Broadcast Exchange: David Ross on the road ahead, lessons of 2020 and wage inequality

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Ross Video hardware and software can be found in a who’s who of broadcasters across the country. With 29 years of consecutive growth and a variety of acquisitions, Ross has continued to innovate broadcast production while also committing to its 1000+ employees. 

In this week’s Broadcast Exchange, David Ross, CEO of Ross Video, joins to reflect on the lessons learned in 2020, the ever-changing broadcast technology stack, how broadcasters are further exploring the cloud and wage inequality. 

Note that this episode was recorded earlier this year before Ross Video reaffirmed its commitment to the 2021 NAB Show in October.

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Transcript

The below transcript appears in an unedited format.

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Dak
Welcome to the Broadcast Exchange from NewscastStudio. I’m your host, Dak Dillon. On the Exchange, we talk with those leading the future of broadcast technology, design, and content. This week, I’m joined by David Ross, CEO of Ross Video. Now Ross Video is at the forefront of broadcast production, creating the tools and the technology powering many newsrooms and studios around the globe. In our conversation, we look at the lessons learned in 2020 for broadcasters and the road ahead, along with the ever-changing technology stack. Plus we look at Ross Video’s commitment to a living wage and talk about trade shows this year.

Dak
Well, thank you for being here, David, to talk a little bit about the year we’ve had and where we’re headed for this year ahead.

David Ross
Thanks for inviting me.

Dak
2020 was a hard year and it was hard both for broadcasters having to learn kind of new techniques and new ways to adapt on the fly, but also it really dramatically impacted the broadcast supply chain. How did Ross fair last year, and what lessons are you taking away from it?

David Ross
Well, it was an interesting experience for sure. I remember back around April, we were concerned, we saw a sales sort of drop as everybody stopped buying everything, not knowing what was going to happen next. I know that we have a production division called Ross Production Services, they lost pretty much the year’s contracts in one 24 hour period. That was a bad day, I remember getting that phone call. And I think it didn’t take very long before we put everybody on a four day week saying, “We’re going to create something called Lifeboat Ross, we’re going to take care of everybody. And we don’t know what’s going to happen next, but we want to be very cautious.”

David Ross
And we put everybody on a four-day week for four days of pay. And within about six weeks, we saw that things were brightening up for Ross, and we immediately brought people back to five days, and on five days pay. And I think we started to realize that things are going actually even better than expected. And we actually refunded everybody all their pay, whether they worked or not on those days, many people did work regardless, just out of commitment, I suppose, which I appreciated.

David Ross
And we also started to realize that there’s a lot of talking about some of the lowest-paid people in the industry and in the world were carrying most of the risk. People who are Uber drivers, people who are working at grocery stores and things like that that had to be there or were potentially exposed. And in our case, it was our people in our factory. So we reorganized the factory to be safe, but we still wanted to thank them for what they were doing so we actually instituted a $20 minimum wage for anybody who works at Ross Video. And that actually positively benefited over 100 families in our community, which I thought was kind of a neat thing that happened in the company.

David Ross
And as the year went on, Ross Production Services managed to adapt and they actually finished ahead of target for the year, which I think surprised and impressed all of us, using a lot of robotics and remote technology, some of which they developed right on the fly. And we finished year up 4% over the previous year so it was a new record. It’s a touchy thing actually to celebrate growing in 2020 because we know it was so difficult for so many people, not just in the broadcast industry, but in the world, both work and family-wise as well. So we tried to walk that carefully, but also thank our people for making it happen and our customers.

Dak
Yeah. I mean, you hit on wage inequality and the journalism sector, in particular, has always used interns and freelance journalists to help get us over that hurdle to get content and create content. So for you putting yourself forward as a leader, and raising the minimum wage, and here in the US, we’re right now hashing out 15, should it be 15 or not, and what’s going to happen? Why did that feel like it was such an important step to take because it is something that is kind of unprecedented from your peer?

David Ross
Yeah, it was interesting because we are a global company and I know that our European employees let us know that they had conversations on the side saying, “How strange. That’s a North American company that gave a major raise to the people who are the lowest paid without being forced, either competitively, or through legislation.” They went, “We really like this company.” But I think one of the things that I realized is that, I mean, it’s hard for a restaurant to do that, for example, we don’t pay enough for our meals, we don’t appreciate how thin the margins are in that industry and how competitive it is. As a broadcast manufacturer, we have so many different types of costs. We’ve got R&D costs, marketing costs, trade shows, travel, the cost of the raw materials, and all sorts of overheads. And then you’ve got people who are actually putting it together.

David Ross
And while you’re paying a competitive wage, maybe at 15 bucks an hour, or something like that for that job, when I did the math and I raised it to 20, which I knew was moving… If they had a family and they were a single wage earner, I found that that took them from being above the poverty line, but below a living wage to significantly on the other side of that. And it cost Ross, I think it was 0.3% of our overall payroll impact 100 families. I just looked at that and I talked to my family and it became a no-brainer. When I was debating it and I was talking to some people, I actually had people cry just in the thought of doing it, and I went, “Okay, this actually is even more impactful than I realized.”

David Ross
So it was quite a big deal. And the interesting thing that happened as well is, while obviously the recipients of that were very grateful, and it did make a difference, and I got a lot of messages from people saying specifically how it changed their lives, what I thought was more important was I got even more emails from people who it didn’t impact that worked in our company that were well off and saying that that was the most important thing they’d ever seen me do, which I thought was a good reflection on human nature.

Dak
Yeah. I mean, I’m sure it will increase worker productivity on the back end, but also employee satisfaction, especially as we all try and rethink what the new normal becomes in the years ahead. Do you think, generally speaking in the journalism industry, folks are focused on these kinds of things enough in terms of giving back?

David Ross
That’s an interesting question. Well, a lot of the people in the journalism industry, and also in the live production industry in general, maybe aren’t at the higher end pay scale of where they really should be paid compared to the skill, and the risks, and the importance of what they do, especially in a live production, and the revenues that are based upon that. I think that they also, certainly on the journalistic side of things, they punch above their weight in getting that message out. And so, in a way of making everybody that they reached, and then those people from there, thinking about wage inequality, thinking about that sometimes it’s not as big a thing as you think to make a huge… Not as hard on you personally, or your company, to make a difference, I think that’s a great message that they can get out.

Dak
Yeah. I mean, for some of these companies it’s the difference in selling one more job in a year, and you can even up that pay scale. Now this is the time of year that traditionally we’d all be gathering in Las Vegas in a ballroom, you’d be onstage with some theatrics telling us what’s going on for this year. And obviously, that’s not going to happen in April at least, it will happen in October, hopefully. What do you look forward to for this year, and kind of what are those things on the horizon you’re looking out for, and to give you hope for this year?

David Ross
Well, there are a few things, actually, I find hopeful. I mean, from one side, I don’t think our manufacturing really skipped a beat, although the supply chain is getting tighter, that’s an interesting thing that’s going on. There were some decisions made earlier in 2020 in silicon and integrated circuits like that, that are starting to work their way.

Dak
Yeah. And there was, yeah, a silicon factory that went offline, right?

David Ross
Absolutely. And so we actually have invested in millions upon millions of extra dollars of inventory to make sure that we can maintain supply for our customers. So I’m looking forward to being able to keep our customers happy. I think our R&D department may have actually gone faster in some ways working from home than working in the office. We’re still going to analyze why that is, but it’s a good thing. So through this year, we’re going to see some amazing things.

David Ross
I mean, we just launched Ultrix Acuity, which is, I think a revolutionary product. We’re doing something called a hyper-converged product where we’re taking a production switcher and putting it into a processing router and making it even more efficient and a denser, smaller footprint, and lower power solutions for what our customers [inaudible 00:10:50]. I mean, that’s a big deal, yeah, at NAB it would’ve won a best of show without a doubt. And I think we’re going to continue to do things like that, and some of our cloud-based products that are evolving as well. So for things like, obviously, for remote production.

David Ross
The other thing I’m just hearing about now is that our live sports and events teams are suddenly, in the last few weeks, getting run off their feet with [inaudible 00:11:25] specifications, systems, designs, quotations, projects that are starting to start up. That was sort of one of the best things I heard all week. And I didn’t think about it from a business point of view, obviously that’s there, it’s like, “Well, this is something to look forward to.” But just the hope that things are going to get more back to normal and that we’re going to be able to see 50,000 people in a stadium cheering their lungs out, getting excited about the big game, and the shared experience in three dimensions that we all miss so much.

Dak
No more virtual fans.

David Ross
No more virtual fans. Yeah, the virtual fan business hopefully was a momentary spike.

Dak
It was an interesting trial balloon, to say the least. So you brought up the continuing thinking behind cloud versus on-prem, where do you see that balance evening out for broadcasters?

David Ross
Oh, I love that question. One of the things that I think Ross has really stood for for a long time now is having a moderated opinion on everything. Sometimes maybe the competition likes to paint us with a brush that we’re not advanced, or we’re not looking at the next generation thing because we’re not all in on it. But the reality is we are all in on it, but we’re also in on the things that people are already buying and need in their facility.

David Ross
And in the past we wanted to make sure that we would have a next generation SDI product, like Ultrix Acuity, or Carbonite Ultra, or something like that. Well, at the same time, we’re releasing products and routing and things like that for the IP world. And now the current flavor of the month, and then the thing that’s obviously the future and for some customers the present, is cloud, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for everyone. And some of the things that I see it’s great for is it’s enabled not just REMI, the fully decentralized remote production. That’s fantastic not just for a pandemic, it’s fantastic for efficiency of use and people. Again like REMI, you can do multiple shows in a day instead of one show over multiple days, you improve your environmental footprint from the point of view of reducing travel and things like that.

David Ross
On the other hand, it’s early days, and we’ve had some customers that started with cloud production saying, “We just have to get on the air.” And then switched to on-prem dedicated hardware again saying, “Now that we’ve got things under control, we want to actually be able to do a more sophisticated production. We want to be able to do a UHD production. We want to be able to have a better workflow and a more sophisticated feature set.” And all those things don’t really exist yet in the cloud. So I think the reality is, both things are going to coexist for a long time. Cloud is very exciting, but I think we can continue to innovate on prem.

Dak
Now, branching off what you just talked about for a second about green, I heard an interesting interview the other day that for the event business there is going to be a lot of audits that are going to start being done about green, and what is the environmental impact of having these conferences and all these gatherings? Is that something that worries you?

David Ross
For sure. Hey, I’m guilty, I had the dubious honor for the first time in 2019 of getting 100,000 miles on United Airlines. On one side, that means that you’re getting out there, you’re traveling, you’re meeting customers. On the other side, it means you spend a lot of time like this in your seat with two people on either side, not being overly productive. And the third thing, you’re not being green, you’re traveling. So I hope that we can do less travel, I think we’ve… It’s an interesting thing, it’s going to come up to customers in some ways.

David Ross
It used to be that if you said you want to see the CTO of broadcaster X and they find out you want to do a Zoom call with them in 2019, they’d brush you off. If you said, “I flew across an ocean to see you, I’ve been in a hotel, I’ve been in a cab, and I’m waiting in your lobby for our pre-approved meeting.” It’s, “Come on up.” Well, still just an hour. The difference is I spent a day to get there and a day to get back so that one hour mostly friendly meeting where you maybe get a couple of cool ideas back and forth, I could’ve done that on Zoom and saved that footprint.

David Ross
The question now is will those same customers accept a zoom call again when people are traveling, or will it be again, “Look, I’m more important than Zoom. I want you to be in person, that is the event that gives me the reason to see you.” That’s a very non-green thing. So I think it goes both ways. I mean, the manufacturers probably should travel less because we don’t really need to, but the customers, I think, need to become more green in their expectations to why we should meet with them and when.

Dak
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s one of those things where it will be interesting to see what new products emerge that hopefully bridge that gap. Obviously, as broadcasters, being able to use the extended reality technology to facilitate those sales meetings and things like that take it that next step. So for 2021, what is your outlook?

David Ross
We’re planning to have our best year ever, which will be our 31st best year ever in a row. And I think we’re heading in a good direction, we’ve hired probably about 150 people so far this year into the company. I think later this month, or early next month, we expect our thousandth employee, which is significant. And a lot of those people are going into research and development, but also into things that directly impact customers today. So I think it’s going to be an exciting year, we’re going to be helping more customers and more verticals in which we help them in, and I think we’re going to be providing even better tech support and services.

David Ross
And just after that, we’re going to be providing them with a lot of new products in a lot of new areas. And I’m really excited about that as well. So hoping that the pandemic variants don’t come to get us, hoping as well that everybody does get… Or enough people get inoculated, and that those vaccines work as advertised, I’m optimistic about the future. But even if it doesn’t, I think we’re still going to have a good year.

Dak
And in terms of what’s driving potentially this growth, do you see it being the US market? Is it China? What markets do you think are going to be the ones that are going to be hot this year?

David Ross
All of them.

Dak
Pent up demand, yeah.

David Ross
Well, it’s pent up demand and it’s also that we are investing in every area, in every geography, and every product line. We’re doing sort of an organic growth. So there’s something for everyone.

Dak
And then Ross is in this unique position in the United States where whether it be at the local broadcast level or at the national level, your products from a Nexstar with whether it be their new national newscast, or it’d be their local affiliates, your products range the gamut of being used in these instances. Reflect on just kind of that market position you all are in here.

David Ross
Yeah. I think Ross is traditionally aimed at the mid-market saying that mid-market television station, that corporate job market, and so forth, the high end corporate, you can sort of say, mid-market broadcast. And our goal has been to continually add features to the point where the high-end looks at what we’re doing and says, “That’s fantastic, and it’s economical, and it works so well.” And then suddenly those same products [inaudible 00:20:08] products. And I think you can see that in a lot of our products and a lot of where we go. So our strategy, I think, lives in that area.

Dak
Yeah. NBC news just built an opened their Washington DC facility which has Ross top to bottom for the camera robotics, and they use you all in a lot of their studios.

David Ross
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And I mean, we do have some products that are very interesting that sort of span the market like our XPression graphics, for example. We see people buying that out of their own pocket for their own one person business. We see that being used all the way up to the Olympics and the events around the world and the top broadcasters. And of course, the new SoFi Stadium in LA is using not just XPression, but dozens and dozens of XPression can drive the entire stadium, including I guess the screen they have on the roof, advertising up to planes flying over from LAX. So, I mean, it’s a pretty broad spectrum that Ross is able to serve. Yeah.

Dak
And then to close out, where do you think we’re headed? We talked a little bit about where we’re going to land on the cloud side of things. What are these lessons that you’re really going to see from work from home for broadcasters, and where is this going to drive us over the next five or 10 years?

David Ross
Well, from the work from home, certainly we’ve learned that we can do it, and that viewers seem to be okay with the end results of that, or had no idea except that sometimes their talent was at home. And if you’ve got to talk show host that’s clearly in his house then everybody’s working from home at that point. But a lot of the news programs, you didn’t realize work from home.

David Ross
But from things like sporting events and things like that where there’s a lot of travel, I think we learned that we could accelerate that. I think we learned things that the cloud is good at and things that the cloud isn’t good at yet. For example, from the point of view of perhaps reliability, we find Zoom mostly works, but it’s not the same thing as a dedicated connection, or being in a studio, or something like that where you don’t even question whether it’s going to work. You don’t worry about whether or not you’ve got the bandwidth to get a UHD, or even 1080p into the cloud and back again.

David Ross
And so, we’re learning what the pros and cons of those things are. It’s an interesting thing as well, we’re learning about security and cybersecurity, and how important things like that are. It used to be often that you would never put any part of a program into some sort of a public internet without a logo, and even without a logo without it being seriously encrypted because of the value of that< and now we’re sending a camera feeds through the internet without a logo and without being encrypted sometimes just because we have to get that done. So I think that there’s a lot of thinking that’s going to have to go through that as well, and it’s a question whether that’s a moment in time out of necessity, or is that a new way of thinking about the way we worry about our media?

Dak
It’s always best to end with a question.

David Ross
Yes.

Dak
Well, thank you so much for joining us on the Broadcast Exchange and we’ll be looking for everything Ross is up to this year.

David Ross
Well, thanks for the interview. I’ve been looking forward to it.

Dak
If you enjoyed today’s discussion, make sure to like this video below or subscribe to the channel for more broadcast-centric content. The Broadcast Exchange is also available as an audio podcast on all the major platforms.

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