An interview with Andrew Pinzler, The Today Show's Head of Innovation
It's never been tougher for a morning show to stand out. NBC News, ABC News and CBS News are all investing heavily in digital and social innovation. The Today Show has taken innovation to the next level by making it part of their editorial evolution. Andrew Pinzler, the Head of Innovation Labs for The Today Show is overseeing these initiatives.
Pinzler, whose experiences include working for the BBC, Dow Jones and Deloitte, is constantly experimenting with new ways to add unique technologies, fun activations and engaging social elements to the linear experience of The Today Show. Found Remote interviewed Pinzler about the success of their WineBOT, Blue Button, Rokerathon program, checking out their competitors and more.
Found Remote: What's your background and how did you join TODAY?
Andrew Pinzler: My education and work history is a mixture of business and engineering. I did my undergraduate years at the Johns Hopkins School of Engineering (go Bluejays!) and worked at a management consulting firm for several years before getting my MBA from Northwestern University (go Wildcats!). Following that, I worked in different strategy, operations, business development and product management roles at media companies and start-ups, but I’d never had a job that really combined those experiences until I began working at NBC News.
I started out at the NBC News Group in a corporate business development role and very quickly began working on several projects with the TODAY team. About four months ago Ashley Parrish, EP of TODAY Digital, offered me the opportunity to join her team full time in a role creating new interactive experiences for digital and broadcast. I jumped at the chance and TODAY Innovation Labs was born.
FR: How do you work with the social media and editorial team for TODAY.com in your role?
AP: In my role I’m actually a member of the editorial team. My desk is in the TODAY Digital newsroom, and I regularly attend the TODAY.com daily story/pitch meeting and meet with the Orange Room producers to get a better idea of what the team is working on and how I might be able to build things that support the stories that we want to share with our audience. I’m incredibly fond of the entire team and I’m proud to be the Q to their Bond.
FR: How does the WineBOT work and why was it launched? Is it a success so far?
AP: The WineBOT is a great example of an idea coming from the larger team. The original spark of this idea came from an editor on the digital team, Kyle Michael Miller, who also manages the fourth hour’s social presence and wanted to do something tied to the show’s “Winesday Wednesday.” I quickly figured out how I could build hardware that dispenses wine and started collecting the parts I needed to build a proof-of-concept that I could show to the broadcast producers and get feedback. While I was designing the hardware I realized that we could cross this idea with something that we often do during the earlier hours of the show – a Twitter hashtag battle. This had the added benefit of fitting naturally into the current flow of programming because Kathie Lee and Hoda will often be on opposite sides of a particular topic of whatever they happen to be chatting about that morning.
The WineBOT works like this: The ladies pose a question to the audience and each one states the case for her particular side of the debate. We then ask the audience, on broadcast and on social, to tweet with the hashtags “#TeamKLG” or “#TeamHoda” depending on which host they agree with. The WineBOT software connects to Twitter and scans for usage of those two hashtags and sends that information to the hardware which, among other things, includes two fluid pumps attached to wine bottles.
So, every time someone tweets “#TeamKLG” Kathie Lee’s glass gets a little more white wine and every time someone tweets “#TeamHoda” Hoda’s glass gets a little more red wine. The ladies can see who is “winning” just by looking at which glass has more wine.
As of February 19th, we’ve used it twice. According to our social media managers, the WineBOT’s debut drove the most engagement we have ever gotten on Twitter from the KLG and Hoda audience and the #TeamKLG hashtag was a trending topic on Twitter that morning. Kathie Lee has won both arguments thus far, according to the tweet (and wine) volume.
FR: What's the Blue Button and why was it launched?
AP: When TODAY’s Take, the 3rd hour of the show, was planning on launching their Facebook page earlier this month I was asked to come up with a creative tool that the anchors could use to share the page’s progress on-air. After a few different concepts were brought to the table, the Blue Button was the winner.
The Blue Button has two essential parts: the Orange Room monitor and the button hardware. The button hardware is plugged into the monitor and each time someone presses the button, the hardware inside the box below the button sends a simple notification to the computer inside the monitor. The software I wrote for the monitor is really the “brains” of the operation. When the monitor receives the signal from the button, the software checks Facebook for the latest “Like” count on the TODAY’s Take page and updates the on-screen counter animation.
The feedback from the button has been so positive, that we are using it every day in February!
The button in action... pic.twitter.com/n3fsGdtPyz
— Andrew Pinzler (@pinzler) January 27, 2016
FR: How have you innovated with Al Roker and the Rokerthon program? AP: 2014 was the inaugural year for TODAY’s Rokerthon series in which Al set a Guinness World Records title by delivering the weather live for 34 hours. In November 2015, TODAY launched Rokerthon 2 with Al setting the fastest time ever for reporting the weather from all 50 states + Washington DC – going coast-to-coast and everywhere else in just one week. For Rokerthon 2, my goal was to build an online experience where our audience could follow along with Al and watchour TODAY.com map update at each official stop he made. The final experience was the result of joining together several different technologies and services to create an interactive map that we called the RokerTracker. When Al completed a weather report at each of the 51 locations, a map marker would drop on the map that the user couldexpand to show not only the location and the exact date/time of the stop but also an image, video or embedded tweet. Additionally, the map had a "trace route" functionality where users could step through all of Al's path by clicking on the RokerTracker button in the upper right of the map.
This happens automatically in the newsroom when #Rokerthon hits each official location... https://t.co/GTX9VAhvFB pic.twitter.com/QnVhIYFQN5 — Andrew Pinzler (@pinzler) November 9, 2015
FR: How closely do you pay attention to what GMA and CBS This Morning do with digital innovation?
AP: While I certainly try to keep an eye out for what they are doing, I’m primarily focused on us. In terms of the “competitive landscape” I’m far more interested in seeing what new ideas and experiences are coming from start-ups and digital native companies and organizations.
FR: What's the future for innovation at TODAY?
AP: I really don't like to pontificate wildly about the future. Not that I don’t like to think about blue sky concepts but I need to build things that the team at TODAY will use tomorrow and not “tomorrow,” so I often need to temper my imagination with a solid dose of practicality. I tend to gravitate towards the ideas that are not too far outside the box, and will bring the digital and broadcast audience together and change behavior more gradually, as those are the concepts that will really endure. On my own time, often at events like hackathons, I’m more than willing to tinker with and test out new technologies and platforms that maybe don’t have any immediately obvious practical value for us… yet.
FR: Anything else?
AP: Be on the lookout for some new interactive elements on TODAY.com that we are rolling out in the coming weeks and months. We’ve created a new tool that allows our editors to make online images more interactive by placing clickable hot spots or “pulses,” as we call them, on the parts of the image where we want to display more information. Additionally, we will be expanding our usage of the interactive video platform Wirewax this year. Check out our first video using the platform.