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Q&A: Renu Thomas on Disney|ABC’s Technology Future

LOS ANGELES: Television is smack in the midst of a technological rebirth on the order of a Mars mission, and Disney|ABC is mapping the trajectory with Renu Thomas at the engineering helm. The media giant is on the forefront of virtualization, both in terms of virtualized distribution and virtual reality content, thanks in large part to her predecessor, Vince Roberts, who retired last month after 33 years on the bricks.

She gamely obliged TV Technology’s questions about her game plan for running one of the largest media engineering organizations in the world.

TV Technology: First of all, congratulations on the promotion. Any thoughts on being the first woman to lead the Disney ABC Television Group engineering team?

Thomas: Disney|ABC Television Group—and Disney overall—does a great job of cultivating diverse talent. They recruit the best and the brightest and then they invest in them. I’m extremely proud to have risen through the ranks in this environment. And I’m very much looking forward to what I’ll be able to do to support women and people of color in this field. “Lift as you climb,” has long been one of my core professional tenants. I couldn’t be more excited to see how that will manifest in this new role.

TV Technology: What will be your goals and priorities?

Thomas: The television industry is going through fundamental changes right now—everything from what the consumer watches to how. From building the foundations of our TV everywhere products to moving us to an all IP-based, virtualize master control, Vince Roberts did so much in his time here at the company to position us for success in this every-evolving landscape. I intend to continue building on those successes and also forging new technological frontiers. I hope to further raise Broadcast Operations’ profile as a creative partner—an internal resource that network leads can rely on to help solve problems and also create new opportunities.

TV Technology: ABC is leading the industry with its development of an IP-based master control and playout system running in a virtualized environment. How is that system working out? Any realized benefits?

Thomas: We are still in early days, but I’m definitely optimistic and looking forward to sharing our experience with others in the industry.

TV Technology:
How do you see the future of live media over IP and virtualized, software-based live media processing in the studio and plant moving forward?

Thomas: More and more media infrastructure is migrating away from SDI to IP technologies. Production, both live and pre-recorded is no exception. We have begun this migration with ABC New York.

TV Technology: What are the DATG’s plans for 4K production and distribution?

Thomas: We don’t have any immediate plans. There are still some fundamental challenges in terms of actual production design and also workflow, but we’re definitely going to continue to watch how it evolves.

TV Technology: What about HDR, HFR and more color?

Thomas: Currently, we are more focused on what’s possible with FHD [full 1080p high definition]. It’s fantastic viewer experience and also more practical from an implementation standpoint.

TV Technology: What about virtual reality?

Thomas: Disney/ABC Television Group is very interested in virtual reality. This past September,ABC News launched ABC News VR on desktop and mobile devices with an immersive, 360 [degree] virtual reality experience from inside Syria. ABC News’ Alexander Marquardt took viewers to the streets of Damascus, a city now largely cut off from the outside world, and documented the city’s endangered treasures. 

Just recently, they launched the second experience with Bob Woodruff, who took viewers on a rare trip inside North Korea as the country marked the 70th anniversary of its Worker’s Party.
Both are examples of how already compelling stories are made that much more powerful using VR.
In the coming months, you can expect to see a lot more experimentation across the DATG portfolio, beginning with ABC. They will be offering a VR experience in conjunction with Elton John’s performances during “The Wonderful World of Disney: Disneyland 60” special in February. We look forward to transporting fans at home to this once in a lifetime show.

TV Technology: What engineering innovations do you see next for ABC TV?

Thomas: We’re not ready to announce any new projects, but I’m obviously excited to oversee the final transition of our master control to the cloud and to realize the benefits that come along with that kind of flexibility and scalability.

TV Technology: How can big media companies change as fast as viewers’ habits and interests?

Thomas: We have a long history of embracing new technologies and adapting to change, and will continue to do so.

TV Technology: Does Disney believe there is a future for terrestrial broadcasting?

Thomas: Yes, absolutely.

TV Technology: Will ABC participate in the TV spectrum incentive auction?

Thomas: No comment due to FCC mandated quite period.

TV Technology: What is likely to be the “next-generation” delivery platform for premium content, and do you expect ATSC 3.0 to provide a suitable platform?

Thomas: We’re looking at a lot of exciting options, including ATSC 3.0.

TV Technology: Will any ABC stations get involved in ATSC 3.0 testing?

We have no immediate plans. For now, we are looking forward to digging into the results of both the VHF and UHF testing.

TV Technology: How will the DATG most likely obtain its technologies going forward—in-house development, vendor contracts or via company acquisitions?

Thomas: It will continue to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

TV Technology: How will Disney promote the next-generation engineer/technologist?How do you suggest the industry, as a whole, train this next generation of personnel?

Thomas: In addition to developing the necessary technical skills, future technologists will have to learn how to be creative problem solvers and good partners. At Disney|ABC Television Group, we have used what is referred to as a “stretch assignment” to let employees take on a project with a group outside of their own. This expands their understanding of the business, and also reinforces the need to work together in teams.
I’d also advise that both up-and-coming and senior executives learn from everyone in an organization, not just those in senior levels. My greatest learning experiences have been from the operators on a manufacturing floor to the control room operators. They helped me truly understand the industries I was working in.

TV Technology: What will be most relevant to your planning for the next few years?

Thomas: Again, we’re not ready to announce any new projects, but I’m obviously excited to oversee the final transition of our master control to the cloud and to realize the benefits that come along with that kind of flexibility and scalability.

Also see…
December 7, 2015

Renu Thomas Steps Into Vince Roberts’ Role at Disney
Renu Thomas has been promoted to executive vice president of Media Operations, Engineering and IT at Disney|ABC Television.

November 3, 2015
Getting Immersive With VR
From the standpoint of ABC News, the 360-degree camera is a welcome new tool in its arsenal that gives the network “the ability to tell great stories,” said Dan Silver, executive producer

July 6, 2015
Disney|ABC CTO Vince Roberts to Retire
“To say I have been incredibly lucky to have been a part of DATG since the birth of Disney Channel would be an understatement,”