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An old idea will turn media upside down

Mark Harrison, DPP managing director, addresses supply chain thinking

The media industry is oddly contradictory when it comes to its manufacturing processes. It loves to talk about advances in technology – but mostly in ways that suggest doing what we have always done, only even more brilliantly.

But just suppose the conversation wasn’t about the latest technology. Supposing it was about the latest efficiency. Sounds dull? Well it could just be that those who don’t start to talk this way soon won’t be in the conversation at all – because they won’t be in business.

Welcome to the world of supply chain thinking – the oldest new idea in town, and one which is about to turn our industry upside down.

The term ‘supply chain’ has been around for decades. But in the media industry it has been used very loosely, simply to describe the huge group of suppliers who facilitate the process of production, processing and distribution of content.

In other manufacturing sectors the term supply chain has an altogether more formal meaning. It is used to describe a process that coordinates and controls the movement of materials, goods and information from a supplier to a business customer, and on to the consumer. Supply chain management is all about making this process as timely and efficient as possible.

‘Timely and efficient’ have not always been the primary considerations for broadcasters. This hasn’t been out of arrogance or ignorance. It’s been the nature of a distribution and consumption model that’s been one-to-many that the time-to-market for content has been generally long, and the quality and resilience of service has been paramount. It’s not that broadcasters haven’t cared what things cost; it’s just that gold standard services generally invite gold plated processes.

But the emergence and growth of online content has fundamentally changed the relationship between the creators and consumers of content. The last five years has seen the one-to-many model of broadcasting upended. There is now far more content, of far greater variety, created by a far greater range of providers – usually online and typically on-demand. Much of that content is also supplied extremely quickly, in direct response to consumption data received from audiences.

In other words, the media industry has shifted from a supply led to demand led model. Consumers are calling the shots; and neither we nor they know what the next shot will be. As platforms and devices continuously evolve, so do consumption habits. You thought we were starting to understand consumption on mobile devices? Well stand by for the home hub with video screen and voice search that will dominate the next Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show.

Numerous other sectors have already experienced this kind of revolution. The Zara clothes brand, for example, now takes just twenty days to design, make and stock an outfit in its international stores. The secret? An agile supply chain fuelled by lots of data.

Suddenly the media industry needs speed to market and optimisation of processes as much as anyone else. The historic separation of the broadcast manufacturing process into specialist and highly proprietary supply chains for each of the three key stages of production, processing and distribution, with no overarching management and no continuity of data, simply cannot meet the needs of a demand led model.

The only way to achieve this kind of fluidity is for tools and services to be assignable according to need, and available and priced on a consumption basis – rising to meet sudden peaks or new types of demand, and falling away quickly as demand falls.

There are plenty of companies who have spotted the need for this completely different way of thinking about how media is made. And they realise that it represents a fundamental shift away from the siloed, hard-wired supply chains of traditional broadcasting to a much more abstracted model. They think of the media manufacturing process as a set of software tools that sit on a common set of infrastructure and services, managed by a combination of software and human intervention, and fuelled by the exchange of data.

It is far from simple to re-engineer a traditional broadcast operation to fit this new model. Legacy systems and processes, a web of existing contracts, and entrenched working culture all offer barriers to change. But for new, internet-native media providers, a software, service and data led way of working is completely natural: it’s what enabled them to take on the broadcasters in the first place.

And this is why changes to the supply chain will be the next big, if least glamorous, disruption. In short, established broadcasters are contemplating the shift to a supply model that is already in place for their competitors. Put like this, change isn’t optional.

By Mark Harrison, managing director, Digital Production Partnership