My interview with Albert Cheng: The Father of Online TV

November 10, 2008

To call Albert Cheng a TV industry insider is a supreme understatement. As the Executive Vice President over Digital Media at Disney’s ABC Television Group, Albert not only has a front row seat inside the industry, many would say he occupies the driver’s seat. Yeah, I’m mixing metaphors there, but you get what you get.

In fact, in my writings and in the speeches I give, I typically refer to Albert Cheng as the Father of Online TV. And though you can practically hear him blush when I say it to him over the phone for the first time, all hyperbole aside, it’s an accurate description of Cheng’s role in the dramatic changes sweeping over the television industry today.

It all started in April of 2006. It’s hard to believe it has only been that recently that ABC, in what seemed like an out-of-nowhere move, announced it would test streaming of two of it’s hottest shows, Lost, and Desperate Housewives, online, for free. Yes, free. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, streams well over 50 million videos a month and is likely to cross the 100 million threshhold sometime next year. 

After Albert and I participated in the same conference on online video recently, I took the opportunity to interview him in more depth about his own experience with TV and his expectations of the future of the medium. The full-length interview I’m keeping to myself for a future project that shall remain nameless for now, but I’ll share three important things I learned from and about Albert Cheng here:


1. Cheng learned about TV technology from the VCR

One of my favorite images of Cheng’s childhood is of him watching the CBS soap opera As the World Turns alongside his mother each day. It became such an integral part of their lives that he admitted to following the show right up through high school. Unlike the soap opera itself, his relationship with it finally ended. “I lost track of it once I went to college.”

Buried in all of this soap opera goodness, however, were the seeds of the future. “In those days my mom’s schedule got busier. She couldn’t watch her soap operas during the day anymore. So she recorded them on the VCR, every day.” It was an early form of time-shifting, one that was rare elsewhere. But thanks to the Cheng household’s commitment to As the World Turns, the VCR was used as aggressively as most people use a DVR today. “My mom watched her daytime soap operas in primetime,” concluded Cheng.

This was a secret Cheng learned about new TV technology: it can make people watch more than they otherwise would. “Our media consumption started to go up, for sure.” 

2. How you watch depends on what you want to watch

Cheng lives a life of TV superabundance that he lives every day. “I have three televisions,” he begins, then with a pause, admits, “for a two-person household.” The largest television (65- or 70-inch, he can’t exactly recall) sits in the family room and is the center of their viewing life. There are two others in the home for specialized viewing – one in the home gym and one in the master bedroom. True to the lessons he learned at his mother’s side, he explains, “Our typical watching is predominantly time-shifted. It’s a combination of DVR and online.”

As I’m seeing more and more, where he watches depends on the show he wants to watch. “I choose shows for live viewing, then others that I record but prefer to watch on the TV.” He performs a kind of triage on potential shows. At the top are shows he has to watch on the big screen. “Even though Lost is available online [on his own network’s site, no less], I choose to watch it on TV.” For shows he wants to keep up with but doesn’t have to experience fully, he turns to the Web. “Online is a great way to keep up with shows I don’t have time to follow, but when I find a spare minute I can quickly catch up with.”

3. There’s a lot more to come in the future

In the long run Cheng proves he’s got what it takes to dream big. “I’m just going to put a flyer out there, this might be insane, but right now we see more and more 3D content for theaters and the TV.” I nod, thinking that I know where he’s heading with this. It’s the age-old maxim that in the end, all future predictions, when taken far enough, end up at the same place: Star Trek. With pervasive computers, matter replication, and clothing that doesn’t fit very well. I often end up there myself. In this case, I sense Cheng’s line of reasoning is headed straight to the holodeck made popular in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series.

“I’ll take it one step further and say there will be people who watch content in laser holographic 3D environments.” Bingo. “That would be the next theater level of entertainment, it eventually goes to the home, where you take virtual worlds and combine that with filmed entertainment. Then you get to 3D feel in a 3D world.”

I like that Cheng can think this big. I also like that someone with such unorthodox predilections is an insider with the power to lead us forward. Expect to see the mark of Albert Cheng on many a future video innovation.