When Albert Cheng joined the business development team at Fox Cable Networks in 1999, it was impossible to foresee how the television industry would transform in the coming years. But Cheng had a persistent sense that change was coming, and that the key word was “Internet.”
“I was analyzing sports programming rights for Fox’s regional sports networks,” he says. “And what always came up? Internet rights. I realized that sports leagues could someday bypass TV networks if they could broadcast their games on the Internet.”
And when Cheng joined the Disney/ABC Television Group in 2000, he aimed to be at the forefront of TV’s digital era. In 2001, he launched the Disney Channel’s subscription video-on-demand service, the first for cable television. In 2006, under Cheng’s direction, ABC was the first network to stream free, ad-supported programming online; in 2010, it was the first to offer a free, ad-supported video-streaming app on the iPad.
“The early days of streaming were a massively complicated process,” he says. “We had to create a video player, a streaming infrastructure, with geotargeted advertising and content protection. But that’s where my MIT background came in. I was at the negotiating table, but I also understood how the technology worked.”
Cheng spent nearly 15 years at Disney/ABC, including 10 years as the company’s digital-media czar. While there he helped develop the ad-supported streaming model that is now commonplace among television networks.
In May 2015, he was named chief operating officer for Amazon Studios, Amazon.com’s content development division, where he now oversees all business operations and software development and is using Amazon’s trove of data to inform programming decisions.
“We want to know how Amazon can use this data from a content perspective,” he says. “How can we use technology to optimize the way we create shows and content? We know data science isn’t going to magically create a hit, but we can use data to [help] value elements like talent, story pacing, and appeal.”
Cheng, who grew up in Hawaii, studied materials science at MIT, and later got an MBA at Harvard Business School, says the Institute helped him develop the problem-solving mind-set that has played a large role in his success. “The best part of MIT is that everyone wants to solve problems,” he says. “Finding problem-oriented practical solutions—that’s what my entire career has been about.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.