[The following is a guest Q&A column presented by CTAM]
Tim Brooks has worked in media research for more than 30 years. He’s the co-author of The Complete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows, author of and Grammy winner for Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, and continues to be involved in the business after his “retirement.”
You are one of the most accomplished researchers in the industry. How did you choose a research career?
TB: It found me. My first job was working for a local television station in Albany, writing promotional copy. One day the sales manager came out of his office waving a little book and saying ‘We got a five!’ Then he and the GM broke out champagne. A month later he came slouching out of his office with the same little book saying ‘We got a three.’ Then they cried. So I wondered, ‘What’s in that book that makes people go to extremes of joy and despair?’ It turned out to be a ratings book and all they knew was that a 5 was good and a 3 was bad. There was no research department, so I studied the boilerplate and became the de facto ratings expert. Then they asked me to figure out how to turn a 3 into a 5. I went to Arbitron headquarters, studied how diaries were used and did studies that increased their ratings. Of course, they thought that was wonderful. That’s how I got into research.
What do you think is the most dramatic change in the industry in the past 5 years?
TB: For research, it has been the entry of significant competition for Nielsen and the way TV is measured. Companies such as Rentrak, TNS and TRA have come in with new and different methodologies using set-top box data. Now the question becomes, who will emerge as the leader?
Which is the most important firm in the business today and why?
TB: That is a loaded question! They’re all very important. Indisputably though, in 2009, Nielsen remains the dominant player in media measurement. They’ve stepped up to find new methodologies, and they’re much more responsive. There are others coming up fast, but most would agree Nielsen is still the most important.
What are you working on right now?
TB: I’m working on a number of projects, but center stage is the issue of set-top box data. It’s interesting that discussions of STBs were once in silos. Cable networks and agencies talked among themselves about what they would like. And of course the owners of the data—cable companies—kept information about what they were going to do very close to the vest. But this year the parties have started to talk to each other. Institutions have been set up, including Canoe, which are establishing ways the potential of STB data can be brought to the marketplace. I’m seeing a lot of development and fortunate to be working on how STB data might be actualized.
Give me three predictions for the next five years.
TB: First, there will be another currency. We used to trade only on average program audience, and now we have C3. But I think that will morph again. It will still be linked to panels and “counting the house,” as Nielsen does, but there will be modifications which allow us to look at results-based aspects too. Ask me in five years if I was crazy. Second, there will be a shake-out among the companies who are challenging Nielsen and at least one of them will become a serious contender for audience measurement. It will be a shared marketplace, where Nielsen continues to do what it does and another company offers a different service. Third, I’ll still be involved in the business. It sticks like glue.
What is the smartest career move you ever made?
TB: The smartest career move I ever made was not voluntary. I had a foot on my back pushing me out the door. It was NBC in the late 80s, when all three networks were closing down a lot of operations. At first I tried to get another job doing exactly the same thing for another network, which is the last thing you should do. I wound up at an ad agency, and it turned out to be an excellent move. I learned a lot about a part of the industry that I couldn’t see while working at NBC. You get a different perspective, where television is only one part of the media mix. From there I went to cable, and it’s been very good to me. Very fulfilling. I’ve been able to do things I would never have done had I stayed at a broadcast network.
What were the key projects you worked on for the CTAM Research Committee?
TB: I worked on the original media usage tracking study in 2004 and all of the subsequent waves. I’ve also been very involved in the recently released and comprehensive look at the multi-platform media world, Television, Online and Mobile: A Deep Dive into the Three Screen Experience.
What do you see as the role of the CTAM Research Committee?
TB: The CTAM Research Committee is one of the few places where networks and cable companies can work together to address research issues of common concern. The studies that come out of the group are consistently rated by members as one of the most valuable services that CTAM provides.
Any last words?
TB: My general philosophy is to always be inquisitive. If something doesn’t look quite right, try to find out why. If the numbers don’t make sense, explore them a little more. Turn over some rocks. It’s amazing how many people don’t do this, but that is where the research breakthroughs are often found.
(Interview conducted by Charlene Weisler, chair of the CTAM Research Committee and research veteran. She can be reached at CharleneWeisler@yahoo.com).
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Jack Wakshlag (Chief Research Officer, Turner Broadcasting)