Dave Lankford on Streaming Innovation
Dave Lankford on Streaming Innovation

Dave Lankford on Streaming Innovation

The former VP of Advanced Innovation at Disney chats with us about growth in the streaming video space and the everlasting power of a good story.

Dave Lankford is a visionary leader who has spent the past two decades spearheading innovation and development at video on demand platforms—including Disney, Hulu, MLB, and Sling TV—all of which heralded the streaming video industry as we know it today. At Disney, he formed the Product Advanced Innovation Team (PAINT), a group of product managers dedicated to exploring the future of storytelling through cutting-edge applications of mixed reality, artificial intelligence, multimodal interfaces, and cloud gaming. We sat down with Lankford to get his insights on interactive storytelling, AI, and the importance of innovating in the streaming space.

How did you end up where you are today? 

I started in streaming and consumer-facing products about 17 years ago with a company called The FeedRoom. This was the early days of online video, when folks were still trying to figure out video and how streaming might play into their strategy, and I feel we played a part in helping them figure that out. From there, I went to Sling. Sling had a site called sling.com and was aggregating content from Hulu, CBS, Starz, and a whole bunch of other players. We were intent on monetizing streaming while also building a dramatically better way for consumers to experience TV. That same team conceived what would eventually become Sling TV.

Later, I reconnected with folks from Sling who had moved over to MLB [Major League Baseball]. At the time, MLB Advanced Media, which was the digital arm of baseball and powered MLB.TV, had been contacted by a number of entertainment companies and sports leagues about partnering with MLB to launch their own direct-to-consumer streaming products. I came on board to look at how we could scale that business. The Advanced Media group spun off into BAMTech and was acquired by Disney, which is how I got to Disney. 

When you were at Sling, what were the possibilities you and your colleagues saw at that time in the streaming industry? 

We take it for granted today, but I don't think the industry fully realized then how instantaneous access to an entire catalog of content—of stories, movies, television—would completely change the game. Streaming wasn't instantaneous. You had significant buffering. It might have taken a few seconds or minutes for a movie to start streaming. But we saw where the technology was going, and that soon, it was going to scale, be much more accessible, and the amount of titles you could access could be infinite. We knew we were onto something big.


There are so many streaming services, and each one has exclusive content. What would an effective brand identity be for a streaming platform in order to make sure that consumers want to give their attention to that platform? 

I think there's a duality in the streaming industry, where you have companies that are coming at it from a tech perspective, and companies that are coming from a storytelling perspective. Both sides are trying to become better at the other, because you ultimately need both: the technology and great stories.

At the end of the day, stories win. And I believe that’s a good thing, because I believe stories truly matter. Those folks who are investing in stories and storytellers, who cultivate creators, are the ones who will ultimately make the most gains. If you have a great story and you build watercooler moments, people will seek that story out and they'll ultimately subscribe to that service. The more consistently you do that, the more people will realize that you're the destination for the stories they enjoy.

There's also something to be said about really understanding the different places and ways in which people want to consume stories. Post-COVID you have this suppressed need to get out, to go places, to have experiences. Even though theatrical exhibition has yet to regain the level of box office [success] that it did pre-COVID, there are more people going out to the movies than there were six months ago. There are people that are seeking out premium large screen formats, because they want an amazing experience. You can be a streamer and succeed, but I think it's to your advantage to say, “How much should we be playing in the theatrical distribution market? How much should we be playing in other realms? How else might we create ways to experience stories?”

Streaming platforms operate on an idea of personalization and content recommendation. How can platforms optimize content recommendations in a way that still allows for the user to have a little bit of discoverability?

Good recommendation models present unique and off-the-beaten-path titles, not only to introduce novelty and discoverability, but also to see if you have other interests that may not be on our radar. A number of streamers also leverage editorial and promotional placement to build awareness. But I feel there's a lot to be learned from music, because I’ve seen a steady shift to more editorialized playlisting from tastemakers. People like to know what other people think. I think there's still room for the tastemaker in the video space. 

The comparison to music is especially interesting. I think music is designed for replayability. When you hear a song on a playlist, the algorithm isn't just getting you to listen to that one song, it's most likely trying to get you to add that song to your library so you can listen to it more. It feels different with streaming video, because I don't have a lot of time to replay my favorite TV episode. I'll rewatch all of season one of Andor when the new season comes out, but I'm not going to be able to watch the same episode every single day.

Yeah, there are those differences. Songs are, say, three to five minutes, whereas you're talking about 30 minutes to three hours for something that's more video oriented. You're going to listen to the same song over and over again. You're not going to watch the same episode over and over again.

But I think where there’s a similar opportunity is catching someone and leading them down a purposeful path. If there’s something about a movie or show that's compelling, should we just algorithmically see that as a signal for other things that you're likely interested in? Or can we also connect you with a tastemaker that's going to say, "If you're talking about Andor, let me talk to you about the showrunner and the directors that are involved. Let's get you to Rogue One because this feeds into Rogue One." Again, it's not going to give you a playlist like you would have in music, but it might give you that next title that you're gonna resonate with and enjoy. 

For what it’s worth, tastemakers are already out there doing just this. But they are independent and playing in spaces like YouTube, creating their own genre of entertainment.

I want to talk a little bit about metadata in the SVOD space. What makes it something that is worth focusing on and fine tuning, specifically in streaming?  

Metadata is helpful for [recommendation] algorithms. A good algorithm will deconstruct the description of something and try to understand what that content is really about in a way a person may not. It can look at the connective tissue of content that may be greater than genre or franchise or creative talent. When you have machine learning and you have these large language models that can analyze syntax and find those sinews, then you can create better recommendations and discoverability for consumers. That all depends on good metadata.

Metadata gets really interesting when you operate at global scale. During the height of our global rollout, I oversaw localization for Disney+. There’s an exciting problem to solve when you’re translating metadata in a way that understands and respects both language and regional nuance, and through all that, best represents your brand. There’s a lot of layers to that. You’re taking a description that may have originally been written in English, translating it to 20 or 30 different languages, understanding where those languages are spoken, and making sure that it does a few things: it describes things accurately, it's exciting and makes you want to watch it, it's not offensive, and above all, that it’s representing your brand in a way that is consistent around the world.

You recently led product innovation at Disney for a few years. What are you most proud of during your time there, and what do you think is the importance of innovation in this space?  

On the Product Advanced Innovation Team, or PAINT, we were deeply focused on three main areas: interactive, immersive, and inclusive. Each of these I feel is incredibly important for the future of entertainment.

A side note to that is, I don't think that anything's going to replace the legacy of entertainment that has been created to date. I mean, you look at theater, which has been around since the ancient Greeks. People keep saying that theater's dead. Theater's not dead, and it's probably more alive than it was years ago. People still love movies. Movies will still be around. TV shows will still be around. A lot of the technologies that distribute movies and TV will persist for a long time. We'll have some form of streaming, which is becoming the dominant way in which people consume content today. 

That being said, there's still room to continue to invent new ways in which we interact with stories. I’m most proud of that team and PAINT’s ability to tackle big questions about what’s next.

Interactive: Lean-forward experiences. What happens when you give the audience more agency in the storytelling experience? What are the ways in which stories can dynamically interact with audiences? 

Immersive: Mixed reality, VR and AR. How might we tell a story when we can bring something into your personal living space, or virtually transport you into someone else’s? What’s possible when we blend real and imagined worlds?

Inclusive: This was a discipline where we looked at the edges. A lot of times, when you're building these large consumer products that are reaching hundreds of millions of people, you're looking at that lowest common denominator. What that means is that you're looking at the center of the bell curve of your user base and building something that's optimized for them. In doing so, I personally feel that you inadvertently ignore everyone else, the edges. You give them a subpar experience. That's where I feel there's a big opportunity for people in the entertainment space to innovate, because if you build something useful and exciting for these edges, I guarantee you’ll find something exciting for the whole.

How have you used artificial intelligence in your career, and what are the possibilities you see for it within the streaming industry?

With AI, there are always going to be a lot of scary things that are threatening to creators, to storytellers, to people that are part of that process. Those are all completely valid concerns. But there was a recent story about [the country singer] Randy Travis. He had a stroke and lost his ability to process language. His label was able to help him continue as a singer-songwriter by revoicing a song that was sung to his lyrics, by another artist, using an AI model trained from his recordings.

It fulfilled his artistic intent, right? He wanted to sing another song. He wanted to put more music out there. He was limited in his ability physically to do so, but through AI, and through a community of other artists, he was able to produce that song. AI became a phenomenal tool in that case to help that artist realize his vision.

I think of a story like that, and it starts to expand my idea of “story” and the power of artists. In my career, we’ve primarily used AI and machine learning for personalization and for operational efficiency. But we’ve also begun to dabble in areas that could change the game for localization, that could personalize experiences—not just recommendations—and which very well might unlock new ways for creators to operate and craft. Ultimately, I think it will lead to experiences that take us beyond today's streaming.

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