David Poltrack’s Triumphs and Frustrations in TV Research

WHY THIS MATTERS: Over 50 years in the business, David Poltrack has documented the power of TV, even if he hasn’t been able to convince everyone.

“The one thing that was most frustrating to me that I’ve constantly been going against is the tendency of the industry to mistake life stage phenomena with actual changes in media habits and media consumption,” David Poltrack said after 50 years with CBS, during which he became one of the most respected executives in research.

“When you’ve been in this business long enough and you hear the same ‘young people don’t watch television anymore’ argument for four generations, you want to say, ‘Guess what? They never did,’ ” said Poltrack, who in October announced plans to retire from his posts as chief research officer at CBS Corp. and president of CBS Vision at the end of June 2019.

Countering the usual gloom and doom about the dearth of young viewers, Poltrack said consumers watch more TV as they move from the 18-to-24-year-old demographic to 25-34 and from 35-49. “Those increases among the millennials as they’ve moved through those generations are even more pronounced than those of previous generations. So the millennials are just a little slower getting around to moving into a home,” he said, noting that time spent at home has a direct correlation with time spent watching TV.

Ironically for someone who has spent decades finding ways to convince advertisers to spend more on commercials on CBS, he got his job at the network after canceling an ad buy.

After deciding not to become a lawyer, Poltrack took a job in advertising, a fast-growing field in the 1960s. Working at ad agency Ted Bates, he was asked to review the media plans for client Warner-Lambert, which was introducing Certs and Dentyne, products aimed at young people. The media plan called for advertising on CBS, which was expensive because CBS was the dominant network. He moved the money to independent TV stations, where ads were cheaper and more young people were watching.

Eventually, CBS noticed and called for a meeting. “They couldn’t convince me to change my mind, so a few weeks later I get a call that CBS is interested in having me work for them,” he recalled.

That was in 1969. Since then, the TV business has gone through great change. But some things have stayed the same. In this interview, the B&C Hall of Famer talks about things he’s learned and what he plans to do next.

B&C: What impact have you had on how TV is measured?

David Poltrack: If you look at the key thread throughout my career, I think the big thing is that television advertising works very effectively and it is a driver of our economy, but it can be used much more effectively because there are a lot of tools available and there are a lot of ways people could learn more about how to use it to its full effectiveness.

One of the ‘a-ha’ moments came in 1974. The ANA ran an essay contest for people to give ideas on ways to change the business. So, I wrote this essay about how you could improve your television advertising schedule if you allowed your media buyers to think out of the box and use something other than CPM [cost per thousand viewers] against demos.

I won the contest. Now at that time, I was 29 years old and, as a result of winning this contest, I got to speak at the annual ANA marketing conference as a luncheon speaker to give my advice. I was absolutely petrified, but I think that message — I could give that same presentation today.

B&C: Haven’t the tools been improved?

DP: The tools have definitely improved, but I still don’t think that the medium is bought with enough creativity. The tools are fueling programmatic buying and programmatic is very good if it’s being used for its superior targeting. But if it’s just a way to get the lowest CPM in a programmatic marketplace, you could argue that’s even worse than what we had back in the 1970s.

I have always promoted research that breaks ground. CBS was the only network that supported AGB when it came in to challenge Nielsen. AGB lost out because of financial issues, but that is what led to the introduction of People Meters.

When the DVR [digital video recorder] first came out, the word was that DVRs were another point forward.

And in the early 1980s, I wrote a major paper on a multidimensional approach to television buying. I said I was going to throw in everything you should do: targeting and using sales data, also contextual and environmental things. When I presented the paper, we didn’t have the tools to make it happen. Now we have the tools, but there’s little real buying and selling going on using advanced audience demographics. And you know, those who are, you know what they’re using? [Nielsen’s] MRI Fusion. That was available when I wrote that paper.

B&C: You also do program testing research. Were there any hit shows that might have been canceled without your efforts?

DP: When Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman came out in 1993, it was a Western with a female lead and it was a wholesome, positive family show. And that turned out to be a tough sell in the programming meetings with the creative people, and it was a tough sell in the advertising community. It was the highest-testing show, but no one else wanted the show on the air.

I finally said to Larry Tisch, who was running the company, ‘If you put this show on the air, there’s no way you lose. If the show is successful, you’re a winner. If it fails, you can get rid of your entire program testing system and save millions of dollars.’ They put it on the [fall] schedule but Madison Avenue wasn’t buying this show, so they decided to hold it for midseason. [With the extra time] every show was tested. There were a lot of changes made in the episodes and they ran in the right order, from the strongest to the weakest. It was instantly successful. The premiere ranked No. 19 running on Saturday night. It spawned two major television movies and it was very financially successful when it was sold into syndication. It’s still on various channels.

My two other favorites are CSI and JAG. CSI was made for Touchstone for the ABC network. ABC turned it down. They brought it to us. We tested it and it got a solid test score and people were fascinated by the whole treatment of forensics. There was one element we thought was hurting it. Gil Grissom, played by William Peterson, was clearly the star, but he had a boss. And we felt the scenes between him and his boss were undermining the character. We edited out those scenes and tested it again and the score increased 20%. It turned into a franchise and they were top international shows for years.

JAG happened after Leslie Moonves came to CBS. In our first or second meeting, he said, ‘NBC is dropping JAG,’ and asked if we should pick it up. He thought it would be a good show for CBS and we did some quick testing and we recommended that we should pick it up. It went on to spawn all the NCIS [shows], which is another extraordinarily successful franchise. Those three shows paid for my entire career.

B&C: What advice did you give to your successor, Radha Subramanyam?

DP: It was about understanding the role of research. You’re in a situation where you want to help people and you want to be positive, but you are also providing something by which their superiors are going to grade them.

It really is important to maintain a collaborative approach, so that at the point where you have to present something to their management, they already have been told what to expect and you have worked collaboratively with them to come up with maybe not here’s the problem, but here’s the solution.

B&C: Has that been easier for you with CBS’s management being stable for so many years?

DP: Absolutely. That’s one of the big advantages that CBS has had over the years. We have had people who have been working together at least 20 years in all the key positions during that same period. If you looked at any one of our competitors, they had continual management changes during that time.

B&C: What projects are you working on now?

DP: There are the three projects that I have committed to [interim CBS CEO] Joe Ianniello to complete in the five or six months that I’m here. The first one I always do this time of year is the annual outlook for the broadcast networks.

The second thing I’m looking at is a segmentation study of media consumption. We’ve done two. In 2011 the segmentation broke the population into six different media consumption types. In 2014, we re-did it and it showed they had broken into seven different types and it showed how the early streamer segment from 2011 had bifurcated into engaged streamers and the digital selectives. From there, it was clear you could see the path and the emergence of SVOD and OTT. We’ve been tracking that at Television City and we’ll take another look to see if there’s been enough change to do another version.

The third one is studying the brand equity of the television networks: CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox. They’re changing in this changing competitive environment and we have a lot of data on them historically. We’re looking at, what does CBS represent to the public? That’s the one I’m most excited about. I think we’re going to get some significant new insights out of that research.

B&C: And when those are done?

DP: I’m retiring from CBS. I’m not retiring in terms of walking away from the business. I love the business and I will, for as long as people will listen to me, be an advocate for broadcast television and for the free over-the-air broadcaster.

I think free over-the-air broadcast is something that’s worth preserving and it’s a unique part of our society. When talking to people from Wall Street, a few years ago they were saying everything’s digital. First, it was cable that was going to kill broadcast television. Now, it’s digital that’s going to kill television. They had this negative attitude. We’ve done a tremendous amount of research and I think we’ve switched that around.

Everyone now understands that whatever you do digitally, whether it’s search or social or now OTT streaming, your base network television schedule will make that digital advertising more effective. And digital makes the base television schedule more effective.

Now, they’re not saying television is going away, but they’re saying it’s not growing. The CBS Television Network delivers 650 billion ad impressions every year. Right now, we’re not fully monetizing all of those. If we were able to sell every one of those impressions to the advertiser for which it had the greatest value, the ROI from television would double, triple, it would increase by some multiple. That’s where we have to go. I think there’s tremendous potential there and I will be advocating that approach.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.