NBC Olympics President delivers keynote at Data X Symposium

“The Olympics is not just a sports event. It’s a cultural event. It’s a moment in time when people come together to listen to these incredibly relatable stories about incredible individuals,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics and president of operations and strategy of NBC Sports Group.

Today, digital media and data analytics play a role in how those stories are told. 

Zenkel delivered the keynote presentation at the first Data X Symposium on Friday, April 1, in the Herbert A. Roemmele ’53 Global Commons in Williams Hall.

Zenkel, who oversees all aspects of the NBC Olympics business unit, has led two successful attempts by NBCUniversal to acquire U.S. media rights to the Olympic Games: the first included Sochi 2014, Rio 2016, Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games; the second includes U.S. media rights to all Olympic and Paralympic Games through 2032, the longest agreement for U.S. media rights to the Olympics in history.

“We could have chosen any of a number of examples to work from, but I can think of none better to illustrate the kind of disruptive convergence embodied by Data X, and in some sense, our aspirations for the initiative, than a massive global spectacular like the Olympics,” said Daniel Lopresti, professor of computer science and engineering and director of Data X, in his introduction. 

In his welcome remarks, Pat Farrell, provost and vice president for academic affairs, discussed the challenges a university faces today.

“Our challenge is as a university to be timely (move quickly), yet timeless (not be out of date). That’s not that easy to do, but that is what we do, and actually we do it quite well. So I think what’s exciting to me, aside from the broad range of activity, the excitement, the interest, the level of engagement that we see on campus [and] we see in prospective faculty coming to visit with us, is that that challenge in this particular field is not unique to data analytics but really a sharp point with analytics. ... As a university, how do we move quickly yet prepare students so they’re at the top of their field in 15 years when we don’t exactly know what even that means. What is top of the field in 15 years? That’s our challenge.”

Lehigh Trustee Peter Diamond, executive vice president for programming at NBC Olympics, introduced Zenkel and participated in the question-and-answer session following the keynote. Diamond, a 15-time Emmy Award winner, is responsible for programming NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games and the U.S. Olympic trails. This summer’s Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil will be his 17th Olympic Games—more than any broadcast network executive in television history.

Zenkel shared examples of how NBC Olympics covers the stories of Olympic athletes as well as promotional videos for the upcoming Rio Games, which will be the first in South America and the first summer Games broadcast live in the United States since the Atlanta Games in 1996.

He described NBC’s unprecedented acquisition in 2014 of the rights to broadcast the Olympic Games through 2032.

“Comcast [NBC’s parent company since 2011] wrote a check for $7.5 billion, against a media landscape that, even for Rio, will present challenges that we’ve never faced before. Think about what the world might look like in 2032 and place that bet in 2014. Pretty amazing. ... There’s no better content, certainly in the United States, than the Olympic Games,” Zenkel said.

“In a world today, where media is so fragmented and audiences are so fragmented, something that’s capable of reassembling 200 million people... you offer to advertisers, marketers, distributors of content a very, very unique and valuable proposition. So that’s really what leads you to place that bet with as much confidence as we do.”

Engaging a larger audience

Zenkel described the network’s approach to digital media, which he said has grown exponentially. NBC Olympics’ coverage will include a website and mobile apps designed to be compatible with the network’s primetime broadcasts. “We will architect and re-architect every Olympics because the technology shifts by the day,” he explained. “... We take on the second screen because more or less everybody today is doing something with a device while watching television.”

He discussed developing relationships with social media networks and how NBC Olympics will distribute some of its content directly onto social media platforms.

“We’ve always had relationships with these companies as they’ve emerged because the Olympics has that profile, and there’s always interest in working with us. What we will do for the first time ever is we will take some of our content—highlight video—and we will actually distribute it onto these platforms. We believe, and we’ve seen evidence of this, that the best way to engage the audience that spends a lot of their media time on platforms like Snapchat and Facebook is to offer them an opportunity to experience the media, to share it, to talk about it, and as they’re doing that, reminding them where they can actually find the Michael Phelps live 110-meter butterfly,” Zenkel said.

Diamond discussed how he and his colleagues use minute-to-minute Nielsen data to make programming changes throughout the Games.

“The data we’ve been getting from Nielsen up to now has been quite good in many ways, sufficient for our purposes, but obviously a lot more things are going to develop over the years,” he said.

Moving forward, Zenkel said, partnerships include a commitment from social media platforms to provide NBC Olympics with data as well.

“Obviously the deeper, the more granular that data is, the better off we are,” Zenkel explained. “... We’re hoping for some actual real-time feedback from the social platforms, giving us a sense of how [the] audience is responding to our coverage, to different athletes, to different sports. But that data will absolutely instruct what is the next step as we take this journey into this very uncertain future.”

Three panel sessions followed the keynote.  Industry experts and Lehigh faculty working in digital media, computing and consumer analytics discussed related topics. Industry panelists included Kathleen Egan, vice president of services and analytics for Quri; Arun Hampapur, director of commerce research for IBM; Geoffrey Colon, communications designer for Microsoft; Beth-Ann Eason, president of Innovid; Mount Allen, director of operations for San Francisco Jazz; Humberto La Roche, principal engineer for Cisco Systems; and Patrick Thornton, senior director of user experience and strategy for CQ Roll Call. Lehigh faculty members Brian Davison, associate professor of computer science and engineering; Jeremy Littau, assistant professor of journalism and communication; and Nevena Koukova, associate professor of marketing, served as panelists and moderators.

‘A great atmosphere’

Throughout the symposium, LehighHacks, a high-energy, student-driven hackathon, was taking place in Bay C2 on the Mountaintop Campus. Over the course of 24 hours, students worked in teams to use technology to create unique solutions to problems in the areas of financial technology, smart environments and social apps. The event required no prior hackathon experience, and mentors and engineers from corporate partners offered assistance throughout. Workshops throughout the event highlighted different technology and skills.

“People walked in with just an idea, and hopefully they’ll walk out with a fully functioning app,” said Even Klein ’18, LehighHacks organizer, during the event. “A lot of people look at computer science and say, ‘I can’t do that.’ They have no idea where to start, and this is a great atmosphere because it’s very collaborative.”

At the conclusion of the hackathon, teams presented their projects to judges. The top 10 teams were then selected by the judges to pitch their projects on stage to determine a final winner. 

The Data X Symposium closed with a reception and an awards ceremony for LehighHacks in Bay C2.

LehighHacks winners were:

  • 1st Place: Burst, a tool to send out personalized text messages to members of an organization as part of a mass text
  • 2nd Place: Partify, which allows a host to sign in via Spotify and share a party link with attendees, who can then search for and request songs to be added to a party playlist
  • 3rd Place: LooseLeaf, a mobile application that promotes better study habits and growth of local businesses

To view all the submissions from LehighHacks, click here.

To view a recording of Zenkel’s keynote, click here.

Photos by Christa Neu

Video by Stephanie Veto

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