Reading TV Tea Leaves Is Her Lifelong Pursuit

Liz Huszarik grew up in Detroit imagining she’d become a veterinarian, never consciously thinking of one day playing an active role in the TV programming she so readily consumed at home.

But something always fascinated her about television. As a self-described “latchkey kid” and child of a single mother, it was Huszarik’s companion. She smiles wide when talking about hours spent watching Little House on the Prairie, Love American Style and Star Trek reruns. She recalled her brother insisting she hold the rabbit-ear antennae in place to maintain a signal.

“I watched it voraciously,” she says—but her developing mind always considered the unseen machinery. “I always wondered, ‘Why did they schedule this after that? Who was making the choices? Who was behind the curtain, pulling the levers?’”

As executive VP of media research and insights for Warner Bros., Huszarik now has a prime seat behind the curtain. She heads a five-team group that provides vital research to the studio’s television executives.

“It’s critical today to tell a story with the data,” Huszarik says. “If we just reported numbers, we’d be sunk.” Huszarik and her team gather and interpret data from countless more sources than were available when she started in the business in the mid-’80s—such as in-home ethnography, where researchers go into consumers’ homes and observe them as they engage with media. “We try and calibrate it all back to what the Nielsen numbers are telling us and where we are diverging, and what isn’t being captured by the Nielsen data.”

It was during an internship in New York with Katz Media Group that she realized she could make a living in TV. She then began her career in earnest at TeleRep, where she learned from Jay Isabella, senior VP of programming, whom Huszarik credits as a mentor.

“From the very beginning, she was able to grasp the concept that research is active rather than passive,” Isabella says, noting that Huszarik understood innately the connections between research, sales and marketing. “She was very good at it. You look at her career and her acceleration at Warner Bros., that’s pretty successful. And she’s earned it.”

Huszarik left New York for a media research job at Warner Bros. in 1991. She grew with the department, becoming senior VP in 2000 and ascending last year to executive VP.

Now in the top job, a huge part of what she does is trend forecasting. Every year her group collaborates with Turner Broadcasting System and Warner Home Entertainment Group on a tracking study that looks at how consumers engage with media now and how they’ll do so in the future. Initiatives such as this helped Huszarik predict the importance of cable VOD. This year, she says, VOD platforms on Comcast and Time Warner Cable are providing ratings bumps of 4% to 10% on NBC and ABC shows.

“We saw that trend maybe four years ago, that consumers wanted that aggregator, “ she says.

Huszarik relies on more than tracking studies, in-home ethnographic research and Nielsen numbers to divine the future. Every fall, she teaches a seniorlevel programming and analysis class at Cal State Northridge. The insights she gleans from watching her students interact with media prove to be invaluable.

She also hires students out of that class, about one per year, even though she knows not all of them will stay. “A lot of people start in research, and it’s a nice bedrock,” she says. “Then they move into many, many fields all over the studio and the industry.”

But research has more than held Huszarik’s interest—particularly in recent years, as the speed at which data moves has presented new challenges and created new ways of doing business. The more the work changes, the more it seems to suit her. “I’m one of those people that I’m curious what makes something work,” she says. “ Why do you like this? Why are you watching this and not that? It’s so exciting and dynamic.”

For Huszarik, it’s the best place behind the curtain to be.