Variety’s Digital Innovators 2019: The Trailblazers Pushing Media Boundaries

A decade ago, when the streaming-video revolution was in its infancy, the internet was more complementary than disruptive to Hollywood. Those days are gone. New platforms have risen up as Silicon Valley players have bulldozed onto the scene, and the media biz is rebuilding the ways it reaches audiences.

With the inaugural Variety Digital Innovators list, we highlight executives at companies big and small who are looking to set a new bar — by exploiting digital media’s fresh realities or expanding beyond their current borders. A common thread: The execs profiled here (listed in alphabetical order) are each looking to use tech to directly connect and engage with audiences.

Eddy Cue, Apple, SVP, Internet Software and Services

Over his 29-year career at the tech giant, Cue was a key leader behind the launch of the iTunes Store in 2003 and the App Store in 2008, among other initiatives. Now he’s plunged Apple into original entertainment, with the company having struck more than two dozen deals with partners including Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Garner and J.J. Abrams, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, Damien Chazelle, M. Night Shyamalan, Justin Lin and Oprah Winfrey. Having marked out Hollywood territory, Cue and Apple studio chiefs Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg are expected to debut their first big projects this year. Apple’s plans are still officially under wraps, but Cue and his team reportedly intend to bundle the originals for no extra cost to customers of Apple’s iPhone, Apple TV and other devices while charging a fee to non-Apple users. Whatever its release model turns out to be, Apple is poised to make a splash — and Cue may even use the company’s immense cash stockpile to buy a traditional studio.

Kelly Day, Viacom Digital Studios, president

In her first year heading Viacom Digital Studios, Day led a 300-member team that developed more than 600 hours of original content; struck talent deals with the likes of teen influencer JoJo Siwa; and inked partnerships with Twitter and Snap. In addition, Day was instrumental in Viacom’s acquisitions of creator/fan confab VidCon and Awesomeness, the content studio and network that targets Gen Z (and where she previously served as a top exec), both strategic moves made to extend the company’s digital reach. Awesomeness’ 2018 productions included “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” one of Netflix’s most-viewed movies ever. VDS could be primed for more growth through acquisition this year.

Trend to Watch: “In 2019, we are likely to see further pressure on smaller digital publishers,” Day says. “For established media companies, this could present a real opportunity to consolidate some of the more premium consumer brands [that have] highly engaged audiences and diversified revenues.”

Bryan Goldberg, Bustle Digital Group, Founder and CEO

Back when Gawker Media was a going concern, its writers attacked Goldberg as a clueless, arrogant bro after he launched the women-targeted Bustle in 2013 following his sale of click-friendly sports-media start-up Bleacher Report to Turner. Now Goldberg owns (which he snapped up for a song at a bankruptcy auction) and plans to relaunch the site this year — aiming to build on his track record of operating focused content properties that generate revenue. Goldberg has not only weathered the economic challenges of the digital-media space but also found opportunities in the malaise. Bustle bought Mic in late 2018 after the news start-up ran out of cash and fired nearly all its staff. He bought Flavorpill, a digital culture publisher and events producer, and Rachel Zoe’s fashion and lifestyle brand Zoe Report earlier in the year. In 2017, Goldberg acquired news site Elite Daily from the U.K.’s Daily Mail and repositioned it to aim at young female audiences.

Trend to Watch: “The transition from print to digital will reach its ultimate conclusion in 2019 — the can has been kicked as far as it will go,” Goldberg says. “When the next decade begins, we will know which media brands are here to stay and which will be left in the past.”

Greg Hart, Amazon, VP, Prime Video

Hart, a two-decade veteran of, is responsible for the company’s global streaming video business, leading the go-to-market strategy for Prime Video, Prime Channels (an estimated $1.7 billion business in 2018) and Prime Video Direct, which provides an open platform for content owners to monetize their video. He’s also in charge of Amazon’s sports streaming efforts, which have included bringing the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” to fans worldwide — an area of differentiation with Netflix, which routinely expresses disinterest in bidding for sports rights. Also last year, Hart inked a distribution deal with Comcast, Amazon’s first pact with a U.S. pay-TV provider. He’s part of Jeff Bezos’ inner circle of trusted lieutenants, having served for two years as a technical adviser to the Amazon founder-CEO. Before taking on his current role heading Prime Video, he led the development and launch of Amazon Echo and the Alexa cloud service.

Trend to Watch: “The increasing focus on global SVOD services … will mean there is more content for customers to choose from than ever before,” Hart says. “Watching how that unfolds will be a blockbuster all on its own.”

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, Quibi

Are consumers hungry for scripted TV shows delivered in 10- to 15-minute chunks on their phones? That’s the ambitious hypothesis of Katzenberg, the onetime movie mogul who serves as chairman of Quibi, and CEO Whitman, a Silicon Valley veteran of HP and eBay. The start-up is bankrolled to the tune of $1 billion by a who’s who of Hollywood studios and other investors, and Katzenberg and Whitman have been quietly building out their exec team with a late 2019/early 2020 launch target. So far, Quibi (a portmanteau of “quick bites”) has inked content deals with Jason Blum, Guillermo del Toro, Antoine Fuqua, Sam Raimi, Catherine Hardwicke and Stephen Curry, among others. Katzenberg is gunning for both quality and quantity — he’s pegging delivery of 5,000 episodes in Quibi’s first year. Of course, flinging cash at an idea is no guarantee it will succeed. If Katzenberg and Whitman make Quibi work, they’ll set a precedent.

Aaron LaBerge, Disney, CTO, Direct-to-Consumer and International

LaBerge’s job is to get Disney’s technology teams rowing in the same direction. He’s certainly got his hands full this year. As part of setting tech strategy for the conglomerate’s global content businesses, he’s working with Disney Streaming Services chief Michael Paull on the company’s ESPN+ subscription service, and his team helps manage infrastructure and systems that will support Disney Streaming Services’ closely watched Disney+ launch later this year. He’ll also be helping to integrate 20th Century Fox’s TV businesses once the Disney-Fox deal closes. The teams he oversees are responsible for developing and deploying Disney’s consumer-facing digital products as well as all ad technology, consumer data technology and TV broadcast and production technology for ESPN and Disney/ABC Television Group. LaBerge — a confessed comic-book buff and sports fan — had been ESPN’s chief technology officer since 2015 before he moved over to his broader Disney role last fall.

Trend to Watch: Artificial intelligence. Long an industry buzzword, AI “really is starting to have a profound impact,” LaBerge says. “Machine learning and deep-learning algorithms will enable more personalized products and services, further improve streaming video quality and deliver data and content in the most efficient ways.”

Allen Lau, Wattpad, CEO and Founder

Lau has arguably built the world’s biggest writers’ room. Launched more than a decade ago, Wattpad hosts a community of more than 70 million people who spend better than 22 billion minutes each month engaged in consuming original stories. Not all of the half-billion entries uploaded to Wattpad will burgeon into breakout hits. To mine the most promising stories, the company created Wattpad Studios, which develops books, films, TV shows and digital projects from user submissions. Those include Netflix’s popular “The Kissing Booth,” based on a story by Welsh author Beth Reekles, and “After,” a movie set to hit theaters in April 2019 and adapted from Anna Todd’s YA romance on Wattpad that became a best-selling book series.

Trend to Watch: In separating the wheat from the chaff, Lau points to “data-backed creative development from global audience insights powered by machine learning. This combination will become the norm in entertainment.”

Dawn Ostroff, Spotify, Chief Content Officer

Ostroff has long had an eye for TV, helping to launch The CW in 2006 before a nearly seven-year run as president of Condé Nast Entertainment. Now she’s turned her ear to music: Ostroff, who joined the streamer in the summer of 2018, oversees all content for Spotify, including music, studios and video, as well as the company’s creator marketplace department. She leads the global team responsible for building relations with artists and creators around the world, and honing the tools for them to carve out a bigger presence on Spotify. Ostroff for now is centered on audio programming, but her background suggests CEO Daniel Ek tapped her to be the exec to lead Spotify back into video entertainment after the company’s initial efforts sputtered.

Trend to Watch: Podcasting will be a major Spotify initiative this year. Says Ostroff: “It’s an incredibly intimate form of storytelling — much different from radio, TV or film — that we’re going to see evolve in exciting ways in 2019.”

John Stankey, WarnerMedia, CEO

Stankey’s tall order for 2019: Take on Netflix, Amazon, Disney-Fox and others in the streaming wars ASAP without jeopardizing the billions in revenue from HBO, Turner and Warner Bros. The longtime AT&T exec is under pressure to justify the telco’s $85 billion purchase of Time Warner. His highest-profile project is a movie-led subscription-VOD service targeted for a fourth-quarter debut. Stankey hasn’t shied away from shaking things up: Since the creation of WarnerMedia, the company has shut down what it has deemed niche businesses, including streaming services FilmStruck and DramaFever. He’s been down the self-disruption road already as AT&T’s overseer of DirecTV. In late 2016, Stankey led the launch of DirecTV Now; the streaming service has 1.9 million customers, although over the same period, DirecTV has shed 1.4 million satellite-TV subs. For his new balancing act, Stankey will rely on execs like TBS/TNT boss Kevin Reilly, who’s steering WarnerMedia’s SVOD programming strategy.

Trend to Watch: “We’ll continue to keep an eye on consumers’ behavioral changes, including the shift in viewing habits,” Stankey says. He’s also tracking “how the next generation of ad solutions can satisfy marketers’ demands for better [ways] to reach and engage audiences.”

Chris M. Williams, Pocket.Watch, CEO and Founder

Kids today spend an inordinate amount of time glued to YouTube videos. That’s the starting point of Williams’ tyke-targeted media company, The two-year-old start-up is focused on developing TV shows, books, games, movies, consumer products, live events and other extensions based on YouTube stars and formats. It’s launched several half-hour TV shows, including from YouTube channel Ryan ToysReview — shows that are streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. Television series in development include a live-action sitcom created by and starring Kenan Thompson (“Saturday Night Live”). This past holiday season, Williams’ company debuted Ryan’s World, a line of toys and apparel from Ryan ToysReview, and released its first book, about its affiliated YouTube creators. Williams, a former Disney digital and Yahoo exec, has captured attention in the industry with the approach: Viacom led a $15 million funding round last year.

Trend to Watch: The resurgence of ad-supported video. “As subscription video has taken off over the past decade, free premium programming supported by ads has become more rare,” Williams says, “but it seems to be making a big turnaround and growing more rapidly now.”

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