Yet if the venerable $350 million, nonprofit media enterprise sounds like it might be a rather high-brow, sedate place to work, think again. During the past five years, PBS has been roiled by rapid technological change, budget and staff cutbacks, and political upheaval with the pending departure later this year of CEO Pat Mitchell. Also under way are several far-reaching IT-centric initiatives that will deeply affect every aspect of PBS' end-to-end content distribution workflow. Those include the introduction of a standardized, remotely managed broadcast system; the rollout of an ERP system for all broadcast operations; and a move later this year to a consolidated network operations center.
Managing these changes are Chief Technology Integration Officer Andre Mendes and Gwen Wood, vice president of distribution services and operations management. The two peers are business partners in a relentless push to bring PBS technologies and services into the fully digitized 21st century of broadcasting.
What's the most important project you're both working on?
Andre Mendes: We're going through an implementation of a very large software package that is similar to an ERP implementation, only for the broadcast world. BroadView [from broadcast management vendor BroadView Software Inc. of Toronto] is all about our entire scheduling, our programming, all the things associated with dealing with the content. Essentially it's the heart and lungs of what makes PBS a broadcaster. And of course, there's always a tremendous amount of friction between the folks that this is being imposed upon, and the folks that are doing the imposing as they go through the requirements analysis. Most of my staff has been working with Gwen's group through this process.
Gwen Wood (laughs): It's not always so nice!
Mendes: There've been some serious bumps on the road, absolutely. First of all, you put a tremendous burden on the people that have to tell you what their requirements are. We are asking them to go to meeting after meeting after meeting, sometimes three, four hours long. And to think about their work processes in detail. This is a very arduous process.
Is that a tougher process in a nonprofit organization than in a commercial enterprise?
Wood: We really do two things at PBS. We acquire programming and -- as a membership organization -- we distribute that programming to the member stations. We have to track [the acquired programs] through the whole building until they go up on the satellite. That's what the Broadview software will be doing, [tracking and managing] those files. It's really an operations system for managing the product, which we put up on the satellite for broadcast.
We are controlled by our stations, and they each have an equal voice, no matter what their size. WGBH in Boston, for example, is 50% of the schedule and our biggest customer. Try and think of another company or even an industry where your biggest supplier of product -- WGBH in our case -- is also your biggest customer.
Mendes: Not only that, but with our stations -- like WGBH, which might have 1,200 people working there, or a small station in Eureka, Calif., which might only have seven employees -- they all have a voice. They all have systems requirements. When you do a technological introduction, you really have to account for all of these people.
What size are your respective groups, and what are the working relationships like between them?
Mendes: In Gwen's operations area, you're looking at probably 90 to 100 people. My combined staff -- between IT and engineering -- is 43. And I've had 45% budget reductions in the last few years. Some of that came from deploying new technologies, so fewer people were necessary. With my help desk, I used to have five people to support 500. Now I have two people doing that. It's adequate, because I am able to do most of this stuff remotely, but is it optimal? No. That's the reality of what we live with. At the end of the day, it's all about doing more with less.
Wood: I've thought about operations versus IT a lot. In my view, operations people are the ones held responsible for delivering the products and services to the businesses. The IT and engineering people are responsible for the good design and the development of the next good systems that can help the operations people be more efficient. The operations people are the customers of engineering and IT. I think of the relationship like baseball: with a pitcher and a catcher. You can't have one without the other.
My group is so much bigger than Andre's because I'm in operations, with 60 people responsible for delivering schedules, delivering channels and feeds up to the satellite for 17 different channels. The real trick is to get the cultures to work together, because the pressures on them are different.
This was first published in April 2005