PITTSBURGH—Over the past several months, NEP, the television industry’s largest mobile production company, announced new leadership with the appointment of Brian Sullivan as the company’s new CEO and Jeff Hughes as its new COO for NEP’s global business operations.
Sullivan comes to NEP after having served in executive leadership roles at Fox Networks Group, SKY Deutschland AG, Sky UK and most recently at McKinsey & Co., where he has served as senior advisor to the Consumer, Tech & Media teams. Hughes comes to NEP after serving as president and COO for Fox Networks’ Digital Consumer Group. Prior to his role at Fox, Hughes was CEO of Omnifone, a B2B operator of music services in more than 35 countries and served as a media consultant in Europe before moving to BskyB as CTO (later renamed Sky UK).
TV Technology recently talked with Sullivan and Hughes about their new roles at the company.
TV TECHNOLOGY: Congratulations Brian and Jeff on your new positions. I’m going to play the role of the recruiter in my first question… based on your backgrounds, how do you plan to approach your new positions?
Brian Sullivan: The thing that attracted me was the increasing pace of change and innovation in the industry, which was present even before the pandemic, but has certainly accelerated. This evolution in the way we pull together broadcasts and live events—where you're able to take advantage of the change and really steer the business and drive innovation to levels we haven't seen before—is truly exciting.
I'm no prognosticator and I’m certainly not a health expert, but one thing I'm very, very confident about is that much of the change the world is experiencing now is going to continue once we come out of the pandemic. And it's those companies that can lean into innovation right now and explore new ways of delivering services that are going to be the most successful. I've been lucky enough to be involved in similar “big change” moments, both in terms of my time at Sky and at Fox, and I've seen what you can do if you have the right people, the right resources and the right vision for what you want to get done, and I think we're perfectly set up for that.
So that's what got me excited about the job. Beforehand I wasn't even sure I was going to go back to full-time employment. After I left Fox, I was doing a lot of work with McKinsey and was really enjoying that. But this opportunity was kind of right in my “sweet spot” and positioned very, very well. So, I'm definitely looking forward to it.
Jeff Hughes: The most important thing that really attracted me to the new position is the team that's there now already understands their customers very, very well. But they're hungry for change, and that was part of my evaluation. And like Brian, I enjoy change. I've never had a job that wasn't being disrupted by either technology or events around the industry.
TVT: Brian, I know you just joined the company, but what’s your impression of how NEP has weathered the events of the past six months?
BS: I've actually been in conversations with Carlyle (NEP’s private equity partner) since last March, and as part of that process, I was able to get involved in a couple of the strategic reviews that were already underway. So, I know the company a little better than you would expect from somebody who's just starting their third week on the job.
Listen, it's been hard on everybody—not just the business aspect but there’s also the personal side. We have over 4,000 employees and their lives have been just as upended. I think we have been very, very lucky in that the company was able to pivot very quickly into the changing customer needs and demands.
For example, our Broadcast Services business right now is running at close to 80% of what it was before the pandemic. Our live events business has almost reinvented itself. Whereas it used to be big concerts like Coachella or Stagecoach or giant events like NAB or CES or things of that nature, many of those events and most of the clients have pivoted to the virtual world. We're kind of uniquely situated for that in that we have the one side of the company that does live broadcast better than anybody else, but we also have this other side that is the leader in live events. The pandemic has almost driven an overlap of those two worlds, which means we have the right people to be able to execute for our customers as the requirements blend across each other.
So, while the live events business has been more directly impacted by the pandemic, there's no doubt about that, it's actually having one of its best last couple months because once companies figured out that they could still connect with customers on a virtual basis, they came to us.
JH: What I see is that the trends that we already knew were happening were accelerated by the pandemic. The trends did not really change; broadcast and live events were already moving into more technically advanced solutions and centralized production, just at a slower pace.
[The pandemic] also forced us to acknowledge the similarity between the two sides of our business. From what I hear, it's really brought our people closer and to begin to solve problems together more so than in the past. I think if you know what it was going to look like in three years, we just kind of compressed that down to a six-month period. Companies that embrace change come out of things like this better than they went into them.
There'll be stumbles, of course, there are always stumbles with change. But this situation has actually just forced us down a path more quickly than we were already headed, and it's the right path to go down.
BS: We're backed by a large private equity company and happen to be held in a long fund, as opposed to a more traditional short position, which means that our shareholders are absolutely interested in us leaning into these times right now. Clearly the world is changing and our markets are changing, and that’s where real opportunities rise. While all companies are struggling on some level, we are fortunate to be in a strong position. We're actually investing into the business right now so that we can come out of the other side of this at a much faster speed than we came into it.
TVT: How does business look globally right now in terms of production schedule?
BS: It's very different from market to market as you can imagine, because the pandemic is different depending where you go, and the way different countries are dealing with things as well. The U.S. business is back strong and the European business is coming along nicely as well. In Asia, it’s generally been quite good, but some places like Singapore are still shut down, so parts of the business are kind of “lying in hibernation”. As a whole, we're doing a lot better than I think we have a right to expect, considering the circumstances.
TVT: Americans are pretty much restricted from traveling to other parts of the world. How is that impacting your business?
JH: I think it's just a matter of logistics, but the short answer is it creates issues that make moving around harder and we have to plan more. We're going into environments that are bubbles in different countries around the world, but even just moving state to state in the United States is more complicated.
Things are opening up differently around the globe, there's pent-up demand so they open up quite quickly, and so far we've been able to get the right people in the right place at the right time. We are very busy right now, but it is certainly logistically more challenging.
BS: There's one unexpected side effect from this life of less travel, which is that people are, in many ways, connecting more. I'm sure this is true beyond just our company and the industry, and is probably true in all aspects of life. But we are a global company and as Jeff said, we were running at full speed most of the time before this thing hit. This new level of connectivity has allowed a lot of people who really barely knew each other to connect virtually. I've heard this more and more as I've talked with people across the company, they're actually closer now than they've been in the past. And I think that that's going to suit us well going forward.
TVT: NEP just rolled out its new IP-based production trucks, SuperShooter 4 and SuperShooter 9, right? What’s been the response?
BS: From what I’ve heard from within the company, the rollout went unreasonably well—these things usually have some fits and starts as you're going in, particularly on a new technology base, but these went really smoothly. We're going to be leaning into more and more new ways of providing production solutions for our partners. On the Broadcast Services side, we already have substantial hubs in Australia, the Netherlands and some “mini hubs” around the world, and they have been particularly resilient and successful. So, in addition to continuing to invest in the newest tech across our OB fleet and events equipment, going forward we're also going to be moving further into centralized production and software based solutions.
TVT: Jeff, all too often, we’ll see the term “all-IP” in quotes as if that somehow indicates that it may not be entirely IP-based.
JH: The industry is in an evolutionary period. And that means “things move from point A to point B.” But you don't “pull a switch to go from point A to point B, that doesn't happen. It’s incremental, not replacement. And it’s a process that's gradual; it’s the pace that we’re accelerating. So I can see why they may put it in quotes because it is a journey as much as it is a destination. The whole industry is moving to IP-based production, and that will affect every part of the value chain throughout the entire process—from capture all the way to viewing—but it doesn't necessarily all happen at the exact same moment.
I’ve just joined so I didn't really get the first-hand look at the complexities of building the trucks themselves, although I heard there were quite a few beaming faces as it was rolled out and had no issues. I think like any piece of technology, software is the most complex component—it's got more moving pieces than almost any machine ever built. So, when you put that all together and you don't have issues, everyone is quite rightly very happy... unfortunately, sometimes that's the exception rather than the rule. And when you're dealing with customers like we have, you have to make it work, and it has to work right away.
So I think that the shorter answer is we're accelerating rapidly into that world, and we're going to see more and more of that, whether it's in a “hub and spoke” model or an IP-based truck model or cloud-based production.
TVT: The pandemic has forced all major sports to postpone their seasons. Now they’re all playing at once. What impact has that had on your business?
BS: We had a lot of mobile units and trucks within the US NEP arsenal active this past weekend. And there were probably 10 other big sporting events around the world that were happening at the same time. We’re a big, global company so we can pull from a wide variety of resources, so while it’s busy, it’s not a problem for us. Everyone wants to be part of the solution, to bring entertainment and joy back to the fans of the world. It’s exciting.
It's been a massive re-ramp-up, in a quite a short period of time. And in some ways I think that’s probably better than the normal path because everybody had been sitting around for so long. In those first three months—that felt like probably 12, 24 or 36 months—they just wanted to get out there and do their jobs.
TVT: What kind of demand are you seeing for the new IP trucks? Is there any hesitancy because it’s so new?
BS: I don't know if I call it “hesitant.” Clients were already talking about not just IP-based delivery but also centralized production and hubs before the pandemic began, they just tended to take it at a more considered pace. What the pandemic has done is accelerate both the deployment of these concepts and, as a result, the confidence in their capabilities.
I’ll give you a really good example from over in the U.K. Remember both Jeff and I worked for Sky in our past, so we’re probably a bit biased. When the Premier League returned to action, Sky had to pivot with extreme speed, and do so while adhering to the league’s new criteria and protocols for broadcast production, with absolutely no compromise on quality.
They had already been working with a more hybrid OB/centralized/remote model for some content beforehand, but now they had to do it on a large scale, very quickly and with their most important content. We were able to work with them to help make this happen, while still delivering a great visual experience for customers, just as you would expect from Sky. So no, I don't think it's really changed; it’s just moving faster.
And I'm sure that will continue when we come out of all of this, which is exciting, as it opens up a whole new level of potential for deeper and wider sports offerings. It’s why we're taking this time now to actually reposition the company, to build on our leadership in broadcast services and live events so we continue to lead for years to come.
JH: IP has moved from testing to production, that's really all that changed. People were testing, testing, testing, making sure they were comfortable. And then there was no longer any other option. We'd already tested it and it worked really well, because we were already there. I do think it's sped up the adoption, and perhaps maybe the type of sports that we're going to use for coverage. Rather than starting at a lower tier sport, we started in a very high tier sport, but I don't think it changed the level of readiness at all, it just kind of forced it to happen quickly.
TVT: What’s it like shooting in an empty stadium or arena?
BS: It’s changed some aspects, but maybe not as much as you’d think. On one hand, there are some things that are easier, like camera placements. But on the other hand, we’ve had all of these policies and procedures that have rightly been put in place for people’s safety, and that's added a wholly understandable level of complexity.
I think leagues and broadcasters have been incredibly thoughtful and creative, in an incredibly short period of time. I've seen the “virtual fan” solutions—we are actually one of the companies that help deploy those—and they can be fun. For example, the vast majority of shots in baseball are from the perspective of the pitcher, with the focus on a small section of the stands behind home plate, whereas in other sports, like European football, there are a lot of wide shots, and you're seeing the entirety of the stadium.
In Europe they've covered the stands with tarps that have, in a strange way, focussed your eyes back down on the pitch, so you're probably watching the action more closely. I think that the NHL and the NBA have done a spectacular job staging the arenas. I now watch what's happening on the court or on the ice with far more attention to detail than I did before, and in some ways, I think it's actually more televisual. But as somebody who's been around sports my entire life, it doesn't reach its maximum capability and entertainment value unless you have the fans there. We have to be patient because it has to be safe, but I can't wait ‘til it happens.
TVT: The events of the past seven months have forced a lot of vendors to reassess how they connect with their customers with no NAB Show or IBC Show. How has the lack of trade shows affected how you communicate with your customers?
BS: I don't know if it will have a lasting effect, in part because I think they will be back. Right now, I would say we're probably closer to our customers than we've been in a long time, mostly because they had to modify and adapt and change their plans on such a fluid and frequent basis over the course of the last six months, they basically attached themselves or we attached ourselves to each other's hips and found solutions to things that no one ever anticipated in the past.
That kind of deep problem-solving partnership—as opposed to just a strict delivery relationship—gets you much, much closer to the customers. I think we'd all love to be at NAB, CES or IBC because you develop friendships over the course of your career with the people that you work with, and on the business side the reality is you can only go so far over Zoom. Some proper, strategic conversations require that face-to-face experience. But we have to all keep safe, so right now we can’t, and that’s ok, it will come back.
As I said, we’re very lucky to be positioned quite well during this moment. While we feel the same short term business impacts as everyone else—and more importantly the same increased personal stress and strain that people have had to endure—we’re fortunate in that we don’t have some of the associated financial stresses you see elsewhere. We certainly have issues like most companies, but we have great people, a lot of flexible resources and a strong balance sheet. And we can invest into these downturns to make ourselves even stronger coming out. I count my blessings that we’re in that position.
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Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.