It is still just about decent to be looking back to 2013 – although in fairness most posts like this have already been written. But as usual I seem to feel that I am a step behind most of the time – trying desperately to stay on top of things and mostly failing. However, here at least is a quick look back at 2013 from a work perspective . . .
1. Increasing capacity with a bigger team
Looking back, one of the big steps forward for me was further establishing my team. Until near the end of 2012 I had just 2 guys working for me in our IT department who were doing a good job of managing our infrastructure, but with the best will in the world we were short staffed to take on new systems projects. It was great then, when 2 volunteers joined the team with experience in solution design and IT project management. This has really begun to make a huge difference and as a result we are undertaking a much greater transformational role in the organisation. These are not simple things to do, but we’re making progress. As ever I’ve been struck by the commitment of those who come to join as volunteers, leaving behind homes, family and friends to come and serve at SAT-7.
2. Business Plans to get SAT-7 onto a firmer footing
Back in November 2012 we had some difficult meetings as a Leadership team – SAT-7 had not had a good year financially. The global financial crisis that kicked off in 2008 had certainly been effecting us for a while with slower or flat revenue growth, but in 2012 we saw SAT-7’s income drop about 1.5 million short of where we expected it to be. This is a really painful thing for any organisation, and like any family that runs out of money we had to make difficult cut-backs; it meant that some good friends had to look for work elsewhere and that we didn’t make all the programs we wanted to, investments in equipment were less than they needed to be, and everyone felt increased pressure.
But out of that difficult situation came an encouragement from a board member to get out and find new ways to generate more income; in fact he said that if we were in the Oil business, we’d have to go out and drill a few more holes in order to try and find oil. I was tasked with gathering together the best ideas that our Leadership team had to generate new income and putting together individual business plans to help us assess which of them we should try. It was a pretty tortuous process but in the end some good initiatives came out of it – like renting out spare studio capacity, investing in additional staff to focus on attracting government development funding, and investigating ways for our viewers to donate to the work of SAT-7 if they want to. We are now working hard to run these initiatives as mini-businesses that can contribute to the main work of SAT-7.
3. Engaging the Arab Diaspora in North America
2013 also saw SAT-7 launch a new satellite TV channel – in North America. To many this comes as something of a surprise – aren’t you focused on the Middle East & North Africa? Well, yes, of course that is where our primary focus is, but looking at the news you will see that a huge number of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, have left the Middle East in recent years. In North America alone there are thought to be over 3 million Arabs and new Arabic speaking churches are being opened there all the time. We felt that it was important for us to make our programmes available to this audience – to help them grow in their faith, to help maintain their link with the Middle East, and also to engage them in the work in the Middle East with their prayers, their talents and their giving. And so in November we launched our 5th satellite channel (our 6th channel being SAT-7 TÜRK which is only available on the Internet at this time).
4. Dynamic Graphics: adding value to viewers and saving staff time
Since the start of our Broadcast Transformation Project in mid 2010 we have been looking to implement a new on-screen graphics product that would show viewers what programmes were coming up Next. You’ve probably seen the sort of thing I mean on TV yourself – Coming up after the break, or What’s on later tonight . . . We had offered this sort of information on our Arabic channel in the past, but each graphic was individually created a few days before and this was taking up a lot of time! Ideally, this data would be pulled from a database and put onto the screen in real time – without the need for any human interaction. Well, in November, to coincide with the launch of the North American channel, we managed to get this working and have since rolled it out to all of our 4 Arabic language channels. It’s saving a lot of time and is now freeing up staff to focus on other higher value activities. We hope to roll this out to SAT-7 PARS and SAT-7 TÜRK shortly.
5. Mobile Apps for Android & iOS and Improved Streaming
Also in the Broadcast area – we launched a new set of mobile apps for our viewers on both Android and iOS. These apps enable viewers to watch the live streams of the channels on their mobile devices and also to see programmes On Demand from our YouTube library. Early in 2014 we will also add in an Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) to show what programmes are coming up in the next few days.
Alongside these new apps – we also dramatically overhauled our Internet streaming infrastructure to enable viewers to watch SAT-7 at different bit-rates depending on the amount of bandwidth they have; this is really important if you think about the poor quality Internet lines that many of our viewers have across the Middle East. We also took the opportunity to radically simplify our streaming set up to improve the quality and also to improve reliability.
6. A Digital Archive and Faster File Transfer to Improve Broadcast Operations
Not too long ago all of SAT-7’s programmes were still stored on video cassettes – in fact we’ve got rooms full of the things. They’re really annoying because they take up a lot of space, they are hard to back up, they are difficult to get the programmes on air; so we have now implemented a New Digital Archive which allows us to store them on high density computer tapes (LTO) and which always keeps a low-resolution copy online so our teams can refer to it (a bit like our own private YouTube). This is a massive step forward and although it is taking us time to get our entire back catalogue digitized and stored there, it is cutting costs and improving our work.
Along with this comes the need to move these big digital files around the organisation – getting previews of newly acquired films to our teams in Turkey and Egypt, or sending our broadcast ready files to STN (our outsourced playout centre). So we also implemented a fast and reliable file-transfer solution that in some cases is able to send files 20 times faster than we could before (without any additional Internet capacity)!
7. Accounting and Budgeting Systems
Throughout 2013 we have also been working hard to update our Finance Systems – by implementing a new release of Microsoft Navision that will be common across the whole of SAT-7. Yes – that’s right, we have been using multiple different systems until now and guess what – it isn’t always very efficient to do that. So, we’ve been implementing a common set of accounts and a common system that will allow us to consolidate financial information quicker and more reliably. This has been a really tough project and one that requires the cooperation of a lot of different parts of SAT-7 – we still have some way to go, but we are getting there.
We also implemented (and in fact wrote in-house) a new budgeting system (using Salesforce.com) that helped us to agree the 2014 budget much faster, and which ensured that it was in sync with our new Finance System. Sounds minor, but really this was a great feat.
Well there were a whole host of other things as well that didn’t make it into this paltry summary – so in 2014 I resolve to blog more often and keep you more up to date with what’s going on here at SAT-7. So, finally – thanks to my team for their hard work, thanks to the short term volunteers who came and mucked in, thanks to our suppliers for their expertise, thanks to our donors who funded these activities. It often feels a long way from the ministry end of the business – but in truth that is a lie we sometimes inadvertently take on board – all of these projects play their part in helping SAT-7 support the church in the Middle East & North Africa to grow and to bring their witness.
To those of you who made it to the end of this post – thanks for your support and interest! Happy New Year.