CIO Update Q&A with Scripps Networks

By Allen Bernard

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The Scripps Network is home to such familiar cable channels as the Food Network and HGTV as well as their online counterparts. Parent-company E.W. Scripps also publishes daily and community newspapers in 18 markets, operates 10 broadcast TV stations, five cable and satellite television programming networks, and an online search and comparison shopping services.

Scripps Network's new CIO, Ron Johnson, just took over the job in April after serving as VP of IT for three years. CIO Update sat down with Johnson to find out what it's like to be in charge of IT for such a behemoth, what it takes to make a diversified media-entertainment company successful, and what role IT plays in that success.

The answer, unlike many industries, is it quite a bit.

CIO Update: How is IT viewed by the business side of the house?

Johnson: IT is evolving to be viewed as essential as it has become clear that the continued growth of the company is dependent on creating a digital infrastructure that will enable us to respond quickly to market opportunities and to develop new online/interactive revenue streams.

When did it become clear that the growth of the company was tied to IT?

Scripps Networks, Inc. (SNI) is a division of EW Scripps. The division started with HGTV a little over ten years ago. Until the last few years SNI has traditionally focused primarily on the growth and operation of it’s linear broadcast (TV) business with IT functioning in a less strategic support role. Our online website business was supported by our corporate IT group along with online properties of other divisions of EW Scripps.

I came onboard as the head of IT for SNI in August, 2003. In 2004 we moved the IT development for our online business into our division as the growth and strategic relevance of online/interactive began to explode.

In 2005 we initiated a five year strategic media asset management (MAM) initiative to develop and deploy an IT infrastructure to support the scaling of the business and enable SNI to leverage our media properties to take advantage of new and expanded business opportunities, consumer platforms and distribution channels.

(An original MAM strategic plan was sanctioned in 2001 but did not get significant traction due to 9/11 and the resulting economic downturn.)

This year we are developing and deploying application systems and services on a number of critical business fronts including business intelligence, online content management/delivery, financial accounting—driven heavily by SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley Act) compliance requirements—and our first phase of key infrastructure systems for MAM.

Our strategy is to buy versus build and deploy these systems within an SOA (services-orientated architecture) architectural framework. We are also working closely with our Broadcast Operations group as they are rolling out their next generation IP-based platforms that will interoperate with our MAM infrastructure.

To aid this progression, are efforts under way to better align IT with the business?

Yes. We are tightly linking IT with strategic business initiatives in our five-year strategic plan (and) annual budgets. We are forming steering committees around major application areas to enable our business users to prioritize and guide our development efforts.

IT senior managers are also proactively working with their business counterparts to develop roadmaps for IT initiatives that map to strategic objectives. Our five-year plan is revisited annually. Our annual plan/budget is revisited quarterly.

What technologies/methodologies are you employing 'on-the-ground' to add this linkage between IT and the business?

We are aligning our IT initiatives with our business counterparts developing business cases to address short- and long-term solutions for the most critical areas of opportunity. We have a five-year, phased MAM initiative underway that will put a digital infrastructure in place to enable the business to scale efficiently, drive out operating costs as brands mature and improve content accessibility to exploit opportunities for new services and distribution platforms.

Where are you finding your biggest cost-savings these days?

The biggest opportunity for cost savings is with the automated procedures and work flows that we are implementing for the business that eliminate manual labor and provide better controls to manage the business.

For most of our major areas we are in the process of implementing the applications and services (including key MAM components of digital asset management, scheduling, transcoding, distribution, etc.) that provide the infrastructure for implementation of these improvements.

We will start to see pay back from these investments later this year and next as we phase in re-engineered business processes across this infrastructure. Earlier this year we implemented Anystream’s Agility transcoding product realizing pay back in less than six months as we automated post production procedures for editing, screening and creation of broadband videos and for creation of promotions for distribution to our affiliates.

If you could change anything(s) about IT today, what would it be (the "magic wand" question)?

I would like IT to be able to respond as quickly as our business identifies new opportunities. I would like to see our users have tools and infrastructure in place to create new work flows and revenue streams with little or no development required by IT.

Is this SOA? Or a combination of new and old technologies and/or processes?

I wish we were there today with our current legacy environment. SOA is definitely an enabler.

What are the three biggest challenges you (and/or the IT industry) face today?

  • Be strategic partners with the business and bring innovation to the business in addition to responding to business needs;
  • Grow, recruit, retain staff that understand the business and are able to add value beyond pure IT technical functions; and
  • Implement a SOA enterprise-wide that reduces the complexity of the IT infrastructure, reduces TCO, speeds time to delivery/market. This (SOA) is a major paradigm shift for the IT industry that is coming on like a freight train.

    I hope we grow into the first two over time and the third will most likely be an ever-changing target as technology, tools and methodologies continually evolve.

    What role does outsourcing/offshoring play in your staffing picture?

    We are using outsourcing and offshore to perform non-recurring engineering functions, support of legacy applications while we move our staff to new opportunities and for short term solutions to business opportunities that are necessary for time to market.

    What about help desk, customer service, back office, other BPO functions, etc.?

    We have not outsourced any significant business functions to date. With SOA and the evolution of Web 2.0 I believe this will change. We are certainly open to it. The biggest opportunity will most likely come with our emerging business opportunities.

    Excluding advancements to industry specific software, what are the most important new technologies of the last few years? (VoIP, IM, blades, utility computing, grid computing, RFID, etc.)

    Cost effective storage has been huge as we are looking at digitizing our library of content that exceeds 30,000 hours and is growing daily. For our business, broadband has brought a whole new world of opportunities to our doorstep.


    Is Nicholas Carr right? "IT Doesn't Matter."

    In the media-entertainment world, IT has never been more important as content companies look to maximize the creative value of their programming, assets and brands to grow their businesses by exploiting new business opportunities, services, consumer platforms and distribution channels.

    An IT media asset management technology infrastructure that facilitates collaboration and sharing of media assets through internal work flows and with external partners is critical to this growth.

    I don’t think Carr is off-base. I agree that IT technology and standard applications are becoming a commodity. I do not think he is considering the full scope of IT when he makes this statement.