Interview: Albert Cheng, EVP of Digital Media, Disney/ABC Television Group, and Lori Schwartz, Co-Governor of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Interactive Media Peer Group, Discuss the Emmy-Winning Oscar Digital Experience

Earlier this month (see the article published on, September 12th), the Oscar Digital Experience won the 2011 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media.

[itvt]'s Tracy Swedlow recently interviewed the executive in charge of the Emmy-winning project, Albert Cheng, EVP of digital media at Disney/ABC Television Group, as well as Lori Schwartz, co-governor of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Interactive Media Peer Group. An unedited transcript of the interview follows.



Interview – September 14, 2011

[itvt]:     Welcome to the show, Albert and Lori!  

LS:     Hello.

[itvt]:     Albert?

AC:     Hey, Tracy.  Hi.

[itvt]:     Well, congratulations on your win!

AC:     Thank you very much.

[itvt]:     Did you think you would win?

AC:     Look -- you know what?  All of the nominees up there were likely candidates to win.  We're just very grateful for the Academy Members to have voted us.  But we were in good company.

[itvt]:     Weren't you competing with yourself?  Because of Grey's Anatomy?

AC:     Yes.  It's nice to be competing against yourselves.  But once again, we also had our colleagues at NBC and at TBS as well as Fox.  So it wasn't like we were the only choice.

[itvt]:     Well, just for the people that haven't seen the Oscar Digital Experience and weren't able to be at the Creative Emmy Award, where it was presented -- a short description of the Oscar Digital Experience is that it was a multiplatform offering during the 2011 Oscars this year. 

I believe you had 23 HD cameras.  Is that correct? 

AC:     Only about 2 dozen cameras.

[itvt]:     And I believe you had an iPhone app, a free iPhone app, a backstage-pass iPhone app that was $0.99, and an all-access pass that was $4.99.

AC:     Yes.  Actually, just to go through that…  I'm not sure if you said that earlier.  On the Apple iOS platform, we had a backstage pass, which was offered at $0.99.  And that could be accessed on an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch.

On the Web site -- the site -- we had a select number of video feeds, both on the Red Carpet and Backstage, that were free.  They were more ad-supported.  And then there was a $4.99 sort of package that got you the rest of the camera feeds, as well as 360-camera angles through a number of locations both from the Red Carpet and behind the stage. Actually, in the Governor’s Ball, sorry.

[itvt]:     How many viewers do you think you had on each of these platforms?  Can you say, please? And -- Number 2 -- how much money do you think you made?  

AC:      Well, I can't say either one of the two.  That's something that we're not going to be able to talk about.  We got a lot -- a million -- video views from the experience.  But we can't disclose the financial and all that other stuff.

[itvt]:     I know you can't.  But I thought I'd ask.

AC:     Thanks for asking.

Let's put it this way.  This is -- based on what we did this past year, this is a model that both the Academy as well as ABC Digital feel that we are going to maintain and continue with the model.

It was enough of a success, both in terms of the revenue we got last year and viewership that it is something we're going to continue to do.  But we're going to refine it.

Obviously, when you do something the first time, there are things that you learn you could do better.  And, certainly we are going to make every effort to continue to improve the entertainment experience.

[itvt]:     You answered my next question, which was, "What does this win and it’s supposed financial gains tell the top brass about this type of strategy?  As you just answered, you're going to continue a multiplatform approach to events like this or possibly to all of your shows, going forward?

AC:      Yes.  I think -- 1 -- here's what it tells us…

I think what it tells us is that there are opportunities for multiplatform experiences.  There are several criteria that we have to apply against it, which is:

1) What's the overall objective that we're trying to do with the program?

2) Is it the type of program that is conducive to multiplatform engagement?


3) That at the end of the day, compelling experiences are going to rate and basically succeed.

I think it would be wrong for us to assume that if it worked for Oscar, it'll work for the AMAs and it'll work for the Country Music Awards.

I think we have to look at things case-by-case.

When we started out with the Oscar Experience, the Number 1 goal was, "How do we create a model where the award show -- one of the biggest award shows in the year -- to be relevant to consumers in the digital future?"

When you look at some of the impact that we've had, is that we do have much younger viewership on the digital platforms than on traditional platforms.  So, Number 1, if our goal was to accomplish attracting an audience 18 to 34, we accomplished that.  That was predominantly the audience we were engaging on those platforms.

Then on top of that, how was the experience?  The experience, for the most part, we felt succeeded, as well.  It was highly engaging and different.  It was interesting.

Are there things that we can improve?  Certainly.  But overall, I think we want to do something so different that we think we broke through the marketplace.

Earlier, when we started thinking about streaming things live, just some of the background…  I think John Lasseter, who is our chief creative officer at the Walt Disney Company, really was a huge advocate for us in terms of thinking about the experience. Things that evolved and things that we can do with the technology.  He was the one that seeded the idea of having many cameras throughout the entire experience.

His goal was, or he felt creatively, that we should try to bring the viewer into the experience as if they were attending the event themselves. So that was the through-line that we used to sort of build around it and craft the entire Oscar Digital Experience.  That was the seed there.

I think that really helped us get through and figure out how we were going to execute this.

[itvt]:     One more question, and then I want to ask you a question, Lori.

Albert, I know you've spoken a lot about the fan engagement being very important.  I think it's interesting that John Lasseter, the chief creative officer, led this effort, which would lead one to think that the goal behind this is to create a great experience.  The digital experience - to create fan engagement.

But to what extent are your goals about Time Spent Viewing (TSV)?  Is it creating opportunities for more ad-insertions?  Just creating an experience to attract more viewers?  What are your priorities?  Tcommerce?  Although, there wasn’t much of that here (other than purchasing the passes) where you could buy things, relevant to the show, relevant to the movies, or actually buy the dresses and things like that.

But what were your priorities?  And how will that change in the future now that you've been through it and seen the kudos that you've received for this version of the Experience?

AC:     Tracy, that was a question for me, right?

[itvt]:     Yes.

AC: The goal here was to figure out how we look at a diversified revenue stream.  So, both advertising is supported as well as a paid model.

How do you create the right balance of advertising and more of an ad-free environment on the consumer-paid side?  Or, we're really even still early, in fact, and if we really wanted to, we could have actually had both an ad experience within the paid product.  But, because of various logistical challenges that we had, we weren't able to do all of it.

But the goal ultimately is to figure out how we create a great ad experience for advertisers.  Is there a model that we also have a consumer-paid option, as well?  And -- look -- we're testing it.

So the business model might change in the next round.  But the goal here is to make sure, first and foremost, that the experience is what we want to get to.  Once we understand what the consumer-experience is, and how it's valued, then we'll figure out the best way to monetize it.  That's always been sort of how we looked at it.

[itvt]:     Okay.  Thank you very much.

[itvt]:     Lori --

LS:     Yes.

[itvt]:     Obviously as co-governor of the Interactive Media Peer Group and many other wonderful things, you've seen the range of things that came in this year, and many years before that.  It's interesting that this is for the film industry, rather than it come directly out of the TV industry…  I don't know -- it's a hybrid TV-and-film product, perhaps.

LS:     Yes.

[itvt]:     Why do you think that the Interactive Media Peer Group voters embraced this particular offering this year?

LS:     That's a great question.  Actually, my co-governor, Geoff Katz, and I debated how people would vote for a long time wondering if it would be based on just popularity in terms of the show, or if it was going to be about technology achievement because our peer group is very diverse.  You have constituents that are coming from pure storytelling -- writers and directors and talent - in the interactive media side.  But then you also have technology and marketing and a variety of other people who play in the interactive ecosystem.

So it is very interesting to ultimately see where peoples' passion ends up being.

I think one of the reasons why the Oscar Digital Experience did win is because it is a combination of achievement and excellence in a variety of those areas.  

So you have this technology achievement of having multiple cameras and having a seamless experience, and a really fun, engaging experience on the different applications and in the different platforms. And, then you also contextually have a great storytelling experience, whereas someone viewing the Oscars, you really get to feel like you're there.  You really have this wonderful consumer experience with that franchise. And, then from a marketing perspective, as Albert mentioned, the business model is there.  You have the advertiser-integration, and you also have a paid model.

So ultimately, from an Emmy perspective, you really have three points of entry here about why this was such a successful experience.  I think it really tapped into everybody in our ecosystem.

[itvt]:     I think that's a great answer!

LS:     Thank you!

[itvt]:     Albert, did you want to say something?

AC:     Yes.  That's a great answer, Lori.

LS:     I've thought about it a lot.  Because personally, I make a living on the marketing side.  But I'm also a tech geek. And, I found myself just as an audience member, loving that inside view into the Oscars.  Then I found Lori, the girl geek just loving that touching where I wanted to get into the camera and the fact that you got to deliver it and then you have a business model.  So often, as a sort of change-agent in a large corporation, I am always trying to push people to try new things and they always want to know, "What's the revenue stream?"

So you guys -- you had all the pieces in place.  And I think that's ultimately what excellence is about, and why you were walking around with the Emmy that night.

AC:     You know, Tracy, if I could speak a little bit to the storytelling aspect.  Because I know that sometimes even we get so enamored with technology and - obviously for me - the business model.  

This was the first time that at least, I -- because this was the year that I unfortunately got a little bit too detailed in the entire project.  But I every now and then like to give the guys…I pushed for, "How do we use technology design to tell the story?"

In talking with John, I mean, John seeded the idea of having all these cameras and bringing viewers there; but, when I took a step back and we brought the team together to talk about, "What do viewers really care about?" it got down to the essence of, "They're there to root for their favorite movie or their favorite actor or favorite actress."

It just happens that the entire awards process fit very nicely and neatly in a three-act structure. The first act, we sort of talked about in the Emmy submission is the Nominations period.  We felt that at this point in time, this was the First Act. This was how we were going to set up the horse race.

So everything from design to how we set up the 3-act structure -- even on the Web site -- was meant to convey the story.  When we did that, we wanted to make sure that when you were introduced to the nominations, that right there on the homepage, you could select who you wanted to win.  

Before, we used to put and bury, you know, "Pick Your Favorites."  We’d bury it in a different part of the site. So you'd actually have to do more clicks just to get there.

But we felt in that time period, "Let's make it right on the homepage," and we made it really easy for people to make their picks.

Based on that design choice, we actually, I don't even know what the percentage is… We actually had hundreds of thousands of registered users, which was -- I don't know -- maybe a 5-fold or 6-fold increase from years past.  So that design choice, and putting that in front of them, completely made a difference.

Then as people went through the nominations, we also had a bunch of Web series.  These Web series were telling a story about each of the nominees, and how they got there.  Really to try to drum up what it takes to get the nominees, tell a story of the nominees, and then also tell a story of how we get the Oscars ready for the live broadcast.

Our Second Act really was the Red Carpet.  That's when we started bringing in the viewer.  "You've already made your choice.  You're rooting for them.  And you're there because you want to figure out and see your favorite."  And you try to follow them wherever they're going.

Then lastly, when the Awards Show happens, we're hoping that we're going to finish the story by your favorite nominee winning, going backstage, thanking everyone, and then even continuing on to the Governors Ball.

So we definitely looked at it as the journey of our nominees. Telling the story from beginning to end.  Allowing the viewer to track it and feel like they're a part of that entire journey.

So that's how we set it up.  The best part of doing it once was, we were trying to figure out, "Okay.  Did we accomplish that storytelling goal?"  "Yes.  We probably did, from a macro level."  But now we're going to go for the next year. How do we enhance that storytelling piece, and really, really do a better job of the fan who's following someone like Natalie Portman throughout the process?

From an execution standpoint, there were some things we could have done better. That's one of the things that we're going to continue to refine and improve going forward.  But that's essentially how we used the technology piece, to essentially create a structure around the story.

To be completely honest, we are at the mercy of who gets nominated and who the stars are.  But the goal is, "How do we create the environment that allows the story to play out?"

[itvt]:     I’d like to bring up the fact that people responded to the "touch" experience.  I believe you mentioned that in the interview with Brian Seth Hurst that you did before with him and that we published on our Web site here.  But also, we did an interview with the people who developed the location-base Oscar Digital Experience in the streets of New York.  So people could stand in front of a window or mirror or look at a screen and they could see themselves holding a statue!

I don't know if that was part of your purview?

AC:     That was not.

[itvt]:     It was not?  Okay.  Anyway, it happened.  And I thought that was a great idea, because I think people do want to follow their favorite person and root for their favorite movie, and see if they were right if it was good or if it was bad. But also, people want to pretend like they're there.

It's like you said.  This was a way -- and you said, Lori -- it was a way to feel like you were really there.

LS:     Yes.

[itvt]:     I think people want to pretend that they're actually winning an award or in the audience or part of the real experience.

So let me re-ask the question that you asked.  Which was, "Where do we go from here?  How do we improve that?"

Perhaps, bringing the experience around people where they are locally?  Or immersing them through other technologies as they evolve.  I'm just throwing that out there.  I don't know if that's on your mind? Perhaps, you want to improve the data-delivery.  We haven't even discussed that.  What was the multiplatform data-delivery technology that you used to do this?  To track all of this?  To deliver all of these services?  That's a whole interview in itself, I'm sure.

AC:     Was that for me Tracy?  Or for Lori?

[itvt]:     That was for you, Albert.

AC:     Yes. So to answer your first question, I think we're really going to figure out how to bring…  We're going to need to figure out how to enhance and optimize the experience of bringing viewers into the event.

You're right.  It is an interesting concept, to figure out how to bring the Oscar to people where they live.  

There are actually a whole bunch of ideas that John Lasseter had, too, that were fantastic that I won't talk about, because they're probably being discussed somewhere.  But there are definitely ways of doing that. For specifically the Oscar Digital Experience, we want to continue to make the experience even better. We're going to do that through technology and I'll give you an example of that.

This past year, we partnered with AEG -- Anschutz Entertainment Group.  They're really world-class.  To get that much data in bits through over 2 dozen cameras, and then streaming it across the Internet -- that's no easy feat.  It was a lot. You wouldn't believe the amount of fiber and cable that had to be laid through - not only just for the television broadcast - but for the digital show.  I mean, the digital program…  What we had on Oscar Digital Experience was literally producing a third show.

Because, we actually had four shows going on at once.  We had one show -- the actual telecast.  We had the KABC, the local station, do a pre-Red Carpet show.  We had the Academy and ABC doing a Red Carpet Pre-Award show, and then throughout the entire period, there was a digital show running, in parallel, between the local show as well as the national show. We had two sets of hosts.  I mean the fact that we had two sets of hosts working through the entire session -- it's a lot of data to be pushing through.

Going forward, the kinds of things we learned from it was…and were tracking everything...  how many people were clicking on which cameras?  Which cameras were getting more action?  Which was more organic?  Which was more entertaining?

We considered that maybe we probably didn't need 2 dozen cameras.  We had probably more cameras than we needed.  There were a lot of cameras that had a lot of dead space, and/or we tried to manufacturer too much activity and it didn't work.

So those are the types of things we're probably going to do. "Maybe we're going to cut a little bit more of the cameras, but let's make sure each camera is optimized for a lot of interesting activity."

The other thing was, we're using a lot of technology potentially to tag with a lot of metadata everything that we're capturing on those feeds.  And we're going to tag them by celebrity and what we're seeing so that after the show, we can quickly take all that live footage and then start cutting short-form pieces around specific actors.

So, by the time the show ends, we can immediately put up a collection of short-form video around a certain celebrity or film. That way -- 1 -- from an advertiser's perspective, how cool would that be to be sponsoring the Natalie Portman Journey through the Oscars. We could easily edit-and-cut and essentially package that up.  And provide then, to a fan, that experience of value.  "Now I want to follow Natalie Portman's journey through that entire process." It's here within minutes post- the event.

So that's the kind of thing of, "How do we use technology to really enhance and make the user-experience better?"  Those are the type of things we're looking at to continually refine this process.

[itvt]:     And can you say who provided the tech platform that enabled all these experiences including the tracking?  Was this in-house development or sent out to a third party?

AC: I think it's Adobe.  Adobe's going to be the technology provider and help us do the live tagging of the video as it's coming in.

[itvt]:     No, I mean for the…

LS:     You mean for the Oscar Digital Experience?  

[itvt]:     Yes. Who enabled the underlying data platform this time for the Oscar Digital Experience, the CMS, perhaps, and who created the interface design?

AC:     Oh, it was our team.

[itvt]:     All in-house?

AC:     That was done in-house.

LS:     That's great!

AC:     And Tracy, the thing about this is that there are a lot of things that we do in-house primarily because we just don't have time to do our piece and ask for submissions and proposals.  A lot of the creative is designed in-house. All of our people were drawing wire frames and passing them around.

We tend to do a lot of things in-house when we have the time and the bandwidth.  We only vendor things out when we're completely at capacity and we need some external help.

Sometimes we do get design help from agencies that we want to help us shake a little bit of our thinking. We also love to see what other people are doing.

The app itself was developed starting probably in January. That isn't a whole lot of time between January and the event. So, we did not have the luxury of fielding proposals.

[itvt]:     I've actually got to get going, but Lori, what would you say for them to do next?  How could they improve?

LS:     Oh, gosh.  That's another good question.

You know, I guess making it available on more platforms. So folks that aren't engaged in iOS may dig onto it. I think the iPad app itself was the one that was talked about the most.

And I would say that I'm interested in seeing some commerce-related to products.  Again, as a marketer, I think it would be fabulous to be able to hone in on some of the knockoff designs of some of these celebrities and other aspects of hair and makeup and whatever it is that so many folks watching the show globally would love to get access to. I think you're sitting on top of a great commerce opportunity there.

[itvt]:     All right. Well, I would love to talk to you both more (there's so much more to know), but we must go, unfortunately. I really appreciate your spending time to discuss this just post your win. Congratulations!

AC:     Thanks, Tracy.  Thanks, Lori!

LS:     Yay!

[itvt]:     Next time perhaps on a set-top box?  Yes?  Interactive set-top boxes.

LS:     Yes.  And also, Tracy, let them know if they're interested in getting involved in interactive media, we'd love to have folks come join our peer group.

[itvt]:     Yes at, please look for the Interactive Media Peer Group (IMPG) and become a member.  I highly recommend it!

[itvt]:     We've just been speaking to Albert Cheng, who is the EVP Digital Media of Disney ABC Television Group and Lori Schwartz, Chief Technology Catalyst North America at McCann Worldgroup.

Thank you very much, both of you.

LS:     Thank you, Tracy.

AC:     Thank you.

[itvt]:     This is Tracy Swedlow, Editor-in-Chief of Interactive TV Today, at  Be sure to stay tuned and thanks for listening.



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