Kevin Gallagher

Kevin Gallagher has been Channel 4 CIO since 2009 when he took over from his predecessor Ian DobbPhoto: Channel 4

Channel 4’s IT is a department tackling two fronts – dealing with the rapidly changing broadcasting landscape as well as the challenges of how technology is used internally.

As TV audiences demand access to programmes on an increasing number of platforms, Channel 4’s IT team has to develop and source the technology to support new forms of content delivery, while also taking care of the IT supporting the broadcaster’s day-to-day operations, including the crucial area of advertising sales.

“Our world is changing considerably. Our viewers want to view content anytime, anywhere and on any device. We’re under a lot of pressure but it’s exciting change,” Channel 4 CIO Kevin Gallagher told delegates at the recent Forrester IT Forum EMEA 2011 in Barcelona.

Previously Channel 4’s head of applications delivery, Gallagher became CIO in 2009 following the departure of his predecessor Ian Dobb, who headed up the broadcaster’s IT for 10 years.

At the time of his departure, Dobb told silicon.com that the broadcaster’s technology priorities included improving its web capabilities, making 4oD content suitable for Macs and cutting costs.

Fast-forward two years and Gallagher is now presiding over an IT department that is helping develop the YouView IPTV platform, has tailored the 4oD web TV service for not just Mac but other platforms including the iPad, and is focusing on increasing efficiency rather than cutting costs.

From cost-cutting to efficiency

Cost-cutting is now less of a priority for Channel 4’s IT department than it once was, thanks in part to the organisation’s early cutbacks to protect itself as the economic downturn struck, as well as the more recent upturn in the television advertising market.

“In terms of cost, we anticipated 2009 to be cut back very hard against 2008. 2009 was a very difficult year for TV advertising. Because we did the right thing, when the market recovered, we were able to recover very quickly,” he said.

Channel 4’s running budget for technology is now between £20m and £30m annually. “In 2009 it was considerably less,” Gallagher told silicon.com.

However, that doesn’t mean being efficient is no longer…

…important to an organisation that generates £935m in annual revenue with a staff of fewer than 800.

“I think efficiency and cost control is always on our agenda. We’ve all grown up in that environment and we know that the better we keep our running costs under control, the better chance we’ve got of doing all of this special project work and value-add things,” Gallagher said.

Technology aligning with the business

Along with value-add work, such as building on Channel 4’s 4oD catch-up service, the IT department also plays a crucial role in supporting its advertising sales teams – the lifeblood of the broadcaster which receives most of its revenue through advertising.

Channel 4 website

Channel 4’s IT department is working hard to deliver online advertising more efficiently, according to its CIOImage: Channel 4

“There’s a lot [of focus] on ad sales – that’s the powerhouse of the organisation in terms of revenue and if we can bring in an £800m deal and make a one per cent improvement in inventory [using IT], that’s a big number,” Gallagher said.

IT is already helping the ad sales team improve how advertising inventory is allocated by changing the way video ads are served on the Channel 4 website.

“Historically we’ve used a display advertising model for video ads, now we’re looking at technology which is actually designed for video advertising,” he said.

Until now, the Channel 4 tech team had modified existing display advertising technology to fit video formats but the plan is to use a third-party application designed specifically for video ads. As a result, the process of packaging video advertising content with TV content will be much better integrated compared to the current process, saving time and resources.

IT is also crucial in matching advertising to the appropriate audience. “Fundamentally in TV, you sell inventory and the more efficiently you can match a campaign to a break, the better use you’re going to get out of your overall inventory, so we’re always looking at ways of optimising that,” Gallagher said.

Channel 4 is using IBM’s ILOG rule management technology, which looks at the demand and supply of advertising over a fixed period and is able to come up with the best approach for placing advertising in front of the right audience. The technology is able to automate decisions about which advertising to place with which content using programme-scheduling information and data related to inventory which ad sales teams are able to input.

The broadcaster is keen to continue to be innovative in this area and is also working with academic institutions to tap into other expertise and systems that might help improve the matching of ads to audience.

“There are a lot of complex problems out there to be solved and people are solving them, so let’s see if any of those are appropriate for us,” Gallagher said.

And it’s not only Channel 4’s ad sales the IT team has to support. At the start of this year, the…

…broadcaster took on the selling of ads for UKTV, the broadcaster whose 10 channels include Dave and Watch.

With UKTV employing a different scheduling and play-out system to Channel 4, the IT team had to tune the system to work more effectively on the Channel 4 infrastructure, as well as invest in storage to cope with the increased volume of ads.

Old traditions die hard

Channel 4 is also embarking on upgrades of other core technology, including a major refresh of its Oracle R12 ERP system. “It doesn’t get the show time an iPad app is going to get, but actually it’s what runs the business and it’s crucial to us,” Gallagher said.

With the organisation on a firmer financial footing than in recent years, Channel 4 is now in a position where it can pursue projects that were delayed due to the cost-cutting of a few years ago.

Channel 4's technology strategy is closely aligned to the business

Channel 4’s technology strategy is closely aligned to the business with the main priority being to maintain the quality of contentPhoto: Channel 4

“Things have been put off. For example, we’re doing a desktop Windows 7 and Office 2010 refresh at the moment, which we deferred. We would have done it sooner – it was well overdue I think.”

It’s been five years since the last desktop OS refresh, which brought in Windows XP as well as Office 2003, but by September this year, Gallagher aims for every employee to have a new Windows 7 PC with Office 2011.

The implementation is the easy part though. “The most important thing here is around training because we really want people to take advantage of the new toolset and to learn shortcuts and learn best practice because we’ve got a real chance to [establish] a better way of working,” Gallagher said.

Although for this OS refresh Channel 4 opted for a blanket rollout of Windows 7, the CIO said the increasing trend of staff bringing their own technnology to work may mean a different approach is taken next time.

“We’ve certainly decided to do a PC refresh this time but there are suggestions that maybe next time that won’t be the case. We will see what happens with technology [but] we’re not ready for that yet,” Gallagher said.

The inevitable rise of bring-your-own technology

With the trend for bring-your-own technology gathering pace in enterprises, Gallagher is making sure the IT team is ready.

“People say their computer at home is better than their computer at work, so the novelty of getting a phone from work will pall against the actual phone you’ve got for personal use. Therefore, it’s about managing that and trying to make it secure,” he said.

Some Channel 4 staff have already asked to use iPads at work, and the IT department are working to make sure they’re on top of the security and compliance implications.

Now, if Channel 4 employees connect their devices to the work network and are storing work-related data on them, they must activate a PIN code on their devices and agree that all data can be wiped by the IT department if the devices are misplaced. “If you have personal photographs on there, then you need to…

…be careful – everything will go,” Gallagher said.

As well as devices, Gallagher accepts the trend towards IT’s lessening role in how business departments, such as HR and finance, procure their technology and services, saying the best approach is to adapt rather than oppose.

“Inevitably there will come a point where people will go and buy services that are more commodity-based and we’ll have to adapt to support people doing that rather than try and stop them,” he said.

Channel 4 and YouView

The advent of the iPad at work isn’t the only technology shift on Channel 4’s radar. It’s also involved with the YouView joint venture to develop an IPTV platform for broadband-connected set-top boxes. Along with Channel 4, the joint venture also includes Arqiva, the BBC, BT, Five, ITV and ISP TalkTalk.

Channel 4 is working on YouView

Channel 4’s experience with 4oD has allowed it to contribute significantly to the YouView IPTV projectImage: Channel 4

“We’ve done a lot of work with the YouView joint venture. We’ve completed tests both around getting our content all the way through and around DRM. We’re really pleased with the way that’s going,” Gallagher said.

YouView is due to go live in 2012 with trials taking place this year.

Channel 4 has been able to provide expertise gathered through its experiences with 4oD since 2006 surrounding the complexities of metadata, supporting different programme formats and the best approaches for video streaming and advertising.

“We’ve led the way on quite a lot of those things, which has been great. We’ve got a good relationship working with them, knocking problems out very quickly,” Gallagher said.

In other respects, Channel 4 is on a “big learning curve”, having not been involved in building set-top box technology before, according to Gallagher.

“It’s not just about getting the applications running on the equipment, it’s about getting it running in people’s homes and people with more experience than us such as BT and TalkTalk will be involved in terms of that,” he said.

The Channel 4 CIO added that the YouView project reminds him of his early work in technology.

“The nature of these things means…

…developers are developing on endless amounts of memory and processing power, which of course the set-top box doesn’t have so you have to discipline yourself in completely different ways to seek out every bit of memory. Technologically, it’s a very interesting challenge,” he said.

Passion for your business and IT skills

With each successive generation of staff entering the workplace more tech savvy than the last, tapping into non-traditional areas of talent is essential if IT is to keep progressing, according to the CIO. “I’m really quite passionate about the fact that we need to bring more new people into the profession otherwise things are going to slowly deteriorate,” Gallagher said.

“If we’re going to drive IT forwards and not die on our feet, we need to address that,” he added.

Naturally, driving IT forward must mean a focus on business skills rather than typical tech competencies. “I really, really love working for Channel 4 because I’m interested in the business. The most important thing you can bring is an interest in the organisation, you’ve got to care about that more than you care about technology or IT for its own sake,” Gallagher said.

Channel 4 is doing its part for developing tech skills by paying the fees of two computing students at the University of Westminster, who work with and are mentored by the Channel 4 IT team during their holidays.

The tie-up between Channel 4 and the university also allows the students to complete some of their assessment modules through their work – including web development – at the broadcaster. The plan is to recruit one more student this year.

Gallagher is in talks with HR about starting an apprenticeship scheme for people not necessarily taking the university route and would be interested in testing roles or becoming business analysts. “There’s quite a commitment around talent and training. That’s very early days but I’d really like to do that,” he said.

The importance of having a good team is not lost on the CIO. “I’ve always believed you’re only as good as the people working for you and the most important thing is to have a great team. Fortunately, I’ve got a really great team of people,” he said.

“And that’s the thing I’ll always spend a lot of time thinking about – how I get new good people in and how I retain and keep moving on with the people I’ve got.”