On-demand Platforms and Decision Fatigue – w/ David Griggs

On-demand Platforms and Decision Fatigue – w/ David Griggs

On demand TV

In this interview, Neil Thacker from PlayBox Technology UK speaks to David Griggs, senior product manager of distribution platforms at The Walt Disney Company. David has lent his expertise to the video delivery and media service landscape for over 15 years, working with major international broadcasters at AWS before his position at Disney. We talk about the benefits of the cloud for broadcasters, how on-demand platforms can beat decision fatigue, and what he envisions for the future of our industry. Hope you enjoy!

Neil: Welcome to the In the Hub podcast, David. How are you doing today? 

David: I’m doing very well, thank you. Thanks for having me. 

Neil: No, of course, and that’s very good to hear. So just before we do get started on some of these questions that we’ve got for you today, just for a little bit of background, how did your career in broadcasting begin? Where did it all start for you?

David: Yeah, it started about, I guess, 21 years ago. I was working in Sydney, Australia, in the finance industry. I was working on futures and options trading, a kind of derivatives trading, with a friend of mine. He got invited to join a startup that wanted to take some of the screen trading principles and UX principles that we were developing for screen traders who are going through this transition of being on the floor and then suddenly having to work behind a computer, and take some of those principles and those ideas and that freshness to the broadcast industry. So we started a small company called Evolution Broadcast. Big shout out to those guys there. And that’s where we took on the challenges of developing new UX and new overlays for live production environments, particularly in the technical director, vision switcher seat, and also in the replay environment. Yeah. So it started there. And I haven’t looked back. I’ve been in the industry ever since.

Neil: Perfect. And are those guys (Evolution Broadcast) still going, still prospering?

David: Well no, actually. What happened was, we ended up selling that company to Grass Valley. So that’s how I got my move to the US, that’s how I came to the United States, through that transition. We were bringing that experience and some of the IP that we developed in Evolution to Grass Valley.

Neil: Brilliant stuff. I think a common theme running through your career, even at that start point, is obviously this aspect of you getting quite hands-on and involved in the technical side of broadcasting. The technical side is such a huge aspect of this industry. It really is the kind of behind the scenes stuff holding the whole thing up, isn’t it? So has that kind of technology always been something that you’ve been really focused on, something that you’re really passionate about?

David: Oh, definitely. I mean, I think you’re absolutely right to say that technology in our industry is so pivotal. As it is in so many industries, of course. But it feels like it has been a common thread for me. Honestly, I was 10 years old, and my parents purchased a Commodore VIC 20 for me. And I just became completely enthralled with this idea that I could type some code into this computer, and it would predictably do things and repeatedly do things. That simple idea just sparked this notion of how technology and automation can be so positive in people’s lives. And what better way, than through entertainment, right? Media entertainment in general is such a positive experience in most people’s lives, and if technology can help enrich that, I think that’s a good thing. 

I’m a software engineering graduate, that’s what I went to school for. I have 20 years of C++ experience, which I suspect is not particularly useful now might as well be COBOL. It really helped me understand not just the technology itself, or what it’s capable of doing. As I’ve transitioned into more product facing roles in recent years, I think that’s been a really supportive trade. I’ve been there to understand how capable technology can be and how positive it can be in these environments. Yeah, but it’s super important. Absolutely.

Neil: I think when you put it like that, it’s quite hard to argue with, isn’t it David? It’s so useful, having that kind of technical background going into these product facing environments. It’s so good to have that background knowledge that can then inform other decisions, maybe more consumer-facing and market-facing.

David: Yeah, although I have to say, my experience has drifted somewhat from being at the front and super relevant. And so I think these days, people would probably describe it as knowing enough to be dangerous, and a little bit annoying in some engineering meetings, where maybe I overstep a little bit (laughs).

Neil: (laughs) It’s all part of the fun, isn’t it David? 

David: It is.

Neil: So looking back through your career, again, you’ve had so many great positions. I think it’s quite fair to say that you’ve been involved with your fair share of both linear and non-linear environments when it comes to television and content. I have been quite interested to get your perspective on this, and you hear this phrase getting thrown around quite a lot as of late. Do you think that this whole kind of idea, this whole concept of linear TV, do you think it’s in any way dead or at risk of dying?

David: That’s a really interesting question, isn’t it? Because I think 10 years ago, when the video-on-demand experience was in its ascendance, and arguably still is of course, you had to ask the question – why would I watch television on a television channels terms? Right? Why would I have this appointment to view something? And I think, to some extent, DVRs, and even a good old VHS system somewhat introduced this idea of taking back ownership of when you watched content. And so when video-on-demand and Netflix kind of really pushed that model, it was transformative. I think maybe to some extent, we overcorrected, right, we were like, well, that’s the end of linear TV. It’s all about that on-demand experience, watching 15 episodes in a row of something until three o’clock in the morning, and it almost became a sort of meme of itself. But, you know, the reality is, I think it was an overcorrection. I think that sometimes, much like we listened to the radio, or maybe services like Spotify, we’re not necessarily interested in the on-demand experience as much as we are on having some entertainment on that might be taking more of a backseat, right – maybe more of a background role. I come home, at night – well, I say I come home, I work from home, I come downstairs from my office (laughs). You know, I maybe put on CNN while I’m making dinner. And it’s just something to listen to, I’m listening to it but I’m not necessarily watching it. And so I think there’s an aspect of linear that needs to transform, needs to shift, but it’s certainly not dead. I wholly reject that premise that in any way, the concept of television that’s brought to you without the need to choose something is dead. I think like anything else, it needs to look at its business model because clearly there is a new kid on the block. But I think it still has a very strong place in our homes moving forward.

Neil: Yeah, no, I completely agree. And I think even over COVID and lockdowns, I think that the importance of linear TV has really proved itself as well. And you can see that in some of the stats and figures that are going around.

David: The other thing we shouldn’t forget is about is, I think there are two kinds of great bastions of live television, which is sports – of course, people like to watch their sports as live as possible – and news, right? We don’t really want to consume yesterday’s news. So I think those two things are really supportive of linear. When it comes to the broader entertainment side, I still think there’s a huge role to play in children’s television. And, frankly, more specialised linear channels. I think that’s the life of linear, it’s about finding that diversity, and using the technology we have now to be able to support that diversity to create more specialised channels that are maybe going after a more niche audience. And I think, you know, that’s happening. We’re starting to see that. And I think that’s a good thing. And extremely, extremely positive, in my opinion.

Neil: Yeah. I think there are some really interesting points there David. Since we’re on this topic of advancing technologies and adapting to them, with all of your experience working with AWS and experience working with the cloud, looking from the outside in, do you think the broadcasting industry is really embracing the cloud? Do you think they’ve welcomed it with open arms? What is that kind of clear benefit for companies big and small?

David: Well, I think the answer is yes. I think especially more recently, I think, in my experience, working in AWS, working with major broadcasters across the board, and across the globe, everybody has at least an initiative around the use of the cloud to in some way facilitate their requirements. Whether that’s playout origination, and of course, I think super interestingly and more recently, production. That kind of pre-transmission stage of television which is so important. And so I think the answer to your first question is yes, I think that there are very few, I would say, broadcasters at any tier these days that have zero interest in the use of the cloud in some way. At least I hope so! Because I think there was a time where it was kind of looked at, a little bit, as unnecessary or even a little bit of a fear of the unknown, right. It’s like ‘we want to be able to hug our servers’ (laughs). I think that’s fine but I think we have transitioned through that. And I think that I think through companies like AWS, who have been, I think, real leaders in that space, if I’m honest, and I know that I used to work for them. So maybe I have a slightly biased view there. But I do think they have really pushed that and really been supportive of that kind of transition from on-prem environments to the cloud. As to the benefit, I think there are two words that come to mind. To me, it’s agility and accessibility. Agility is hopefully a clear one – where you can spin up resources that have a capability that you’re already using in one part of the world, suddenly, in five other parts of the world and you do that in a matter of hours. And you can respond to load and the growth of your business in this kind of very scalable and elastic way. Clearly, the cloud and virtualization in general, but definitely in the cloud – that’s a very clear and obvious benefit to me, that agility. Accessibility – how many great ideas were going south because you couldn’t raise the money to buy the equipment that you needed to develop the idea. So this idea that bootstrapping of great ideas across any industry, but including our industry, the broadcast industry, are now way more accessible through the cost models that come with cloud resources. I think that is fantastic for business. And I saw that with AWS, when we were in the course of doing business, we ran across multiple smaller companies that were born in the cloud that were there only there because they had the access to that technology, at a cost basis that didn’t require them to have huge amounts of investment. All of that stuff that gets in the way of invention. I think that the accessibility side of the cloud is just so huge in that respect.

Neil: Yeah. And I think that’s one we’ve been really seeing as well. It’s both of those combined. It’s the ability to set up these temporary channels and have them going on this basis where they can test things out, see how it goes, how it works. And not have to worry that they’ve just sunk many 1000s of pounds into a server, and they need to keep that going and everything. So I think the benefits are quite clear.

David: I think if you remove that fear of failure because you don’t want to waste money, or time, because it takes forever to try out new ideas. Well, if you take that away, then people become more experimental. From that, I think, come great ideas, because some things that I think would have gone on to be great contributions to our industry get kind of stuck in bureaucracy and economics. And I think the cloud can be super helpful in that regard. Yeah, absolutely.

Neil: I completely agree with that. And just shifting the topic slightly, moving on to this idea of on-demand content and platforms. For any media companies that are out there that don’t currently have an on-demand platform, I know that they’re starting to get really thin in their quantity. Most of them now are either putting plans in motion, about to launch a platform or have already had a platform for a number of years now. Would you say right now is the perfect time to jump aboard? Do you think maybe they’re too late? Do you still think they’re too early in regards to on-demand platforms? What’s the thought process behind that?

David: I think content is king (laughs). It’s almost a cliche in our business. But if you have an interesting catalogue of content, whether that’s wildlife cameras in Africa, or a very specialised niche cooking show. I mean, look at YouTube, YouTube is the perfect example of the VOD explosion and how relatively niche content can draw a huge audience. So the answer to your question is absolutely yes. Now’s the time. It’s not too late. This business is not even close to being saturated. As a global population, our appetite for new, fresh, invigorating, interesting content is not in any way satiated, right? We are still very large consumers. And so, if anything, I think the accessibility of internet-delivered, so-called OTT content has just given us a taste. And so if anything now, I think we’re more ready for content. So I think that if if you are a media company that has an interesting content library, yes, absolutely. Now is the perfect time to make that available to a global audience. And the good news is, it’s not hard, right, the technology is already there. Frankly, it has been well tried and tested by companies like Netflix and Hulu and others that have been there from that early part of this on-demand kind of revolution that we’ve been going through. So yeah, absolutely. Now’s the time. And I think that’s not going to change, in my opinion.

Neil: 100%. And we’ve talked it up a fair bit. But I just wanted to bring up and talk to you about this idea of decision fatigue, or choice fatigue, on these platforms. So I kind of experienced my fair share of it on YouTube, the same with Netflix as well. If we sit down on an evening, go to choose a title and you’re just confronted with so many different titles, sometimes it can be quite overwhelming for consumers. I just wanted to know if you have thought through this idea, how do you think media companies can work to reduce this fatigue of trawling through these titles? What’s the way forward?

David: It’s a really interesting phenomenon that I think was perhaps somewhat unexpected. But we’re really a victim of the success of video on demand and on-demand experiences in general. There’s a great book, by the way, that I just want to put a plug in for called the ‘Paradox of Choice’. I think it’s worth a read for anyone that’s in the business of delivering these kinds of huge media libraries. Yeah, it’s a real problem, right? I mean, you make a good case where you know, and our family as well, we sit down, and we’ll probably spend almost as much time going through endless tiles on our video platform of choice before agreeing on something we want to watch. I think that problem is compounded when more people are around the room, I think it’s probably proportional to the number of people in the room (laughs). So there’s been some innovation in this space, I think that we start to see recommendation engines that are powered by machine learning being useful. The challenge there is that the information they have to go on is essentially your viewing history. And so what can happen over time is a sort of echo chamber effect, where you’re not really being introduced to anything new, your viewing habits are somewhat being supported, and pushed inward rather than pushed outwards. 

So what’s the solution? What I would love to see – and I think YouTube were actually one of the few companies that are pushing this, although there are definitely some other companies that are innovating in this space, is this idea of playlist delivery, essentially, of on-demand content. So think about the autoplay feature in YouTube. When you get to the end of a video, if you have it configured this way, on YouTube, you get a five-second warning, then it plays something else. It tends to be, at least in my experience, a little less driven by your viewing habits. Sometimes you end up finding content that perhaps you wouldn’t have clicked on a tile for, but it’s playing anyway. It takes you down a whole new avenue of exploration. I think Spotify is a great example of seeding a channel with a song or an artist that you like, and then it meanders through a much broader, more generous machine-learning (ML) algorithm. Then you end up discovering a whole bunch of music that you might end up purchasing the album for. I think there’s a concept there for television that can work and there is definitely technology in that space. It’s innovation in that space where we can get this, I guess, pseudo linear experience, but it’s really just constructed on the fly as a series of VOD assets that get strung together based on less of a recommendation engine type ML algorithm, but something a little more broader. You know, I think back to Pandora and the whole Music Genome project where it’s trying to compare beats and find music. That kind of stuff. I think there’s room there in television. We have the technology we have and I think we certainly have the catalogue. So I think that would be a super interesting way to try and break out of that echo chamber of just straight recommendation engines, and also, I hope, would potentially even help solve some of the fatigue by clicking through the tiles in your living room. I think there’s probably a bunch of ideas that can help with that. I’m confident that, as an industry, we will respond because I do think it’s becoming a real problem. People are becoming vocal about this idea that there’s just, you know, they can’t even remember which platform a given programme they’ve watched a couple of episodes of is on! The first thing you have to figure out is, Was it on Netflix, Hulu, or Prime? You know, where was it? There’s that kind of problem too, as well.

Neil: (laughs) You make a really compelling case, David. In regards to Spotify, thinking back, the radio feature on that, when you obviously finish your playlist, it starts playing songs. I assume it pulls data from everywhere, doesn’t it? You know, what similar listeners listen to and stuff like that. I think that’s an absolutely brilliant feature. I found so much good music through that. And like you said, with YouTube’s autoplay as well, I have found so many creators, so many videos that I never really would have gone and searched for before and found through that way. 

I was writing it down, I was writing ‘decision fatigue’, and it almost felt bad calling that fatigue because I imagine me sat there with a remote going through, I was like, this isn’t fatigue! I never thought too much choice would ever be a problem for me as a consumer. But you know, here we are.

David: There’s an argument to say there is. Sometimes less is more! And that’s a very fine needle to thread, to be honest. But yeah, I do think there’s an argument for at least a streamlined choice experience. Right? It doesn’t mean to say the whole catalogue has to be thinned. But in terms of what I have to choose from, is somehow maybe streamlined in some way. And you know, I think the solution to that is still up for grabs, to some extent.

Neil: I think I’ll definitely be picking up the book you recommended as well. So I’ll read through that. And then David, this is a question we asked at the end of every episode. If you had to sum it up in one word, and one word only, what do you envision for the future of the broadcasting industry?

David: That’s a great question. Let’s say longevity, that would be my word.

Neil: We haven’t had anything close to that before. It’s always been ‘change’, ‘innovation’, always focused on this kind of short term. I know it’s long term as well, but just hearing longevity, there’s hope there. That’s a great word for it.

David: I think it’s going somewhere, but it’s not going away. Right. And I think that’s the great thing about this industry – we are all still needing to be entertained. And I can’t think of a better way to do that than through our industry. Amongst other things, of course. (laughs) I don’t want to encourage people to spend their lives in front of the television. I think we should get outside too, especially after this year we’ve had.

Neil: (laughs) Yeah, it’s more important than ever. David, thank you for joining us today. I really do appreciate it. You’ve shed some really great insight on some of the topics that we talked about. Are there any exciting projects in the pipeline for you that you can talk to us about? Or is it all under wraps at the moment?

David: I have a new job, which I’m really enjoying over at The Walt Disney Company. And I’m really enjoying that part of the business. Working now for a customer, having worked so long for a service provider at AWS. So seeing things in a different light, that’s really exciting. I just moved house. I’m sure everyone who’s listening to this, who has ever had to go through that process, it’s been certainly upheaving, but we’re very excited to be in our new place. And yeah, I have a one-year-old son. So that kind of takes up a lot of my time (laughs), you know, day to day, so a lot of exciting stuff going on. Absolutely.

Neil: Congratulations on the position and obviously, the house move. You know, there’s a lot of things going on for you at the moment David, you have got quite a few things to juggle. 

David: (laughs) Yeah, I do. But it’s all good, right? Life’s good, I have to say.

Neil: I can definitely through your career, obviously, you’re probably not the kind of person who ever wants to sit still in any respect.

David: Certainly not for too long. (laughs)

Neil: (laughs) I love that. And then how can people get in touch with you directly if they want to talk about anything that you’ve talked about today?

David:  Yeah, I would say just look me up on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active on that. It’s one of the few social media sites I really participate in. That would be the best way for sure.

Neil: Awesome, David. Thanks very much. I really do appreciate it. It’s been a great episode. Cheers David!

David: Yeah. No, thanks for inviting me. I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.