Q&A Interview with Steve Leblang
Steve Leblang is a research veteran whose experience spans over 28 years at such companies as FOX Cable Networks, 20th Century FOX TV, FOX Television Stations, Turner Broadcasting, International Family Entertainment, Grey Advertising, MMT Sales. In the following interview, Steve talks about changes in the industry, set top box data, market impact on television, CTAM and some future predictions:
CW: Steve, what do you think is the most dramatic change in the industry in the past 5 years?
SL: The most dramatic change I see is that the control of media consumption lies exclusively with the consumer. Both technology and the ability to personalize which have evolved to where the ways any one person gets their news, engages with creative content or develops brand affinity are unique to that person. Companies that can ultimately create a personal connection with an end user are the ones that can thrive even in this challenging an environment.
CW: How do you compare this period for our industry vs .when you first started in media?
SL: Surprisingly similar. The early 80s were the first waves of success of basic cable and independent TV stations--the first signs that the three-network stranglehold on viewing could be successfully challenged. USA Today and, later, broader, national editions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal proved that there was an appetite for a national newspaper in one of the few countries that at that point did not have one. Now those foundations are being further challenged by even more personalization of media using all of these resources and still newer ones.
CW: Do you see television being as challenged as the newspaper industry is today?
SL: No, because television has not yet by replaced by a superior way to consume product that has captivated the emerging young adult generation the way that online content has superceded print. Regardless of how many supplementary ways there are to see video, the overwhelming majority of it is consumed via television and every objective study conducted in recent years confirms it.
CW: Where do you think the best innovations are coming from: cable, broadcast, gaming, broadband etc?
SL: All of these entities are contributing in part to what we see as a collective evolution of innovation that the consumer benefits from exclusively. Cable is offering more diversity of content both in number of networks and quality of what is on those networks, Broadcast still possesses the ability to galvanize millions of people with truly impactful events and is becoming far more interactive with its audience in the process. The gaming industry has a stranglehold on the youth market and through innovative and addictive evolutions such as Nintendo Wii is broadening that reach substantially. And broadband offers the ultimate personalization of media via UGC and dramatic growth in social networking (especially Twitter and Facebook).
CW: What are you working on right now?
SL: I'm currently consulting for a number of media companies and vendors, using research and insights to help them make better business decisions and drive revenue in a down economy. I'm working toward finding a full-time home with a company who desires expertise and wants optimum results.
CW: Steve, tell us about your involvement in CTAM.
SL: I served as chairman of CTAM’s Research Committee and co-chairman of the 2006 CTAM Research Conference. CTAM has allowed me invaluable and inspiring access to cable’s brightest and most innovative minds, movers and shakers, as well as a far deeper understanding of the vital issues impacting the industry as a whole. Most importantly, it has provided me with a wealth of opportunities to forge lifelong friendships with people equally dedicated to growing businesses and maximizing the insights that go toward that growth.
CW: Who is the most important person or firm out there in the research business and why?
SL: Nielsen has become the most ubiquitous and the most aggressive with its rapid acquisitions of adjunct companies (IAG, NRG, NetRatings, Neurofocus) and until such time as the advertising community embraces and empowers a legitimate competitor they will remain the most important determinant of success and failure for all media. However, with the changing face of both leadership and metrics of consequence in the agency community, Nielsen is under more pressure than ever to make their business applications as accurate, broad and cost-efficient as possible, and entities like CIMM will likely ensure that they will—or viable competitors will be embraced, funded and adopted.
CW: Do you see long term success for social networking or do you think it will morph into something else?
SL: The potential Achilles heel of social media is developing a legitimate business model, and as online as a whole is still making a fraction for its eyeballs as video makes for theirs the challenge for Facebook, Twitter, My Space et al is greater still. A large percentage of overall time online is devoted to personal communication, and social networking is, first and foremost, an extension of that—it is more of a replacement for the telephone and letters than it is for entertainment. That said, the impact of the way information is conveyed and news stories broken—which has essentially made the press release irrelevant if not wholly obsolete—is dramatic enough to know that some business model will work.
CW: Do you think that the advancement of set top box data has the potential to change the marketplace for television audience measurement?
SL: Without question. Pure and simple, more sample points increase the accuracy and usability of data, whether it’s second-by-second usage or hundreds of networks or millions of video streams. I’m all for anything that gives more information, as well as the ability of those who can dissect and discern from it what is truly meaningful.
CW: Steve, give me three predictions for the next five years.
SL: My first prediction is that the economy will turn around, people will regain some (but not all) of their confidence and buying power --but experience and the evolution of the savvier Millennial into mainstream young adulthood will make it far harder for companies to get them to blindly part with their hard-earned dollars. Secondly, the ability to accurately measure cross-media exposure and experience via multi-platform panel homes will give a much more “real” picture of how and when media is consumed—and will put into true perspective the impact each has on the other. Finally (and somewhat parochially) the need to have intelligent, diverse people in place to both articulate and be in the best position to recommend best practices from this expanded information portfolio will grow—which should mean that the opportunities for those who can do so should grow in tandem.
CW: What has been your most accurate and least accurate prediction in the past?
SL: Most accurate is that a basic cable network that adopted the quality and mindset of a pay network could reach unprecedented levels of success. Least accurate is that a small little summer import show called POP IDOL would be no more successful than STAR SEARCH, particularly since it was forcing people to pay to vote on their phones as opposed to letting them vote online.
CW: What is the smartest career move you have ever made?
SL: Taking a pay cut to leave a network with 80 million HHs for one with less than 50 million and that wasn’t even being seen in Manhattan, and placing my bets on a visionary named Peter Liguori to change all of that.
Interview conducted by Charlene Weisler, a research veteran, member of the Set Top Box Collaborative executive committee, the CTAM Research and Research Planning Committees and a CIMM consultant. She can be reached through her blog www.WeislerMedia.blogspot.com or at WeislerMedia@yahoo.com.