CIO interview: Ben Hine, technology director, UKTV

UKTV director Ben Hine says every piece of the company's technology has been replaced over the last four years

UKTV has upgraded its IT infrastructure using mobile and cloud-based technologies. Director of operations, technology and innovation, Ben Hine, says every piece of technology has been replaced over the last three to four years.

“Everything has changed,” he says. “When I started at UKTV as the IT manager, about eight years ago, it was a different UKTV than we see today.”

Hines says the network was 50% smaller and the number of employees has increased from around 60 to 200 – of which 35 now work in IT.

Hines says IT for TV companies used to be about building the schedule, digitising video and the technical side of broadcasting, but IT has now seeped into all corners of the UKTV business.

In a stagnant market, he believes UKTV is now more creative than its peers and it tries to get the most out of technology to ensure employees are working innovatively.

“Technology is a huge part of everyday life and defines the way they work,” he says. “But we didn’t want it to define us; we wanted people to define what they wanted from technology.”

During the infrastructure refresh, the UKTV team moved buildings, so it had a blank canvas to work with. On day one, employees came into the new building to find their chosen laptop waiting for them.

“We made every single person mobile,” he says. “We took their desks and every piece of kit – the telephone, PC, TV, personal video recorder, Sky Box – and managed to squash it all into a laptop.”

Employees are now free to work wherever they want in the office, including the outdoor terrace or from home using the laptop they chose from a chose your own device (CYOD) scheme a few months previously – which Hine says was a bit like a big branch of Currys offering technical advice.

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“We no longer determine how they work,” he says.

Hine also says it’s important to provide the software that employees need – and want – to help them work more creatively.

“iTunes, Evernote, Spotify, all these non-business applications, why would we stop them if that’s what they want?” he says. “Technology shouldn’t slow people down or define how they work.”

As part of the upgrade, UKTV left its supplier Atos and moved to another – a small company called Circle IT, which operates out of Wales.

“It was a clean break,” explains Hine. “Atos gave us a solid solution, but any changes took weeks. And things like having iTunes on the network were a ‘no no’.”

“Companies like Atos are very big and don’t understand how small companies want to be agile,” he says.

Hine says Circle IT, one of Dell’s preferred suppliers, is quick and deals almost exclusively with companies using the latest technologies, such as SharePoint, Lync, Network PVRs.

“And we’re the people who want all of it, all at once, for everybody,” says Hine. “And Circle IT were excited to deliver that.”

As well as the non-business apps, Circle IT implemented all applications needed, including broadcast scheduling systems, which are now available on mobile and in the cloud.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Hines says at some points the roll-out of the new technology tools were frustratingly slow. “There were a lot of things we found would take six, eight, 10 weeks to deliver – but if it’s cloud-based why can’t we have it tomorrow?”

Now the technology is in place, he says it is one of the reasons employees want to stay at UKTV. “We’re investing in people and technology is part of that.”

He says technology now makes or breaks the job role, while, before the revamp, the company was just the same as everyone else.

The UKTV CEO, Darren Childs, has been the main sponsor of the upgrade, as he understands media is a fast moving space in the technology world, especially with the increase of video-on-demand, which is one of UKTV’s main strategic pillars. It currently provides UKTV content on demand for eight or nine of the major platforms, including Sky and Virgin, and it wants to keep rolling this out.

With satellite or airwaves, you know the TV programme is going to get there because nothing else is competing for bandwidth

“For Sky, we provide catch-up, archive content, files, schedules, and meta data,” says Hine.

He also said on-demand video is more difficult than traditional TV because it requires more images, meta data and information to promote it. “You need to entice people into it and the meta data is more important as it needs to be searchable.”

On-demand video will be the next big trend for broadcasters such as UKTV over the next five years, but as set top boxes from the likes of Sky and Virgin become more technologically advanced, UKTV needs to keep up with trends such as the red button, live pause and backward electronic program guides.

Hines says TV broadcasters need to use their brand as an anchor in a competitive media world. You can now watch anything at any time and the choice is overwhelming, but people will hopefully stay loyal to their brands, which for UKTV includes channels such as Dave. 

This familiarity will keep viewers and prevent TV content being searchable through Google which at one point was a threat to broadcasters, “but it’s died a death a bit”, says Hine.

Hine says cloud is another big trend that is still in its infancy for broadcast, but UKTV has already moved most of its applications out.

“But playing out TV channels over the cloud is in infant stages and I’m interested in looking at how those develop,” says Hine.

While a regular TV playout provides a great amount of security and control, Hine says cloud doesn’t provide that yet.

“With satellite or airwaves, you know the TV programme is going to get there because nothing else is competing for bandwidth,” says Hines, who adds that until there are ubiquitous superfast broadband networks, this won’t get off the ground.

It will be a brave man to put a major TV channel on the cloud at the moment,” he says. “Dave is a pretty big channel, but it’s not huge and no way could we move all out viewers across - it would crash networks. But Horse and Hound - which is great channel to small amount of viewers - could over mass viewing channels.”

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