computing innovation in general.”

Whilst there might seem to be an air of inevitability about O’Brien landing such a role – by his own admission he was “the geek that teachers asked to help with their IT” – he insists that he originally studied computing “because I was rubbish at everything else! But it’s true that I knew from a young age that I was going to pursue a career in technology, and once I had completed my Bachelor of Computer Engineering I started out in the newspaper industry working on picture asset management.”

Given his subsequent progression into broadcasting, it was a case of ‘right place, right time’ as developers of asset management technology were then beginning to target TV production. Recognising that this is where his aspirations resided, O’Brien had an initial stint at ITV working on ITV’s early digital and tapeless initiatives, but also picking up invaluable knowledge of CDNs, transcoding and media distribution. He then spent a period at Sony Pictures, where he added an international dimension to his career by overseeing digital content production distribution for platforms around Europe.

All of this experience meant that he was very well-prepared for his second, and ongoing, stint at ITV Studios. Working as lead technologist in digital creation, O’Brien was tasked with “making our use of data more structured” and, latterly, working to “better align the ITV businesses in the UK and internationally so that they could communicate and create more efficiently. Eventually that evolved into the new role of head of international technology.”

Alignment between the different ITV Studios operations continues to be an overriding priority for O’Brien, who works closely with each territory’s technology head to ensure that the “corporate stacks are working well and that all of the systems we use – i.e. for production, data and archiving – are effectively organised, and where they differ between operations that they are fully aligned.”


Innovation as a Competitive Edge

In terms of both content production and distribution, and the technologies that underpin them, few would argue with the assertion that we are in the midst of a period of profound change. But while this undoubtedly heralds some significant challenges, it also brings with it some exciting opportunities. “Innovation is a big part of our world,” confirms O’Brien. “Everyone is looking at, and comparing us to, the new peers in our market, such as Netflix. That means there is a lot of emphasis on how we can use innovation in order to secure a competitive edge.”

It’s not surprising, then, that O’Brien keeps a close watch on emerging technology trends, such as the migration of media production to the cloud. Like many broadcast tech leaders, his enthusiasm for the cloud’s potential is only marginally tempered by its economic implications. “As well as being more reliable – for example, in terms of the risk of system failures – the cloud offers much greater capacity to change, adapt and scale our operations,” he says. “So, if we acquire another system, it’s very easy to upscale. Plus, there are some fantastic cloud services we can utilise, such as those using AI to deliver translation and localisation services.”

O’Brien is also in no doubt that ‘going it alone’ – for example, in terms of creating a bespoke ITV data centre – would be prohibitively expensive, not only in terms of technology, but also in salaries for staff with the necessary technical expertise to run those systems.  Building their own data centre would also be problematic in terms of the broadcaster’s low-carbon trajectory. “Sustainability is a big thing for ITV, we have made a commitment to becoming Net Zero and are on track for that, so it’s great that [leading cloud service providers like] AWS and Microsoft support our sustainability targets,” he says. “We also need to retain the ability to scale up in a way that is sustainable. We are a growing business that is often developing interests in new territories and having that availability of resources whenever we need them is critical.”

But he is acutely aware of cloud challenges, especially when working at the kind of scale required by ITV Studios. “Of course, there are negatives and cost is potentially one of those.  I don’t really like the word cloud, I prefer the word ‘rent’ because all you’re doing, really, is renting someone else’s servers. And, if you use too much, it’s going to cost more than you expected.”


Rapid Content Migration

Many of these strands have come together during the past year as O’Brien has sought a fresh approach to the management of ITV Studios’ content archive. Once again, alignment is the watchword here as many of the leading formats are distributed or franchised internationally. “If ITV Studios makes a show such as Love Island they franchise it out and need to make sure that international content is aligned with regard to the asset management system,” he explains, adding that until fairly recently the company relied upon a prominent third-party to provide an on-prem, managed archive service.

Two factors conspired to make O’Brien explore an alternative approach: an imminent price rise by the service provider, and the growing awareness that a cloud-based deployment, managed internally, could bring enhanced flexibility and “open up innovation”. Having had some previous engagement with Blue Lucy, O’Brien modelled – and ultimately settled upon – a solution based upon the company’s media operations management platform, BLAM. Designed to close the expensive technology gaps in production and content supply chain operations, BLAM integrates content production systems and business systems to provide a unified and highly automated management system to streamline production and fulfilment operations.

With approximately 30 000 assets to move, the ability to migrate content to the new platform quickly and cost-effectively was a major point in favour of BLAM – as was its ability to support effective fiscal control. “Costs with the cloud can be high, but with this system we’ve got it tightly managed thanks to modules from Blue Lucy that give you accurate and up-to-date financial dashboards,” says O’Brien, noting that the SaaS subscription model for BLAM (which is based on functional capability, not content volume) also helps to keep a vigilant eye on costs.  But O’Brien’s choice of technology was ultimately motivated by his need for agility, “What we wanted was a system that provided the ability for our team to develop and configure workflows ourselves, so that we could react to our evolving business needs,” he explains.


Agility for the Ages

It is clear that the ability to configure and adapt systems as needs evolve is a driving force behind all of ITV Studios’ technology investments and O’Brien is enthusiastic about the potential to make greater use of technologies such as 5G and Starlink (the satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX) to enable agile production workflows.

“We are looking very closely at 5G and the different kinds of satellite technologies that are emerging – such as low-orbit satellites – to see if we can utilise them to change the way that we’re making shows,” confirms O’Brien. “Traditionally, content has been recorded onto a drive which is then physically taken back to the studio. Now, we are looking at developments in connectivity to get away from that type of workflow. With this emerging world of 5G, Starlink and so on, there is an opportunity to film anywhere in the world – including in 4K/HDR – and upload that content to the studio in a matter of minutes. And not only does this help us in our sustainability goals, it also means that post work can get underway whilst shooting is still taking place in another country.”

An ardent technologist through and through, O’Brien appears confident that ITV Studios’ evolving approach to content management is in line with broader changes in the industry. “Historically, broadcast engineers’ focus has tended to be on knowing everything about their technology stack, but now an engineer that we employ needs to have a wider knowledge of commodity software and a broader computer technologist’s mindset. The old approach to procurement is no longer suitable, and with cloud you have the opportunity to respond more quickly and have the software adapt along with your business. Partners like Blue Lucy can be recognised for making this evolution easier.”

And there is no doubt that it is an ever-evolving process – one that is likely to involve a growing reliance on AI. Now that all of the ITV Studios’ content is in the cloud and orchestrated via BLAM, the team is currently experimenting with AI services to perform tasks such as programme indexing and the auto-creation of subtitles. “Therefore, we can also see BLAM as a method by which we can experiment and develop new tech profiles and workflows that enable us to be innovative – and remain competitive,” says O’Brien. “That’s the guiding principle behind all of our technology investments, and it means that we can face the future with confidence.”




By Julian Wright

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