The observation that the events of 2020 accelerated digital transformation in the media industry has become so commonplace that it can already be considered banal.
But this catch-all statement captures another, altogether more profound, reality: that innovation in content production in 2020 was greater and more profound than in any other single year, ever. And that in turn is going to make for an unforgettably dynamic 2021 for those who work in, and supply to, the production sector.
What justifies such bold claims? Three things. The first is a cultural shift; the second a creative explosion; and the third a strategic repositioning.
Let’s begin with culture. Those who have never worked in production are almost invariably baffled by its odd mix of conservativism and innovation.
Creative people, of all kinds, crave certainty that their vision can be delivered. In content creation this makes them predisposed to rely on familiar people and technology – especially since they are often working to a tight deadline. But while this makes producers resistant to novelty, their drive to create is so strong that if barriers (such as a global pandemic) are put in their way, they will be ingenious in overcoming them. And if technology can support such ingenuity, then all the better. And so it was that in the course of last year, a decade of resistance, among many teams, to cloud-based project and production tools, fell away in a moment.
Much praise has, rightly, been given for the pace at which technology and operations teams within broadcasters moved their organisations to remote working. But consider what this shift meant for production companies – many of them made up of a handful of people, and with little or no technical specialism. Within the DPP we have had the privilege of hearing first hand, through our Next Gen Production Network, of countless examples of new ways of working being implemented at speed by teams driven by a rich mix of determination and desperation – but with very little specialist know-how. Remember, it was the production community that saw its revenue streams switched off overnight in March 2020 – an experience from which the rest of the media supply chain was spared. Remote production wasn’t merely important; it was a matter of life and death.
Ironically, the challenge for production companies in the future will be to decide which tools and technologies they will need to turn exigency into stability – especially as they will be bombarded by the numerous suppliers that have also responded to the crisis, by developing new cloud-led products and services.
And then there’s creativity. The drive to meet the surge in demand for content from a world trapped at home, led both to ingenious programming solutions and to a further broadening of the definition of what we mean by ‘content’. When people first began to refer to content rather than programmes, it was to reflect the greater diversity of supply among broadcasters. But now the term accommodates the exciting diversity of audio visual creativity that extends from movies to live-streamed concerts on gaming platforms, from premium scripted series to TikTok videos. And while the demand for high quality long form storytelling famously exploded during lockdown, it was the wider growth in digital media (driving a sudden 10 per cent increase in revenues) that created the greatest opportunity for the production sector.
Thirdly, and finally, there is the strategic reshaping that is occurring among major content producers. Each November at the DPP’s Tech Leaders’ Briefing, senior executives from around 30 major media companies identify their three strategic priorities for the year ahead. At our event in 2019, the message for 2020 was loud and clear: the need for media companies to shift to cloud-based media supply chains was business critical. No one, of course, knew that just four months later we were about to learn just how business critical that need really was.
But by November 2020, the strategic imperative had shifted. The business critical need was now to enable and advance remote working and remote production. This was a key theme for half of our speakers at our Leaders’ Briefing – and given more prominence than any other theme (though companion topics of workforce and business transformation weren’t far behind).
Executives from major sports producers as diverse as Eurosport, IMG, BT Sport and DreamHack Sports Games identified cultural, creative and commercial benefits to live, remote production, and demanded the technological innovations required to deliver growing ambitions. But perhaps above all else they saw the opportunity to use innovation in these areas to engage more directly with an audience that makes less and less distinction between content form and platform, but demands high levels of personalisation.
When listening to the somewhat different, but equally compelling, innovation described by executives from content creators such as Buzzfeed, Vice Media, Al Jazeera and News Corp, it became immediately apparent how simultaneous developments in consumer capture technology, professional tools, connectivity and audience behaviours have combined to intensify the production realm. During 2020 new content opportunities were constantly emerging; but they were also constantly disappearing, morphing and evolving – and with terrifying speed.
These cultural, creative and strategic changes would be sufficient in themselves to talk of an unprecedented past year, and a busy year to come. But there’s a kicker – one that is likely to make 2021 particularly memorable; and it relates directly to the coronavirus pandemic.
From what we know so far about the likely progress of both infections and injections, social distancing will be in place long enough to ensure that remote working and production will become mature. But it is also likely to be eased in sufficient time for 2021 to experience the inevitable explosion of creativity that will be triggered by the end of the pandemic. At the heart of that explosion will most likely be live events, as people seek to express and share the joy of being together again.
If we are looking for more terms so over used as to become banal, then we can also add the observation that we are living in ‘challenging times’. But, as said earlier, producers love a challenge. And that’s why we should get set for the oddest side effect of global illness: a production sector in rude health.