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‘Live production has fundamentally shifted’: How Blackbird is driving sport’s remote revolution

The video editing and publishing solutions firm's chief executive Ian McDonough, and recently hired non-executive director John Honeycutt, explain why Blackbird is well positioned to continue growing its reach across the sports industry.

by SportsPro
‘Live production has fundamentally shifted’: How Blackbird is driving sport’s remote revolution

Founded in London back in 2002, Blackbird Plc claims to have developed the world’s fastest, most powerful cloud video editing and publishing platform. As the only professional-grade, browser-based video editor on the market, the company’s patented tools enable production teams to edit and publish content remotely and scale flexibly, all whilst ensuring the highest possible content quality.

Today, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has forced all types of organisations to operate on a decentralised basis, more and more content owners are turning to Blackbird to stay visible and relevant, as well as driving their brand reach, engagement and monetisation. Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL), for example, uses the company’s web-based platform to rapidly clip, edit and publish match highlights to a variety of social platforms within as little as 30 seconds.

In sport, Blackbird’s burgeoning customer base also comprises the likes of IMG, Deltatre, A+E Networks, VENN and Eleven Sports, while the company’s recent client wins include the Premier League’s Arsenal, the National Hockey League (NHL), Riot Games, and the London-based production company Whisper. They have also just announced a key partnership with Tata Communications who have already brought in their first multi-year client.

To find out more about Blackbird’s proprietary solution and its growing aspirations in sport, SportsPro caught up with company chief executive Ian McDonough and recently hired non-executive director John Honeycutt, a media technology veteran and visionary formerly of Google, Discovery Communications and Fox Cable Networks, who joined the Blackbird board in June.

SportsPro: Firstly, how and why was Blackbird created?

IM: Blackbird was founded in 2002. It was originally conceived as a video editing tool for parts of the production industry based in Soho, London. Originally, when the founder Stephen Streater built the codec, he wanted to build a YouTube model before YouTube existed, but he enquired with the studios about the rights that would be needed and was told that it didn’t exist. Not wanting to break the law, he decided to build something that was legal and built an editing suite. 

Over a period of years this editing suite has evolved into the sophisticated, professional, browser-based tool that we have today. Its toolsets can be used in any browser, on any laptop, even at low bandwidth of around two Mb/s - and it is professional in the sense that you can do multiple audio tracks, multiple video tracks, complex transitions, captions, colour correction, ingest third party metatdata etc. It’s a finishing tool within many parts of the media industry, especially in sports and news, because it boasts one other particular feature or attribute in that it is extremely fast. In fact, we’ve been talked about independently as the fastest video editor in the world.

Is that the company USP - that you’re the fastest video editor in the world? How else do you differentiate yourselves from other tools on the market?

IM: It’s definitely one of them. I joined in 2017 and since then we’ve widened the offering from post production in Soho into live and into the US market bringing on customers like MSG Networks, Deltatre and around 50 regional US news stations with TownNews. What we predominantly talked about as competitive advantages in the first two years after I joined, before Covid hit, was speed, quality and scalability, about reducing resources, particularly cost and time, and making workflows much more efficient.

Those advantages still all hold true. What we’ve been focusing on in the last five months has really been about our remote attributes and how easily we are able to be used in a remote production environment. That’s because we can be used on a very low bandwidth connection, on any laptop, and any browser.

Over the last six months the definition of what ‘remote production’ means has evolved. It did mean that rather than travel to far flung events, the production team would work from a central facility. What it means today is that the production team are completely decentralised too, working from home and remotely producing content every single day. It means the demands on hardware and infrastructure have completely changed. That is why Blackbird is in a powerful position to help.

Our competitors in this space, particularly in the professional, higher-end space are Adobe Premier and Avid. Their virtualised systems would need a second piece of software called Teradici. That will generally need a 30-plus Mb/s bandwidth connection, and would need to have a GPU [graphics processing unit] computer locally, significant local storage and significant cloud storage to make that operable.

To add an editor with Blackbird you simply need a laptop and a domestic internet connection. So we are incredibly scalable in that remote instance versus our direct competition.

John, what was your perception of Blackbird before you joined in a non-executive director role and what drew you to the company?

JH: I first got to know Blackbird during my time at Google. Ian and I connected and we brought Blackbird on board as a partner of the Google Cloud platform. We did an analysis, we looked at the supply chain, we looked across various functions, and in this area, the post-production world, what Blackbird is doing is innovative and well positioned to take advantage of distributed workloads, cloud capabilities, flexibility.

When I saw the technology and applied my past experience across sports, sports news, fast-turnaround, Olympics, those types of events, Blackbird technology was perfectly suited for it. So I got to know Ian over time and I decided to join the board.

It’s been a good few months and I’m getting to know it, getting to understand the technology, and I’m even more impressed with both Ian and the team. The brand is very crisp and focused and on-message. You like to see those things in a company that is trying to make a difference in the marketplace and really change the marketplace, and the company right now seems to be firing on all cylinders.

Was it the intention at the very beginning to be a fully remote, fully cloud-based company, or has that way of operating come about due to Covid and its impact on the business and media more generally?

IM: It’s absolutely how the company was conceived. The company wasn’t  conceived around a pandemic but it's no accident we can work in one. It was around a concept of resilience and freedom - freedom from location, freedom from proprietary systems and the resilience to continue operate with very little resource. 

Resilience and freedom are concepts that run through everything that we do, and I think one of the key things about that freedom is around freedom from heavy infrastructure. Blackbird simply doesn’t require it, whether it’s bespoke hardware, bespoke equipment, or heavy-duty bandwidth or power. We are ideal for  those companies looking to reduce their technological footprint while packing a powerful punch. 

What’s behind your recent client wins, including new deals with the likes of Arsenal, Riot Games and the NHL?

IM: Like everybody, there’s been an evolution of thinking through the crisis. When we doubled A+E Network’s capacity and brought on Arsenal in April, they were unable to travel into the office. There was no live sport and so we were used as a remote tool to access a central depository of content in order to satisfy, excite and fulfil the wants and needs of the tens of millions of fans and viewers that these companies have around the world.

One area that wasn’t so affected directly by the shutdown of live sports was, of course, esports. That’s been an area of strength for us. We’ve done a deal with Riot Games out of Los Angeles. They’ve had a huge surge in interest in League of Legends and all their other games, but their team’s couldn't physically travel to the office either, so again they wanted to create these live events from the safety of their homes, and that’s another area where Blackbird has helped. And then as live sport has moved towards return to play, the NHL deal comes into play and there’s a lot more activity around that.

JH: Another one in esports is VENN. It’s a good example of a rapid launch. For a team that wanted to launch faster as a result of the pandemic, choosing Blackbird versus heavy infrastructure made a ton of sense.

What role do you expect esports to play in Blackbird’s future? Are they any major differences in terms of what’s required in a gaming environment versus traditional sports?

IM: I think it’s very similar. This is action packed, live sport that can be turned around very quickly. The instant gratification that gamers want actually drives innovation right across sport, and I think you’ve seen that in the video gamification of sport more generally. It’s very similar but there is probably a leading edge with esports over traditional sport and given the versatility of Blackbird, it’s not a strategy as such - it’s the fact that we are applicable to a wide variety of sports, or indeed all sports.

One thing I would say about esports is that there is a lot of fine detail on an esports screen at any particular time, so they are at the higher end of resolution requirements, which is good because, again, it drives us forward and it’s great that we can satisfy those resolution requirements.

The instant gratification that gamers want actually drives innovation right across sport, and I think you’ve seen that in the video gamification of sport more generally.

Many of your customers are tier-one, premium properties, but how can smaller, less resourced entities access and capitalise on your solution?

IM: There are lots of different ways that content is edited and published. A Premier League match is edited probably more than 30 times by different entities around the world, whether it be teams, federations or different broadcasters. Many of those are actually brand new types of production suites or entities.

The NRL, for example have traditionally sold all of their rights to Fox for many years. They’ve started to carve back rights for themselves - so they’ve carved back international VOD rights and in-game clipping rights. They’ve looked at Blackbird as a tool that is well suited to both of these types of workflow. In addition it can be started up on the fly, doesn't need to have heavy duty capex investment and as a SaaS model it will be improved and updated regularly at no extra cost.

I think in that respect, yes, [Blackbird’s platform] absolutely fits any budget, whether you’re a federation for a large or smaller sport or whether you’re a Premier League club. We’re there to offer a very high premium service with very little in the way of upfront infrastructure cost on a reasonably priced subscription basis. We are finding that suits a wide range of budgets.

You mentioned the US market is a key focus for the business. John, presumably that’s where you come in, given your background and connections in that market?

JH: I would hope so. Certainly, I have a lot of friends and a lot of colleagues in the industry who I think could take advantage of Blackbird technology. I’ve worked globally, so I’ve seen the likes of Olympics and Super Bowls and World Series and all those major events, but the applicability of Blackbird really spans content creation and distribution full stop - whether that’s a sports league that’s attempting to get something out rapidly, the explosion of distance learning and all these new businesses, Blackbird’s technology applies.

People are trying to create compelling content and distribute it in the most efficient way with as little infrastructure and as little weight - and wait, as in time - as possible. So I think it’s a compelling opportunity for Blackbird.

For me, I definitely want to help tell the story and help the industry understand that, as we saw during my time at Google when I first met Ian, there are different ways of operating. I see an alternative here that is quick, efficient, flexible, subscription-based. It ticks a lot of boxes for me, putting my former CTO hat on; initiatives and things that I was consistently asked to do when I sat in that chair Blackbird can be helpful with.

The next stage of Blackbird's growth strategy is to extend its reach in the US market

To what extent has the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote production technologies and actually benefited Blackbird as a business? Do you foresee any kind of reversion back to the ‘old’ ways of producing live content?  

IM: We’ve seen an evolution from the ‘what are we going to do now? We need something to keep the lights on’. to now, ‘we don’t want to go back to how it was before’. This is where the operational resilience and the end user freedom comes in. There is something that’s fundamentally shifted.

For many years, people have been saying the office is an overpriced luxury within company budgets and not really required. I’m not too sure it’s exactly that but it needed a cultural shock to shift that thinking, and I think that’s probably happened. There’s a genie that’s been let out of the bottle that’s going to be very difficult to get back in around flexible working and work-life balance.

Surveys that I’ve seen have talked about working two or three days in the office, two or three days from home. I think that’s very realistic and we would play very nicely with that scenario. So I think we can see the benefits for companies, the benefits for employees, the benefits for travel, resource, sustainability, all that kind of stuff. There are probably some significant long-term benefits that are going to result from this.

In addition, the companies we sell to have realised that whether it be a second Covid wave or indeed a whole new pandemic, these situations can fundamentally impact the ability of businesses to operate and their overall survival. By building in operational resilience with Blackbird the effects of any such situation can be significantly mitigated.

The NBA is one sports property that has been forced into innovating its product by Covid-19

JH: I agree with Ian. In the first couple of months of this and the conversations I had with people was all very temporary, ‘let’s just figure it out’ - or what I would call ‘forced innovation’. People were having to do something that they may not have chosen to do but, hey, it worked, or they had to grind it out but it happened. I think, in the last couple of months, it’s really transitioning.

And the other thing is that - at least here in the US, maybe not so much in some European sports - there have been a lot of changes to the product itself. Look at how the NBA is presented, as an example, with a completely different look and feel from the environment that it was traditionally played in. We’ve seen rule changes, [such as] five substitutions in football - if that sticks around, you’re talking about a fundamental change to how the game is played. That changes how we present, and the industry presents, the event.

I’m proud that the industry has innovated and focused and driven and done the things that it has to present a really high-quality product - I mean, this stuff is amazing! I think the strategic question, or the industry question, is how much of this product change stays and goes forward. You can’t touch that point without saying how the impact of gambling on a worldwide basis, especially in the United States as it becomes legalised, continues to change the product.

As those products change and there’s more and more desire to publish, Blackbird becomes a compelling choice to be able to do that because you have to satisfy more and more outlets with different opportunities to tell the product’s story. It’s a really cool moment in our industry: it sucks, it’s awful, it’s terrible - but it’s so impressive from an innovation perspective. The future is incredibly exciting for our industry and for companies like Blackbird.

On that note, what does success look like for Blackbird in the coming years?

IM: We’ve developed the business from being an artisan tool in the Soho area to being an infrastructure tool that can be easily and quickly deployed on an industrial scale. What the next 18 months holds for us, at least strategically, is to make sure that our web-based professional video tool is available to, or within, as many OEM stacks as possible. That is certainly where our focus is right now.

We’re very interoperable and so technology stacks that are infrastructure-based such as our new partner, Tata Communications, that require any level of video editing within that means that we can be a solution. I would go so far as to say a very unusual solution, possibly even a unique solution, within those OEM suites. So that’s a really exciting place for us to push the business into over the next year or two.

We’ve developed the business from being an artisan tool in the Soho area to being an infrastructure tool that can be easily and quickly deployed on an industrial scale.