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.”
A shorter version of this interview was published in CableFax magazine and Cable360 in June 2009.CW: Tim, you are one of the most accomplished researchers in the industry. How did you choose a Research career?
TB: It found me. And the way research found me was kind of interesting. My first job was low level, working for a local television station in Albany, New York, writing promotional copy. One day the sales manager came out of his office waving a little book and saying ‘We got a five!’ He ran into the general manager’s office and they broke out champagne. A month later he came slouching out of his office with the same little book saying ‘We got a three.’ And they went in and cried. So I figured ‘What’s in that little book that makes grown men go to extremes of joy or extremes of despair?’ I got hold of the little book to see what it was he was waving. It turned out to be a ratings book. I studied the boilerplate, which they had never read. All they knew was that a 5 was good and a 3 was bad. I became the defacto station expert on ratings because they didn’t have a research department. Suddenly they started turning to me to figure out how to turn a 3 into a 5. I went to Arbitron headquarters and I studied how the diaries were used. I did studies that increased their ratings and they thought that was wonderful. So that’s how I got into research.
CW: Did you study marketing or media research in college?
TB: No. I started in college as an engineering major until I decided I didn’t want to design on-ramps for interstates. Then I got into economics which is known as the dismal science for good reason. But I spent a lot of time at the college radio station. Then I went to a radio tv graduate school at Syracuse but I was the only one in a class of 90 who had any interest in media research. They all wanted to be reporters or businessmen who owned networks. I never got to study
research per se. I did study statistics and probability as well as English composition because
communication skills are very important. But it was basically learning on the job.
CW: What do you think is the most dramatic change in the industry in the past 5 years?
TB: For Research it has been the significant competition for Nielsen and the way we measure television. Nielsen was initially slow to adapt and companies such as Rentrak, TNS and TRA have jumped in with new, sophisticated and different methodologies using set top box data. The question becomes, who will emerge as the leader?
CW: What is the research project you are most proud of and why?
TB: In recent years it is a project I did for Lifetime. We did an ethnographic study of Women in America. It wasn’t a study simply about what Lifetime programs they liked or what they might watch. It wasn’t even focused on specifically what our audience wanted. It was a much broader study about women in America today, or in 2005, what their challenges were, what their interests were and what they wanted from media on a very basic level. This is the essence of building a brand. It was far sighted of Lifetime’s management to allow a study that would look very broadly and deeply at a large segment of the American public. We were not the only network that has done this. MTV networks is famous for studies within their target fields. But I am very proud of what we were able to accomplish at Lifetime.
CW: Where are the innovations coming from: cable, broadcast, gaming, broadband etc?
TB: After being slow off the mark (but not as slow as other industries that fought innovation) the major “cable plus broadcast” companies such as Viacom and NBCU are doing a lot of work in developing new kinds of measurement techniques. They are doing more with agencies who have been arguing for metrics that better reflect ROI. They are looking to incorporate results-based metrics in a way that both sellers and buyers can accept.
CW: Who is the most important person or firm out there in the research business today and why?
TB: That is a loaded question! I think they are all very important. Indisputably though, at least in 2009, Nielsen remains the dominant player in media measurement. They have stepped up to find new ways of measurement. There are still issues but they are more responsive than they used to be. There are others coming up fast but you would have to say that Nielsen is still the most important player in the field.
CW: What are you working on right now?
TB: I am working on a number of projects. In center stage is the set top box issue. It’s interesting that discussions of set top box use have taken place in silos. The cable networks have talked amongst themselves about what they would like. The agencies have talked amongst themselves and of course the owners of the data - cable companies and MSOs - have kept very close to the vest about what they were going to do with the data, if anything. But what has happened in the past year is that these parties have started to talk to each other. Institutions have been set up, Project Canoe among them, which establish a mechanism by which the potential of set top box data can be brought to the marketplace. I am seeing a lot developing in that field and fortunately I’ve been able to work on several projects involving set top box data and how it might be actualized.
CW: Give me three predictions for the next five years.
TB: Five years from now we will have another currency. We used to trade on average program audience. Now we are in C3. I think that will morph yet again in five years. I think it will still be linked to panels and “counting the house” as Nielsen does. But there will be modifications which allow you to look at results-based aspects of it too. That’s my first big prediction. Ask me in five years if I was crazy or not.
Second prediction: There will be a shake-out among the companies who are challenging Nielsen but at least one of them will survive and become a serious contender for audience measurement. It doesn’t mean that Nielsen will go away. It may be a matter of sharing the marketplace where Nielsen continues to do what it does and another company becomes a major player offering a different service. That is my second prediction. You can check with me on that.
The third one is that I will still be involved in the business. It sticks like glue.
CW: In terms of predictions for the media industry in general. Can you give me a prediction?
TB: I don’t think fundamentally it will change greatly. We will still be in the business of bringing commercial messages to consumers to persuade them to like and hopefully consume a brand or service. Those are the fundamentals of what the advertising industry is and has been for a hundred years or more. Nothing upends the business. Businesses morph and adapt over time. We see companies like Viacom, NBCU, ABC/Disney, willing and anxious to adapt rather than circling the wagons trying to preserve an outdated business model. So they will survive and modify their businesses. Their broadcast business will diminish and their cable and online interests will become larger. But none will go away.
The broadcast side of the business is going to change in the next five years. As you know I do a lot of historical research on television trends. I think they now know that their place in the firmament of video entertainment and commercial delivery is never going to be what it was twenty years ago. Their place is going to be with more limited hours; more focused on major events and spectacular productions and less on day in day out programming: 22 prime time hours a week plus daytime and late night as the one-stop for everybody to go to - it’s not that anymore. They will become a place where everybody comes for the Superbowl or American Idol but not the place where everybody comes for everything.
CW: What is the smartest career move you ever made?
TB: The smartest career move I ever made was not voluntary. It was because I had a foot on my back pushing me out the door. It was NBC in the late 80s but it could have been any one of the three networks who were closing down lots of their operations then. The first thing I tried to do was 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 kick myself for not having made the move myself five years earlier because I learned about a whole part of the industry that you don’t learn about when you are in one of those silos. You see things from a different perspective where television is only one part of the media mix. I made a lot of friends there and I learned a lot. I went from there to cable which I never would have done voluntarily five years earlier either. Cable was very good to me. It’s been very fulfilling. I got to do things I probably never would have done had I stayed at a broadcast network.
CW: Tim, any last words?
TB: Yes. 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 and see what you find. 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 and edited by Charlene Weisler, current chair of the CTAM Research committee and a strategic research veteran.