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Channel 4’s head of All 4 discusses VOD mistakes and how to avoid them

Richard Davidson-Houston speaking at Videoscape Europe 2019
Richard Davidson-Houston speaking at Videoscape Europe 2019
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Impatience, over-confidence, and prioritising content above all else are among the biggest mistakes made by broadcasters running video-on-demand platforms, according to Richard Davidson-Houston.

Speaking at Videoscape Europe in London last week, Channel 4’s outgoing head of its All 4 digital service outlined ten common mistakes made by companies working in this space and offered a number of ways to avoid them.

Over-confidence and impatience were two of the ten mistakes that he flagged. Taking attention away from problems that can’t be fixed quickly means businesses cannot focus on solving big, intractable problems.

Davidson-Houston argued that while content needs to be ‘king-like’, content alone is not enough. “If you work in an organisation where the religion is ‘content is king,’ that is a conceptual mistake”.

Another major point was that broadcasters should treat VOD as a fully-formed businesses in its own right, not as a tech project: “It’s a huge catastrophic mistake to see it as one and it will make your business less competitive.”

The discipline of curating large-scale VOD platforms, he argued, has more to do with experimentation and mastery than it does with innovation and bosses need to value the people who are mastering these skills.

In terms of organisational structure, Davidson-Houston said that research and product teams should not be separated as they’re inextricably linked. Similarly, companies should not choose between strategy and implementation.

The key to hiring new talent, he added, is to find people who can learn and are able to teach themselves.

Decision making was flagged as crucial, as bad decisions can usually be superseded by good decisions – the key is to make a distinction between those that are reversible and irreversible. “I’m paraphrasing Jeff Bezos but, generally speaking, the cost of not making a decision is likely to exceed the cost of making the wrong decision.”

Strategically, broadcasters should be “fishermen” not “shepherds”, he said. They should not merely be herding people from broadcast channels to on-demand services, as this audience is both reducing in size and getting older, thus becoming less valuable.

“The thing about fishermen is they acquire. Most broadcasters that I know, especially those high up the EPG, have a bit of an issue here, because they’ve never had to learn how to acquire a customer.”

Discussing how best to avoid these mistakes, Davidson-Houston said that you need power in four main areas: having financial power; having staff and being able to move them around without asking permission; being able to design processes yourself; and being able to sit everyone together.

However, with this power you should not lead a rebellion against your own company. “You may be right but you’ll be dead in the water, absolutely finished,” he said. “Lead, be luminous, be the hope, bring people with you, love the incumbent business – it’s probably paying your wages.”

When it comes to dealing with bosses, he encouraged people to engage them early. “Take your work to them before it’s finished. Don’t transact with them. Don’t tell them ‘here’s my work, please mark it’. Say here’s what my work is going to become. It’s not finished. Please, would you be involved?”

Last week’s keynote came after Davidson-Houston announced in May that he is stepping down from Channel 4 in the summer after 12 years at the UK broadcaster. “It’s time to get stuck in to something new,” he said in a statement at the time, without revealing what he plans to do next.

He joined Channel 4 from Microsoft in 2007, was Head of Channel 4 Online from 2010, and launched video-on-demand service All 4 as Head of All 4 in 2015.

Videoscape Europe is the strategy event for D2C, SVOD, AVOD and vPayTV, with a focus on delivering profitable growth in premium digital video. You can find more details here.

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