NBC: A Case of Saturday Night Live On the Go

Jul 24, 2015

Article ImageCOMPANY: NBC Entertainment

The National Broadcasting Company is one of the oldest television networks in the country. NBC Entertainment Digital oversees NBC's late night, primetime, and daytime initiatives across all digital platforms, producing both derivative and web-exclusive programming and building digital products, extending the broadcast experience through collaborations with partners and targeted social outreach.


BUSINESS CHALLENGE: For the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, NBC wanted to introduce a new app that would make it easier for viewers on the go to connect with any one of the show's thousands of sketch comedy pieces.


MarkLogic describes itself as "a new generation database that is built with a flexible data model to store, manage, and search today's data, without sacrificing any of the data resiliency and consistency features of last-generation relational databases."



"Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" is one of TV's most famous phrases, and NBC wanted to let people hear it anytime they desired - no matter where they were. Michael Martin, SVP, NBC digital product, technology & operations, says the goal of a new SNL app was not just to build something "that did justice to SNL as an icon in the American pop-culture comedy landscape for the last 40 years," but also "to do something we hadn't really seen happen with SNL content ... which was basically unlock binging as a user behavior."

Martin says that, with dramas, "people very clearly binge-watch on digital platforms, where they'll watch episode after episode after episode." But for people who watch sketch comedy on digital platforms, particularly a comedy show with the history that SNL has, "people have a tendency to watch really just one sketch, one clip, and then move on," Martin says.

"So what we wanted to do was basically do something [that encouraged] the binging that we saw on dramas," he says.


There was already an NBC app with full episodes of SNL, but the network envisioned something different for an app dedicated to he sketch show.

"Individual sketches perform sometimes incredibly well on digital," Martin says. "They become very viral; people have a tendency to go watch them millions and millions of times." But this doesn't necessarily translate to episodes as a whole being watched over and over, he says.

"So what we did in building the app was try to come up with features that would solve some of the impediments that we discovered which kept people from binging sketch comedy," Martin says.

A big hurdle, he says, is that the sketches on SNL are "extremely varied," encompassing not just different players and eras, but topics, including political sketches, commercial parodies, pop culture references, and more. The goal was to figure out what each viewer liked about a particular sketch, and what they'd want to see next.

"We had to come up with a means by which we could feed [viewers] a neverending ... buffet of sketches that we could be very, very certain were going to be in line with [their] interests," Martin says, adding that traditional recommendation engines were out, because they were based on general popularity and not personal interests.

Martin says NBC hired an "army of librarians" that went through SNL's nearly 6,000 sketches from the past 40 years and re-cataloged them, and then the network built a "predictive engine" to make guesses on what people want to watch in the future.

NBC also tapped MarkLogic to help with the project. "We knew we wanted to use MarkLogic for the semantic aspects," says Eddie Lee, VP, technology, NBC Entertainment Digital. "We could both have the semantic aspects that MarkLogic could provide, as well as being able to build the engine on the same platform."

According to MarkLogic, semantic data can be linked together to form a graph of hundreds of billions of facts and relationships. Using semantics, the company says, organizations can model complex data in a way that both humans and computers can easily understand.

In the case of SNL, says Joe Pasqua, executive vice president, products, MarkLogic, the semantics build a "big graph" that has all the relationships between the different elements - such as characters, actors, what the sketch deals with, and more. As people are watching the content, you can look at those characteristics to unlock a different dimension.

Pasqua says the process is like building a template which lists the types of things that describe what a person is watching, and when they watch something else "you can refine that template."

With semantics, "You're not so much building a big, complex query that's very kind of linear," Pasqua says. "This allows you to say, 'Here's kind of the shape of the kind of thing I'm looking for. Go get me more of those.'"


The SNL app launched for iTunes in February, to coincide with the show's 40th anniversary celebration, and debuted on Android at the end of April. And so far, the response has been "overwhelming," Martin says.

"We've done a number of popular products in the past," Martin says, "but this one is without any doubt and by any metric a breakaway success." He says consumption of the app is "extremely high," and that the network has received a number of thank-you tweets. In fact, Martin adds with a laugh, "Sometimes [people] complain because they got so [distracted by] the app, they spent so long binging from sketch to sketch, that they ran out of battery life."