Matthew: Welcome to the Spotlight Podcast. In our interviews, we feature insightful people at the deep end of TV and film production and distribution. And today’s interview is with Nicola Brightman, a highly experienced business and media consultant.
Nicola has over 30 years experience in the media industry, and her focus is the cost-effective delivery of content across all platforms, from the printed page to the streaming media. And more recently, the impact of AI on the media sector.
Good evening, Nicola.
Nicola: Good evening, Matthew.
Matthew: So you work in a pretty exciting industry, but exciting, as we all know, can sometimes be turbulent. So what aspects of running your own business gives you the most headaches?
Nicola: I’d say the number one headache is that my boss is demanding.
I think the number one challenge of running your own business is the need to be across everything all of the time. You know, even though a task can be delegated, it doesn’t mean it’s slipped your responsibility. So you know, I guess the art is to ensure clearly defined objectives that everybody understands from the get-go.
Matthew: Yes, that’s cool. Well, that doesn’t sound too turbulent. But it’s just still that managing of situations, resources and everything else like that.
I guess being the single more decision maker means that every day, actually, is a day of making the right turns, for your business and for your success, with relatively not many people to share that burden. So what would you say is your approach to decision-making? And are you even any good at it?
Nicola: Well, I would say my approach is very much research, research, and more research. You know, as the old expression goes: a moment spent on recce is never wasted. The other thing I would always say is, never be afraid to ask what you think is a stupid question. Because there’s no such thing as too much understanding. So I gather as much information as I can from as many resources as are available. And on that basis, that usually informs where you go next.
I would always say one of the most important things is to make sure that you always credit those who have informed your decision.
Matthew: Yes, that makes sense. And I think they’re more likely to work with you and help you again in the future, right?
Nicola: Absolutely. You know, we’ve all worked with that boss, that’s a bit I, myself and me. So all your hard work is funnelled into them, and then they take the credit, which sort of doesn’t really inspire much loyalty and further input.
My other go-to, I suppose is, as General George Patton said, “A good plan implemented rigorously today is better than a perfect plan next week.” And that’s very much the case in technology because it moves so quickly. So you know, you can always tinker with things as you’re moving along.
Matthew: I agree. I agree completely.
I’m glad you mentioned technology, because a lot of the podcasts we do are related to people in the sector. So I wanted to ask you about the evolution of streaming media, as I know that this is something you were at the very forefront of. How involved were you in the early days?
Nicola: Well, actually, right back in 1998, Matthew, I was involved in scoping a website for a very well-known adult brand. Because of course, you know, as you know, the adult industry tends to be the pioneers and incubators and drivers of most technology. And at that stage, this particular brand had a huge back catalogue of videos. And if you remember back in 98, you know, we were still going to blockbusters, and so suddenly, being able to present this content to the brand’s end users was opening up a whole new revenue stream, it was an outlet for the models – in a not dissimilar way, once it became interactive, as Only Fans is today. So that was sort of where it started back then. As it happens, that was very, very pioneering at the time.
The biggest difficulty though, as is always with new technology, was how do you get paid? How do you monetise this new thing called ‘streaming media’? You had to have payment gateways. The problem with a lot of payment gateways is they were very uncomfortable about intangibles. If you’re paying for the delivery of a video that you want to watch, well, how do they know you’ve received it? What was the quality of the stream? Etc. And so what tended to happen back then is you built your subscriber base, and they paid and gained access, which of course, at the top shelf industry, having a credit card was a good way of identifying that it was age-appropriate material. But of course, the credit card companies held the money in escrow for a minimum of six months, because they didn’t want to take the risk of it all blowing up in their face. So it was but you needed to have deep pockets in those days to continue investing into the media before there was any payback.
Matthew: Interesting is that certainly when you start talking about video and the way we consume content, and actually you then brought up Only Fans and actually, my next question was going to be has it changed from what you thought it was going to be? And what you thought it was going to look like? And if so, how?
Nicola: Well, following on from that experience, where, you know, we scoped out all of this, the website then went on to be successful. My next venture into streaming was working with a company that developed conferencing software not dissimilar to the Zooms of today. But of course, it was all voodoo back then. And why would we want to do that? People were still hopping on planes to go for meetings. And we saw that actually, the future is going to be so much easier to collaborate globally if it can be done via conferencing software as it was known back then. And so what we came up with was an idea to showcase it, and through that, chatshow.net was born, which interviewed celebrities and politicians and members of society, from across all walks of life. Plus, of course, it had its daily output, we used to call it the morning feed, we did over 500 episodes of that, where we had our presenters broadcast daily about the events, you know, the current events, what’s going on, not dissimilar to the morning chat shows that you see on television. And it was amazing the reach that it had. We suddenly discovered that in places like America, where you have farms that are the size of small countries, there was an awful lot of loneliness, and that live interaction really brought an additional benefit to our audience, because they became quite engaged with the fact that they could talk in real-time and see someone and interact with them in a way that they’ve never been able to before. To the extent that one of our audience members came all the way from America, with permission, obviously. He wanted to take our two presenters for tea at the Ritz, which he did. And obviously supervised and everything but he was just so enthralled with the whole technology and how it was developing and what its potential was that he felt he knew the girls personally and wanted to say thank you to them for stopping his life from being quite so lonely.
Matthew: I mean, it’s incredible, really. I think it’s probably why the likes of the sort of interactive channels and radio channels and everything like that have become the most popular as well. So whether it’s interacting with TikTik videos, whether it’s interacting on a talk show on the radio or something like that, we all want to have that involvement and feel part of that experience. So I get that completely.
Nicola: Yes, once that was all working well as a model via the Internet, it’s no longer linear broadcast. It was video on demand. But we felt that it was just going to continue going in that direction, and hence started to work with UMIST – that’s the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology – but they were very interested in helping us develop the compression codec in order to be able to stream to mobile phones. This was prior to Three doing it, or around the same time, actually. Although ironically, when I went to demonstrate our content – because one thing that all of these platforms that were developing needed was content to prove their model – which we broke into small clips because then it had to be downloaded and also the bandwidth, you were not talking 3/4/5 G, as we are today, you know, so it needed to be simple movements, and what we discovered doing that is more – and I think this is something that’s coming back around now with AI – is more important than the quality of the picture was the lip-sync. If the mouth wasn’t moving in time, for what the years were hearing, people found that more disturbing than a slightly lo-res picture. So it was all about synchronising sound and movement of the mouth.
I had no idea at the time, that that’s what the audience would be concerned about. We were concerned about high-quality pictures. But of course, we’ve all done it now, when you’ve watched something and it’s just a little bit out of sync, it irritates to the point where you almost can’t hear what they’re saying.
Matthew: And do you think that AI is now at the forefront of all of this?
Nicola: I think we are right at the beginning of AI, it is probably the most exciting development for a generation. As exciting as streaming was back in its day, AI is just going to elevate things to a whole new level. Not just in the television and film industry, but across every sector.
And certainly with the film sector, I think it’s going to help creators. I know there are strikes at the moment in America, because they’re concerned about their images being used without their permission or these in perpetuity contracts. But I think that can be resolved fairly quickly by licensing, really. It’s the same problem we had back in the days of Chat Show, when it came to adverts, it wasn’t as easy as just putting a television ad into a streaming platform, because of course, back then television ads were into television regions before it was even national. So the rights might be, you had rights from the actors that were in that video, that this could be broadcast in, say, Cornwall, but you didn’t have the rights to broadcast it in London. And so consequently, here we are with this global platform, saying it will give you free advertising, because we were essentially proving the model, and they couldn’t take it because they didn’t have the licensing in place that permitted them to use that content outside of those pre-agreed areas. And in the same way as we had to negotiate our way around that, I think with AI, it’s a case of doing the same again, you know, we have to listen to the creators, listen to the producers, and make sure that nobody feels cheated and understands that AI is a tool, not a master.
Matthew: I agree. Absolutely. I agree completely with that.
Actually, one of the things I thought about while you were speaking then was, actually, when you see how far we’ve come with streaming media, you must be immensely proud being at the forefront of all that.
Nicola: Yes, yes. It’s really exciting. It’s quite strange sometimes actually, as well. Because I love it when I’m patronised by younger people, shall we say, and they say, “Oh, you know, oh, it’s on the computer.: And it’s like, yeah, it’s okay. I get it. Because of course, people assume there’s an age barrier, but you’d be surprised how many of us silver surfers there are.
One of the things I’m working with at the moment is how to use AI in digital health, and how we can progress that in improving outcomes for patients. So, you know, by utilising video AI tools, so for example, you know, these days, certainly in London hospitals, they’re very multicultural. So if you have an avatar that could tell you exactly what you need to know in your own language and respond to you in real-time in your own language, it could go a long way in preventing accidents in hospitals, misdiagnosis, because what happens at the moment is often parents have to bring along their children to translate for them, which isn’t always ideal. So you know, I see many benefits of AI. I understand why people are a little afraid of it, because it seems a bit far out there. But I see it as well, the future, there’s no putting that genie back in the box.
Matthew: Yes, Microsoft is all over it like a rash. And they’ve introduced something called Copilot which will enable you to literally build Power BI dashboards, and create PowerPoint presentations from your data. There’s so much that we’re doing as a Microsoft partner around AI, and so much to come. Now, it’s just how do we make the best of it? And I think that if you’re bringing that to the table in the NHS to enable people to actually get a clearer diagnosis, I can’t think of a better way of using AI.
Nicola: There are so many applications for it everywhere, Matthew. In fact, I find it difficult to imagine where it’s not going to improve things. And I know there is so much fear associated with it taking jobs; take an actor, for example, because I don’t know if you’ve seen that film, I think it was ‘The Frost’, that was all AI-generated. It was good, but the one thing that just isn’t there yet is microexpressions. And even though they can be programmed in, they will never be instinctive because AI will never have the capacity to feel. And in the same way as an actor can have an outstanding moment – Tom Cruise when he broke his ankle in one of the Mission Impossible movies and they kept the clip in – with AI, there’s no space for getting it wrong, or having feelings and ad-libbing in the moment. AI doesn’t have that capacity. Yet, I’m not saying it will never happen as generative AI gets further along, but I still think it will struggle with microexpressions, because those things are endemic and we are unaware that we’re making them.
Matthew: I get that. And I think in some respects, it’s good that some people are challenging the utilisation of AI because it just gets you asking the right questions about the way you take that sort of thing forward.
Nicola: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say, with technology, you need to embrace it, you know, feel the fear and do it anyway, otherwise, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
What I’d love to do actually, would be to make a movie with real people, real actors, and real directors and real processes – when I say real, I mean traditional – and make the same clip using just AI and those actors would be paid for their image to be used to work out the costs variables. What people are afraid of is that AI doesn’t cost the same as a person, and so the fear is loss of income. So you know, we need to work around it. How do the people that are involved still get paid? But I think when it comes to things like storyboarding and testing a script, a lot of that can be done with AI prior to the actors getting involved. And the actors can rehearse with it. So there are many benefits of that.
Matthew: Well, if you do it, I suspect there’ll be a lot of people there waiting to see the result of that for sure.
Nicola: It will be interesting to see what the difference in the process costs are, and given what you do for a living, how that’s going to impact the way your software is developed in the future.
Matthew: Interestingly enough, even if we take away the customer base and the technology that we provide, actually, just from a development perspective, we now can code for our Microsoft systems literally using AI. And it’s just frightening. So the days of requiring lots of developers is going to change because it will get to a point where you are validating the data and the processes that AI have created for you, rather than creating a lot of the original source type of code. We’re already seeing it, it’s honestly incredible.
Nicola: Don’t you find that you still need the humans to think up the right questions to ask the AI? And it’s garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t ask the right question, then you’re not going to produce the right code. So you still need the minds that think like programmers?
Matthew: Yes, we try to design our solutions based on how we think the end user would want to use it as well. So I think there’s that human element as well. So as much as the core AI can provide the coding that we need for that element, actually, we’re likely to tinker with that and say, well, that’s fine, but is that process then going to happen in the way that the end user would want to do it? Or even want to see it? So you are spot on with that whole human element, someone is going to be required to validate that code, but also to check if another human being will want to use it in that way.
Nicola: Yes, I totally understand, hence the old PC versus Mac argument. Some people absolutely swear by the Mac operating system, and others are wedded to PC or the Windows platform. So I guess, with the technologies going forward, what AI might well help do is integrate them onto both platforms.
Matthew: Yeah, that’s true, they may well come up with a sort of coding structure that allows you to create both. That would be incredible.
Nicola: I don’t think I can remember a time when something as world-changing as AI was rolled out to the public quite so quickly.
Matthew: No, absolutely. One of the other questions I was going to ask you is obviously, with all of these different platforms, and different streaming media types and everything else, what do you think are the impacts on things like micropayments and royalties and things like that?
Nicola: Well, I think the technologies for tracking where content is being used, I think AI will help a lot with things like that. So you can track the content better. And, then I think it’s going to come down to licensing, isn’t it? We are going to have to make sure that when you’re using real people, they are adequately remunerated, and if it’s an AI piece of code, well, there’s the creator involved, there are the artists that contributed to that creation involved, and those people all need to be paid. So I think in the end, the end user, we’re going to get to a stage in the future, where it’s pretty much pay-per-view. And while it is now, you know, you subscribe to one platform or another depending on what you’d like to watch, I think there’s going to be an element of that the subscription model, but then when things disappear into different platforms, I think it will be easier to tag and track, and thus feed back into the accountancy model.
Matthew: I was going to say, lastly, you recently attended our Spotlight Board session. And we do try and encourage people like yourself from the TV and film world to come and join us. How did you find this session?
Nicola: I absolutely loved it, Matthew. It was so refreshing to have so many great minds and experience in one location that are all sharing similar problems. You know, I know one of the things we discussed at the last meeting was the impact of lockdown and hybrid working, which I think is definitely here to stay, which of course poses problems for bricks and mortar. But I think we’re just going to have to adapt, and I know as humans we’re not quick to adapt, but having said that, I think because we’ve all become very familiar with using Meet and Teams during lockdown, I think now there’s never been a better time to roll out the hybrid working in a very collaborative way.
Getting back to the execs, what an interesting bunch of people, I don’t know how long you’ve been curating your group of people, but it was fascinating, because there were common threads to the challenges, but the manner in which they can be addressed is very much dependent on your workforce.
Matthew: Yep, very true. I think one of the things that came out from the session was that they all work in the same industry, but they do work differently. Interestingly, one of the other attendees spoke to me today, and he was saying one of the things he took a lot of solace from was actually to hear shared concerns was really helpful. And some of the things that come out that day, they end up being quite enlightening if you don’t normally have that mix of meeting with those sorts of people outside of your workplace. You know, when he does answer the
Nicola: Yes, you question, is it me? No, it’s not just you. Everyone’s experiencing it.
It was a very well-organised session. It’s the first time I’ve been to a meeting or a round table like that in this arena, and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. And thank you very much for inviting me.
Matthew: Thank you very much for joining me.