Our Impact


Episode 02: Alan Wurtzel (former President of NBC News)


Interview with former President of NBC Research, Alan Wurtzel. Alan discusses his years at both ABC and NBC including his landmark Olympics research, TAMI cross-platform measurement initiative, NBC lab, and broadcast standards and practices. Alan is another member of the billion dollar club, researchers who added at least a billion dollars in value to their company. Listeners will also be fascinated to hear how he came to lead long-form news and how he was once considered the successor to Bog Iger. An interview you won’t want to miss… with a true media research legend!


Duane: [00:00:00] Legends of Media Research is a podcast series featuring interviews with the media industry’s leading researchers, where we go behind the scenes sharing stories from their greatest achievements and challenges. Brought to you by MediaScience, the leader in media and advertising innovation research.

Stay tuned at the end of the podcast for more information about MediaScience, but for now, I’m your host, MediaScience CEO, Dr. Duane Varan.

Hi, this is Duane Varan welcoming you to another exciting episode of Legends of Media Research. We’ve got a real treat for you today. We’ve got an über legend. We’ve got former President of NBC Research, Alan Wurtzel.

Alan spent half of his industry career at ABC heading up research there, half at NBC. He’s responsible, you know, the key force behind a lot of standards. We’ll talk [00:01:00] about that throughout the episode today. It’s gonna be a fantastic little journey that we do together. So, Alan, welcome to the show. [laughs]

Alan: Well, thank you. I appreciate hearing that.

Duane:I remember we were having lunch just a few months before you retired, and we were talking about this, you know, doing a book like this, telling these stories. So now it’s actually turned into a podcast, probably more accessible this way anyway.

I’m so glad now that that lunch that we had has finally come into fruition and we’re here finally doing this Legends of Media Research podcast.

Alan: Yes, me too.


Duane: Alan, my first encounter with you, indirectly as it was, was way back. I want to say that it was like 1985 or something when I was in college, and I remember my textbook was a textbook from an Alan Wurtzel. Now, was that you? [laughs]

Alan: Yeah, that was me. I, well, [00:02:00] I started, you know, I started my career as an assistant professor. As an instructor, really, at Queen’s College in New York City, where I got my PhD. And then I went to teach at the University of Georgia. And the thing that I always wanted to do –I taught TV production, among other things, and at the time there was one standard book by a guy named Kurtz.

Everybody used it and I said, ‘I think I can do a better job on that’.

So I spent the next three years, you know, writing this textbook. My biggest regret was that by the time it was finished, I had left teaching and went to ABC. So I never got to teach with it.

But it is my book and in fact it’s gone through four editions. And it’s kind of funny to look at it now ‘cause boy does it look old. Things have really changed. But that was my book. And by the way–

Duane: I remember when the book came out. Our professor was so excited, you know, [00:03:00] he had been using the same book for forever and different editions, and this was a real breakthrough.

And so he was very excited now to have this new book. And that was the book that we learned, you know, kind of like, off of, so thank you for your contributions to my education.

Alan: Well, you know, as the years have gone by many people, particularly people who are much younger than I have said to me, ‘oh, I used your book’. It’s gratifying.

Duane: It was a big deal for sure. Like, when it came out, it was the standard in the industry.


So how did you do that, though? You were an academic. How did you make the transition? I mean, you were at the University of Georgia.

How did you go from being at the University of Georgia to your first industry gig was at ABC. How did you make that transition?

Alan: Yeah. Well, I, you know, I mean, I always loved TV. And what happened was, while I was at Georgia, ABC had a nationwide [00:04:00] competition where they were going to give five grants to study television and its effect on kids, and with a couple of colleagues I won one of them.

And so it was great. We got the grant and basically my wife and I are from New York, and so when we would go up to the city to visit on the holidays, I would stop by ABC and they would take me to lunch in the executive dining room. And this is like mad men days. This is when, you know, guys, the waiters in tuxedos would give you lunch and you drank scotch and stuff like that.

And I said to myself, ‘gee, this isn’t a bad gig’. [Duane laughs] A few months later, the Federal Trade Commission in Washington started a procedure in which they wanted to see –they maintained that advertising to children, to young children, was inherently deceptive because kids at [00:05:00] that age didn’t have the cognitive ability to appreciate persuasive ads.

And they used the research of a Swiss psychologist, very famous guy, named Jean Piaget. They realized they didn’t know anything about this, and they were looking for somebody to sort of be their social science guy. And so they asked me to come and work for them, and I did. And that was how I got to ABC. I remember–

Duane: And what year was this? This was back in like…

Alan: This is 1974. No, no, no. 1978. I spent 21 years at ABC in 19 years at NBC. I couldn’t hold the job. But one of the funny things about, you know, being this social research thing was I, they introduced me around and they introduced me to the general council, who was the big guy and all that.

And I went up and explained to him, ‘you know, this is all about the research of Jean Piaget’. And he said, ‘Piaget? I thought that was a watch’. Now I didn’t know what a Piaget watch was, [Duane laughs] but he didn’t know who [00:06:00] the psychologist was. But I realized it was a very different world. So that’s where I began.

I began in social research there. And then I’ve had many, many different jobs in both ABC and also NBC but they’ve tended to revolve around two things: one was research, obviously, and the other, interestingly enough, was broadcast standards. And I, you know, can talk to you about any of those in a few minutes if you want.


Duane: Let’s start with your ABC years. So you would’ve joined them before the Cap Cities acquisition of ABC, right?

Alan: Oh, sure. Cap Cities was…

Duane: It was a big deal for sure. Like, when it came out, it was the standard in the industry.

So how did you do that, though? You were an academic. How did you make the transition? I mean, you were at the University of Georgia.

How did you go from being at the University of Georgia to your first industry gig was at ABC. How did you make that transition?

Alan: Well, I mean, we were really scared. Because, you know, ABC kept saying, ‘oh, you know, we’re a family’ and all that kind of stuff. And it was, you know, that kind– And then these guys came in, Tom Murphy and [00:07:00] Dan Burke, and they were known as, you know, lean and mean and, you know, very, very scary guys. So we were all really like, afraid of them.

And ABC at the time was very similar to all the other networks. I mean, it was just a license to print money. I mean, there were limousines and all kinds of like suites in the city and all kinds of crazy things. And that’s not what these guys were interested in at all. They were just great business guys.

So we were very, very nervous and very, very scared. In retrospect, I just wanna say this one thing,and on the record, those two guys were the best thing that ever happened to me, and frankly, to ABC. And to this day, there are some alumni who we sit around and talk about, you know, Dan and Tom. Dan unfortunately died a few years ago, but his son, Steve Burke, you know, wound up running NBC. Tom is still alive.

I even see Tom from time to time. This is such an interesting guy. I mean, he’s gotten frail. He’s well into [00:08:00] his mid nineties, but his mind is so sharp that he can tell you who was in a meeting, what the share price was. Wow. You know, I mean, he’s just an amazing guy and I consider both of them to be my mentors.

They were just really, really wonderful guys. And they taught me a great deal, not just about television, which they of course knew, but they taught me a lot about how to think about business and they were wonderful.

Duane: Now, the rumor about them is that they had a very high regard for research. Was that your experience with them? Did you find that that was kind of like…

Alan: Yes.

Duane: Tell us what was that like?

Alan: When I got to ABC in 78, and this is again, you have to understand, from 78 until 85, it was ABC. And, you know, I progressed through different things.

I did social research, [00:09:00] and then I wound up doing news research, and then I did program research. Research was always viewed as kind of an errand, you know? ‘Tell us what you’re wanting. We’ll meet up, go away’. When Tom and Dan came in, they just said, ‘wait a minute, you gotta listen to these guys’. And there was a guy who was running– I wound up finally becoming the head of the research department at ABC, and the guy who was running programming, his name was Brandon Stoddard, very famous guy. He brought all of the made for TV movies that, you know, had become legends in television. And Brandon didn’t like research at all. And I remember Tom said to him, ‘listen, you don’t have to follow it, but you gotta listen to what the guy has to say and then, you know, go do whatever you want’.

‘Cause they were very, very hands off. And that was a, you know, a very interesting turn. But research again, before these guys showed up, people were scared of it. I remember that Steven Bochco, who, you know, very successful, [00:10:00] did Hill Street Blues and, you know, a variety of other huge programs on TV.

He didn’t know from– he didn’t wanna know about research. But he did want to know about our research. And so the deal we had was, I would do the research, I put it into a brown paper envelope, shove it under his proverbial door, and he would never acknowledge that he got it. But I know he read it. And you know, the thing I always said about the research is, look, I mean, research never created a show.

I mean, you can’t, if it was that easy, we would do it all the time. It can give you insight, it can give you a sense of sometimes how the audience sees things or things that you might want to think about. And so, you know, that was sort of– that was really pushed by Dan and Tom and they were very, very, very high on that.
And I think it’s one of the reasons that they came to like me because they liked the stuff that I was doing. And, you know, it wasn’t just me, it was the department, but they felt like the research would just [00:11:00] inform them in a way that, you know, just their gut didn’t necessarily.

And so, you know, it was the two of them and my direct boss was a guy named John Sias, who… he was a very tough guy, but he was really, really smart. And he also really appreciated research.


Duane: One of the things that I think is unusual in your career path is, you know, when you think of a researcher, you kind of visualize a person who’s like, you know, crunching numbers, providing analysis, insights, et cetera, but you went on during those Cap City years, you went on to head up long form news. How did that happen?

Alan: Dan and Tom. What happened was there was a Roone Arledge who was, you know, legendary in the business. It was getting to a point where they felt they needed to put in a success. And they put in the guy who was the executive producer [00:12:00] of Peter Jenning’s new show, but he was a very, very experienced news producer named Paul Friedman.
And Dan and Tom felt that because I spent so much time with the consumer, that I would be, you know, make a good contribution in terms of programming, you know, long form. And in those days, those were the golden years of the magazine show. I mean, we had, Monday night was day one, Thursday night was primetime, you know, there was 2020 on Friday.

And then there were all of the specials and they just felt that that would be, you know, I would be able to give a certain kind of insight to what was going on. And from that, they had me do Good Morning America. Which is also an interesting, and a very hard, I mean, it’s a very different program now.

Morning’s very different than it was in those days. But all of that stuff came from my research background, which is, I think, you know, interesting. [00:13:00]


Duane: You know, you’ve never told me this, but it’s one of the rumors that I hear on the street, so to speak. There is a rumor that at one stage you were kind of being groomed and pegged to be Auger’s replacement, you know, kind of growing on from the news roll that you had. Is that true?

Alan: Well, first of all, it’s in Bob’s book, so…

Duane: Oh, okay. [laughs]

Alan: But it’s a little different. What happened was they were not guys who did work on the weekends. As some people, you know, in this crazy, you never heard from them on the weekend unless like something burned down.

But one day I’m driving, I remember with my wife, and my boss, John Sias calls and says,’listen, we need you to come out to LA on Monday’. I said, ‘why?’ He said, ‘well, you’ll see when you get there. Just come on, get out there’. Now, I knew that Brandon Stoddard was about to get moved over to something else. He was the head of programming. He wasn’t happy and they [00:14:00] weren’t happy with that and all that.

And so I figured, well, John is gonna have his direct reports out there and he’ll, you know, he’ll, tell us all what’s going on. So I go out there and the ABC offices were covered by glass. In other words, the front of it was glass, so you could see into all the office.

And I said to ‘John, before I hung up, where were you gonna be?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. You’ll find us’. So I walk around and there’s Murphy and Sias in this office. And I walk in and Tom walks over to me and says, ‘Alan, look, I just want you to understand we love you. We think you’re incredible, but, you know, things just kind of worked out a different way’. And he walked out.

And I said, [Duane laughs] ‘Sias, what is this?’ He said, ‘oh, we were gonna have you replace Brandon Stoddard’. I said, ‘what?’ He said, ‘yeah, yeah’. [00:15:00] But there were guys in the program department, two guys, Ted Harbet and Stu Bloomberg, who were not happy about that because, first of all, they wanted the job, but secondly, they felt like somebody who was in broadcast standards, which is what I was doing then, as well as research, would not have a good relationship with the Hollywood community.

So they convinced Tom and Dan that maybe they should go a different way. And Bob was a very, I mean, Bob was going to become a major player in the business. I mean, they were grooming him for even higher things, but the idea was, okay, you know, we’ll have Bob come out. So I set aside, he says Bob’s gonna do this.

I said, ‘well, what’s Bob gonna say?‘ He said, ‘well, you know, Bob’s gonna do what you would’ve done. He’s just gonna come and do the job’. Okay. I called Bob, I said, ‘Bob, what’s going on?’ And he said, ‘honestly, I couldn’t tell you’. I knew about it, obviously, my wife and I thought it was great because, you know, we at the time had like a three-year-old.

He said, [00:16:00] ‘they have a young kid, they won’t be a problem, it’ll be terrific’. And then he got the call saying, they’re not gonna give it. We want you to come out. And Bob said, ‘you know, Alan, I never read a script in my life. I don’t know’. ‘Cause Bob used to negotiate all of the sports deals. So he was a very good negotiator.

So he came out and he wound up doing the job and he is done, you know, a really good job. You know, I’ve always said to Tom, ‘I’m not sure I would’ve been the best guy to do this job because I would’ve had to negotiate with these sharks out there’. And I just, that’s not what I did. And to this day, even recently when I saw him, maybe, you know, a year ago, I said that to him and he said, ‘I don’t believe it, pal’.

He said, ‘we bet on brains. You would’ve been great’. And to have Tom Murphy say that I always felt was an amazing validation. But yes, that’s the story.

Duane: What I love about this story and what I think the listeners will love as [00:17:00] well, is it speaks to a different time.

I mean, it speaks to a time when there was a regard for research that you just don’t see kinda like in this day and age. Like the extent to which you had the ear of the, kind of like, key players. I mean, what a time, what an era, what an amazing achievement for the research community, you know?

What I love about this story and what I think the listeners will love as [00:17:00] well, is it speaks to a different time.

I mean, it speaks to a time when there was a regard for research that you just don’t see kinda like in this day and age. Like the extent to which you had the ear of the, kind of like, key players. I mean, what a time, what an era, what an amazing achievement for the research community, you know?

Alan: Well, you’re right, but you know what it is. It was a different business then too. In those days, being the president of an entertainment division was really a big deal. I mean, there were only four of ’em, you know. And I mean, now this is so many of those kinds of things. But you’re right.

I mean, again, I can’t speak for the other companies, but ABC felt that research was a really important component of what they were doing and were always very, very supportive of it.


Duane: [00:18:00] Now, you made a reference to, broadcast standards, you know, also called standards and practices.

We should talk about that both in terms of the ABC years and the NBC years for the benefit of the listeners. [laughs] ‘Cause I think looking back with the lens of history, standards and practices is kind of almost funny in a way. You know, there’s this time when we had this internal censorship regime, which, you know, decided things like women could be in a one-piece if there was a man present, but they could be in a bikini if they were only with women and not with guys.

And, you know, all these rules around kind of like what you had to do, to kind of like comply with community standards. I mean, again, looking back with the lens of history, I think this is a very foreign concept for today’s audiences, but maybe tell us a little bit about those ABC years. Let’s start with the ABC years at that broadcast standards.

Alan: At ABC, I wound up doing as the social research [00:19:00] guy.

I wound up doing a lot of research with the head at the time of broadcast standards. His name was Al Schneider. And he really, really appreciated the stuff that I did. And, you know, long story short, somebody left and they offered me the job to move out of researcher to become the vice president of Broadcast Standards.

And you know, for your audience who doesn’t know, ‘cause I mean, you wouldn’t if you grew up recently, it’s the censor. You decide sort of what can go on the air and what can’t, but again, you have to look back and realize that we’re talking about, you know, 40 years ago, and there were two really significant pressure points going on.

One was just, you know, community standards and audiences being offended. The second were affiliates because they didn’t want to be in the crossfire of bad stuff. The third were advertisers. They didn’t want to be associated with things that were considered inappropriate or distasteful. And the fourth was Washington.

I mean, networks aren’t [00:20:00] licensed, but they own stations that are. And so broadcast standards in those days when I first took the job -it wasn’t ‘cause of me-, was very powerful. I mean, you really couldn’t do things without, you know, broadcast standards agree. Now they would fight and we would sometimes lose the battle.

But, you know, for the most part, broadcast standards had a very, very important role at the play. And we were dealing with some, again, in my time, some pretty controversial issues. I mean, you know, for example, there was a really well-known made for called The Day After, which was what happens after the Holocaust.
There was Schindler’s List, not Schindler’s List. We did the movie Schindler’s List, but there was War and Remembrance, which had a lot of Holocaust stuff. There was, I forget the name of it actually, but there was one about a gay marriage between two men.

Again, you go like, ‘well, so what?’ But again, in those days they were huge. And what [00:21:00] broadcasting– I always said that our job was not to keep stuff off the air, but to figure out how to get it on the air. But basically without, you know, a huge problem. As time went on, things got much looser, and there were guys like Steven Bochco, who– basically their life was to kind of keep pushing the envelope.

And I do think that some of the things that Broadcast Standards did in the early days was just much too excessive. But again, you had to realize the time. Oh, and the reason I got the job, as I said, was ‘cause I was a social research guy and they thought that I would understand, you know, what was going on.

One of the big issues in those days was violence. And so we developed something called the “ICAF”, the Incident Classification and Analysis Form. We always give things acronyms. And the idea was that we should be able to read a script and quantify how much interpersonal violence was [00:22:00] in the program.

And we worked with a really well known psychiatrist named Mel Heller out of Temple University and he had a lot of rules. I mean, he used to say, “there’s sex, there’s violence, but you never wanna have the fusion of the two”, and things like that. So we would score programs and then we could identify the different scenes that were, you know, problematic and talk to the producers about them.

Again, I mean, it sounds so foolish today, but we needed a way to do this because violence was a very, very significant issue, you know, in those days. Now, the kind of violence that was going on then versus what you see today is just so different. But again, you had to put yourself in the time and in the era because it was a big deal.

It’s funny, sexuality was not that big an issue. There wasn’t a lot of it, it was mainly violence because a lot of the shows were, you know, cops and robbers and [00:23:00] procedurals and things like that. Yeah.


Duane: Now I’m gonna flash forward, we haven’t started talking about your NBC job, but since we’re talking about broadcast standards, I want to flash forward ‘cause you would’ve been on deck at the time. Now that I think about it, I remember that SNL (Saturday Night Live) episode with Matthew Broderick. I think it was where he, I don’t know, it must have been a thousand times in the episode where he used the F word and it was kind of like this suddenly, from that moment on, it was a whole new era in broadcast standards. Were you at the helm of standards when that happened, or…?

Alan: No. I mean, well, of course SNL is NBC. So just to flash forward there, what happened was I went to NBC after the time I spent at ABC ‘cause a Michael Eisner brought the company, Disney, he wanted to move all executives out to LA, my family didn’t want to go, NBC heard that I was available and so they brought me in [00:24:00] as a head of research.

But then about a year later they said, ‘you know, you did this Broadcast Standards thing, why don’t you do this as your night job?’ So then I did Broadcast Standards there as well. SNL was always a unique program. I mean, it was unique for the following reasons:

The producer of the show, Lauren Michaels, he never wanted the show to be on delay and his view was that the honor system was more powerful. He said ‘if everybody knows that it were on delay, they’ll just do the F bombs and all those kinds of things ‘cause they’ll know we can cut it out. If they know it’s not, then they will be careful’.

They weren’t always careful. But the fact of the matter is that that made it more difficult. I don’t know the Matthew Broderick, I don’t remember that. I might not have been there. But I can tell you one interesting story. The way that SNL worked was that there’s an editor, her name is Betsy Tara. She’s great.

She’s there the entire week when they produce the show and get it [00:25:00] ready and she’s there on Saturday. And this particular episode had Justin Timberlake and Andy Sandberg. And it was one of the first times they had done kind of like a mini film. And they would never show us the script until the last possible moment, ‘cause they didn’t want us to mess with it.

So I get a call from Betsy at 5:30 on Saturday, and she says, ‘Alan, there’s a script and a sketch that’s unacceptable. It’s called “Dick in a Box”’. And what it was, it was a Christmas show. And the idea was, you know, it’s an old joke, you sit there with the popcorn and there’s the dick in the box, and somebody goes in there and touches it and all that.

She says, ‘they keep saying “dick in a box”’. And I said, ‘you know, the adults aren’t up, just let it go’. And Betsy said, ‘Alan, there are 18 “dicks”. We can’t do this’. So I said, ‘alright, [00:26:00] tell ’em we can’t do it’. So she goes and tells them they can’t do it, and they did, but they bleeped out the word, you know, the 18 “dicks”.

The next day they went online and said, ‘watch on and see what the sensors wouldn’t let you see’. And they ran the thing unexpurgated. That was the first time that they used the internet and streaming as an alternative platform. And from there it became something that obviously everybody used. So, you know, had we said, ‘yeah, go ahead and do it’, and they did, who knows when they would’ve gone into internet streaming.

Duane: What an amazing story.

Alan: SNL was an interesting… because Lauren’s a very interesting person. And the problem is, I mean, he’s very smart and he’s very talented. We would read a script and, you know, like on a Friday I’d say, ‘you know, Lauren, we got a problem with this character’, or this sketch or whatever.

And he’d say, ‘alright, we’ll look, [00:27:00] let’s take a look at it’. And then they would do a rehearsal, a dress rehearsal at eight o’clock at night. And Lauren said, ‘let’s take a look at it on its feet’. That’s how he’d always say that: ‘let’s look at it on its feet and then we’ll decide’. Said they would do the dress rehearsal and at 10:30 I’d call Lauren ‘cause Betsy would call me.

And she said, ‘it’s still there’. And I said, ‘well, Lauren, we saw it on his feet, it’s still not acceptable’. And he said, ‘well, what are you telling me that now for? I have to go in the air in an hour, I can’t change it’. So that was Lauren’s M.O. But, as you can see, SNL has always had more of a window because it was on very late.

And because that was the expectation. The thing that I always felt in broadcast standards, both at ABC and NBC, is you never wanna violate the audience’s expectation, right? If they think that a program is good for the family and for kids, and you start to put in [00:28:00] innuendos and things like that, you have a real problem.

On the other hand, if people expect that a program, like say, Hill Street Blues will be pretty tough or, you know, any number of shows, or an SNL, it’s a very, very different situation. Now, again, that was a time in which people would get very angry if they felt that the networks put stuff on the air that they didn’t like.

And the reason was they didn’t have many choices. So they went like, you know, you’re messing around with my television, and I don’t have a lot of places to go. So get it fixed. Now, you know, you don’t like where people are running? You got a zillion places to go. And of course, the world has also changed.


Duane: So we jumped ahead a little bit. My fault. Let’s go back to your transition. So you had been at ABC for 21 years. As you were saying you wanted to leave LA or they were gonna make you move to LA, I guess is what it was, [00:29:00] and you didn’t want to go to LA, you jumped ship. Now, you went to NBC, kind of like straight up, heading up research at NBC, right?

Alan: Yes. I went there as the president of research.

Duane: What was the transition like? What was that– I mean, you went to a new environment. What was that like?

Alan: Well, you know, I mean, the issue for me– this is very personal, so I’m not sure it’s gonna be, you know, of interest to people.

I was very well regarded at ABC. And I had a really, really good run. But I kind of felt like I was taken a little bit for granted in that, you know, I mean: Alan’s there and he’ll do whatever we need him to do and everything is great. NBC, you could sort of reinvent yourself. I mean, ‘cause don’t forget, when I began at ABC and, you know, there were many people there who still knew me, I was a kid. I was like 26 years old. I didn’t, you know, have all that experience.

So going to NBC was [00:30:00] obviously a little scary. I didn’t know where anything was, but I also realized that I could present myself in a different way. And they were great. I mean, the guy who ran NBC for many, many, many years, his name was Bob Wright.

When he interviewed me, he said, ‘you know, we’re not a very big company’. And by the way, NBC was not a very big company in those days. I mean, it was kind of small. And he said, ‘so here’s the deal. If you have a good idea, go do it. Just figure out a way to do it and go do it’. ‘Cause there weren’t a million layers and there weren’t a million different, you know, corporate entities.

And I just said, ‘you know, that’s a terrific opportunity’. And so I wound up doing that. So they couldn’t have been more accommodating. And yeah, it was a little scary in the beginning, but I look back and say the best thing that ever happened to me was going to NBC. And it was never that I was unhappy at ABC, [00:31:00] although I wasn’t happy that Disney wanted to move everybody. I never understood that. But it just sort of what it– what happened was Eisner… Disney has their offices in Burbank. NBC is in basically Beverly Hills, Century City. He wanted the program guys to be next to him. Well, the smart thing to do would be to move the program guys to Burbank.

But instead they said, ‘no, no, we’re gonna move all the senior management to LA’. And so that was the kind of thing that was a deal breaker for me.

Duane: Yeah. So you made reference to the latitude you had at… you know, another thing that I think for researchers today that we just don’t hear as much of is, in your era, leaders like you had the ability to introduce new standards.

You know, there was a collaborative spirit, you’d collaborate with heads of [00:32:00] research at the other networks, and there were just so many initiatives and you’d get things done. I mean, it was a very exciting thing. Again, looking back in hindsight, I’d like to explore some of those.

The one I’d like to start with is C3. I know you played a really critical role, a key role in kind of like, getting C3. For the benefit of the audience here, let me just give a quick background on what we mean by that. So, when the DVR came around in particular, you know, there was a lot of concern about how to attribute fast forwarding.

And, you know, the industry kind of like– the advertisers took a view that if people watch it on a DVR, because they can fast forward, there should be no credit for that. And this started a real issue for the industry about how to reconcile DVR usage. And Alan, you played a really critical role in what emerged as the solution, which was measuring audience behavior on [00:33:00] DVRs for three days post live.

And that’s what we refer to as a C3 story. So maybe you can walk us through the background, because again, I don’t know how much the audience would know about what happened and how that standard emerged.

Alan: Well, what happened was, you know, I would go from time to time with the sales department and sales calls, and as the DVR penetration became more significant, people were skipping commercials and advertisers said directly, I mean, I was in the room: ‘We’re not giving you any credit for anything that’s on the DVR’.

And that was becoming more and more problematic. And I realized that we just had to do something. There was a guy at GroupM who was the head of sales. His name was Rino Scanzoni, and as it happened, Rino was a student of mine when I was a young teacher at Queens College.

So I knew him pretty well. And he realized that we had to do something as well. And so we got together and, you know, we came up with this [00:34:00] idea of we will measure live, same day, but also we’ll measure the viewing on the first day after the second day and the third day. And we picked the third day because we found that about 60% of the viewing had taken place within those three days.

And the problem was we had to get buy-in. Rino was very important because he controlled billions of dollars of money. And, you know, GroupM was a very, very powerful buying agency. And so we developed that idea, but we had to sell it to the industry. So we held a meeting in the conference room at NBC and that room held about 30 people.

I would say a hundred people wanted to come into the meeting. I mean, ‘cause people realized this was gonna be a big deal. But what we wound up having obviously were people from the, you know, the program, program people. We had the advertisers, we had the buyers. And of course [00:35:00] we had Nielsen. And I didn’t know if we would get this through ‘cause this is an industry, Duane, that, you know, eats that’s young.

I mean, we almost can never, you know, agree on anything. But the fact of the matter is within two hours we sort of got full agreement on this thing. And the only concern I had was whether Nielsen would be able to do it, but they assured us they would. And while I’ve always had my issues with Nielsen, we had no choice.

We had to give them the opportunity. And so this meeting was held in the spring, and we were gonna roll this out in September with the new season. When that day came, I held my breath. I was really worried the thing would just crash and burn. It didn’t, it worked beautifully. And that became, you know, basically the standard.

Now you also can do now C7, you can do C28. I mean, Nielsen’s come a long way. The real issue there is, you know, many advertisers felt like they wanted to control when the [00:36:00] spot was viewed, because if you were advertising for a weekend, for example, you didn’t want this, you know, spot to be viewed on Monday because the sale was over that weekend.

But again, all those things got worked out. And C3 became, you know, the industry standard.


Duane: I think that one of those billion dollar contributions that you made in getting that off the ground was that without that standard, the propensity certainly would’ve continued to be, let’s not count it. So whatever it is, any value that we’ve extracted off of the DVR and by association the way we think about new platforms as well.

I mean, C3 also kind of like had had an effect in terms of how we think of platforms. It goes back to that decision around C3. So, it’s kind of got this disproportionate contribution that I think it made to the industry in terms of how we regard, you know, things beyond broadcast, if [00:37:00] you will.

Alan: Yeah. Well, you know, look, I’ve always felt that there were two significant technological changes in all of linear television. The first was the remote control, ‘cause again, there was a time in which you actually had to get up and turn the channel, and now you could sit there and flip around. And while there was some commercial skipping, it wasn’t all that big a deal.

The second was the DVR, because the DVR just changed everything. And the interesting story about the DVR is that it wound up becoming big because of Rupert Murdoch. He owned DirecTV at the time and they were trying to compete with cable, and they knew that they couldn’t compete with cable in terms of the service itself.

But what he said is, ‘let’s put a DVR into every cable box and we’ll give it to the consumer’. And when that happened, the cable guy said, ‘uh oh, [00:38:00] we better put a DVR into the cable boxes and it all mushroomed’. So, you know, so many of these things happen kind of out of happenstance. You really can’t control how it’s gonna work.

But what you can do is try to figure out, you know, ways in which you can adapt to it. I mean, I’ve always said that if you can’t measure it, you can’t understand it. You can’t sell it. You know, you really– measurement is the key to everything, but sometimes the measurement follows the technological advance. I mean, things would just change so quickly.


Duane: Yeah. So, another one of those arenas where I think you played a really amazing role was in, you know, cross-platform came along. And as cross-platform came along, there was a problem with measuring it. Let’s face it, there continues to be a problem measuring it all these years later.

I mean, it continues to be a big issue. But at a time when everybody was really [00:39:00] trying to get their bearings about it, you really played a critical role in getting the total audience measurement index. You know, TAMI off the ground, maybe you could tell us a little bit of the backstory around TAMI.

Alan: Sure. The upfront takes place in May and you know, advertisers come in and we show them their shows and they get to eat a lot of shrimp and that’s a whole thing. But back in the day, there was an interim upfront which would take place in LA sometime in like late March, early September, and we were gonna go out there and do this.

And I realized that, you know, we really had to expose advertisers to the whole notion of class cross platform. But there was no technology to do it. And then I said, ‘well, look, okay, what we can do is to take the impressions, in other words, the number of people who were watching on each of the platforms, linear TV, you know, basically, streaming video, and so on, and add them up, and that will become a number’.

And I called it the ‘TAMI’, the Total [00:40:00] Audience Measurement Index, mainly because I love this movie. It’s for one of the first rock and roll movies called the TAMI Show. And I just kind of figured it out, I work backwards. So we went out to LA and I unveiled the TAMI and I’m showing it to very, very cynical agencies and media buyers because, you know, their attitude has always been, ‘if it’s good for you, it can’t be good for us’.

And I was very worried that once they heard this thing, I’d get immediate pushback. And, you know, the whole thing would fall apart. What was so stunning was that it was immediately embraced. And I think the reason was that everybody was hungry for at least some sense of what was going on.

Because what the TAMI would show you was the contribution of each of these platforms. And you could also look at it over time. And so from that time on, the TAMI wound up being, I mean, it never replaced Nielsen in terms of an actual measurement and it shouldn’t have, ‘cause it was very primitive, but it was something [00:41:00] that was used by a lot of people for at least 10 years.

And, you know, it sort of served as the interim between that and the ability to use technology to truly measure what was going on. And that leads me to the Olympic research and the Billion Dollar Lab.


NBC had the rise to the Olympics and in 2002 Salt Lake, we decided to use the Olympics as a research sandbox. And the reason was there’s an enormous amount of program content. There’s a huge audience, and it lasts for, you know, for basically 17 days. So you can really see things going across.

So it was a great opportunity to do research and I was looking to brand it and I said, ‘okay, we’re gonna call it the Billion Dollar Lab’. Now people thought that they gave me a billion dollars. They didn’t give me a billion dollars. I mean, for research, they [00:42:00] liked it, but they weren’t going there. What I was really referring to was how much it cost the sports department to get the rights that I could do this.

But it was a wonderful opportunity and what we wound up doing was working with lots of different suppliers. In the beginning it was a supplier named IMMI that was run by a guy named Tom Zito, who’s still a friend and working in the business, and he had figured out a way, again, very primitive, to use a telephone and begin to do cross-platform measurement.

It was small and you know, we didn’t really, we couldn’t really do too much with it, but it did demonstrate that it would be possible. And as time went on and every Olympics, we sort of pushed that bar forward to the point where we started doing some really, you know, interesting research.

And it was only because we could, you know, have the unique opportunity to use the Olympics as the basis for this. And so that’s– [00:43:00] the Billion Dollar Lab did many, many things. I mean, for example, and this is gonna sound ridiculous, in Vancouver, in 2010, we discovered that what was really happening were acts.

Now again, you are gonna go ‘what?’ That was a discovery. Up until then, if you had a phone, you were using a telephone browser. And people started using apps and I said, ‘well, wait a minute, this is the way it’s gonna go going forward’. I mean, because we can just see this behavior beginning to percolate.

And I remember that I was giving a postmortem on the Olympics to management afterwards. And Jeff Zucker, who was running the company at the time, said to everybody after we heard this, ‘you know what? In 30 days, I want every business to develop at least one app. Because that’s what the future’s gonna be’.

Again, it sounds crazy to think that, you know, apps was a, you know, a major finding, but it was because of what [00:44:00] we could do with the “billion dollar lap”.


Duane: What were some of the other things that you learned out of the Olympics research? I mean, you had so many different Olympics that you did it, you know, that you did all that research around. What were kind of like the top three things that you learned from all that research?

Alan: Well, we learned how people used media, and again, we could look at it over time. As time went on, we used a variety of different techniques and one of them was ethnographic research, and there’s a wonderful ethnographer. He just retired, named John Carey. And we sent him out to people’s houses and had him sit and watch people watch the Olympics.

And it wasn’t just a matter of watching the Olympics, but it was about how they were consuming the media in general. And what was stunning there was that it was becoming quickly mainstreamed. Many people felt that, you know, streaming behavior for [00:45:00] example, was just for young people.

And that, you know, all not true at all, in other words. And the other thing that we found is that, older viewers, they got it. They knew how to figure this stuff out, that they could do it. And so the idea was that this was gonna become very much of a mainstream kind of behavior. Well, you know, well beyond the Olympics. The other stuff that we learned was that television was becoming very much a personalized experience.

I mean, again, back in the day, the family sat down, they all watched together, they watched the same show. As these devices came about, people started, you know, going into different rooms and you know, watching them individually, watching what they wanted to watch without watching him with other people.

That’s one of the biggest flaws, even to this day, the people mean it because it requires people to all be in one place. You know, I guess Nielsen is now trying to fix that. But the idea was that we began to see that people didn’t [00:46:00] feel they had to watch with other people, and people felt they could spend a great deal of time without a home viewing.

And that was really important. And of course, that’s, again, so many of these things today, you sort of say, well, what’s new about that? But until we saw it, it was new. And so the Billion Dollar Lab was just a great research opportunity. And I’m very proud of the work that we did on it.

It was very hard, but it was, I think at the end of the day, you know, very, very valuable.


Duane: So I can see the reason you refer to it as a Lab is because you were learning about television in general. There were so many things that, you know, it gave you this concentrated burst of research that you would do, out of which you would, you know, redefine and re understand kind of like what the audience was really doing in terms of how they were consuming the media.

Alan: Exactly. I mean, look, a lot of what the lab, a lot of what we had to do for research was research for the Olympics. [00:47:00] I mean, you know, we would do, of course, minute by minute ratings and basically tell the producers what worked and what didn’t work and stuff for sales and all that. So that was all a part of it.

But this other stuff was, again, I mean, a tremendous amount of value added. And I look back and I realize that the Olympics was the platform on which we could do all this kind of research and, you know, I don’t think it’ll ever happen again. I mean, we’re looking at the Olympics in Tokyo and obviously the massive audience and the fact about how people are watching and all that is just so different today than it was then.


Duane: You know, we were talking about industry-wide collaboration and another one of those contributions I think that you helped make really was in the birth of CIMM. I don’t remember what CIMM stands for. CIMM.

Alan: Coalition for Innovative [00:48:00] Media Measurement. I said we’re very big on acronyms.

Duane: [laughs] But you know, I mean, CIMM still exists today, all these years later. And such a unique opportunity to facilitate collaboration between competing organizations with common interests. So maybe you can tell us a little bit about CIMM and how that came to be.

Alan: I was in a high level management meeting, I guess it was a budget or something, I forget. And Jeff Zucker, once again, who was running the company, said to me, ‘why is Nielsen so messed up? I mean, can’t you fix this thing?’ And I said, ‘well, you know, it’s gonna require the industry to get together to fix it, but here’s the deal: it can’t be fixed from the bottom up. In other words, if we try to go to people at my level, you know, in other words, the worker bees, it’ll never get done. It has to come from CEOs down. So Jeff, you have to get on the [00:49:00] phone and get Les Moonves at CBS. You gotta get AG Lafley at Procter & Gamble.

You have to get Peter Churn at Fox. You have to get those guys to agree to kind of get together, put in a lot of money, and give us an opportunity to develop this initiative’. And he said, okay. And he got these guys. The only problem was the 2008 recession came, and all of a sudden, every company that was gonna be a part of CIMM and was gonna put in about $5 million said, ‘we can’t afford to do this’.

And so CIMM wound up getting, you know, even before it got off the ground, it got kind of hobbled by the fact that economically it was very, very difficult to get the support. But people still wanted to do it. And I’ll never forget that in the beginning when the industry heard about CIMM, I was getting dozens of calls from companies, agencies and other program people.

You know, how do I get into CIMM? How do we join CIMM? [00:50:00] And, you know, it began with a rather small group of people. And then, we kind of grew it out, and for the first year, it was really good. And I said at the press conference when we announced it, that if we don’t see any change in the next, you know, year and a half or two years, we’ll feel it wasn’t very successful.

And I can tell you for a fact that Nielsen was scared to death of CIMM ‘cause they were very worried that this would be something that could really, you know, could hurt them. And it was calling them on their work. But unfortunately we never had enough money to do the kinds of research that we really wanted to do.

And so CIMM wound up being kind of a mere shadow of its former self. It does exist. But you know, unfortunately, many, many of the primary major companies that started with CIMM wound up leaving. And so, you know, I think a couple of [00:51:00] years ago it was folded into the ARF, which is fine.

And Jane Clark, she was the first and only managing director we had, and she’s done a great job. But it never– I don’t think, you know, met the expectations we had for it.


Duane: Now, one of the last initiatives that you did before leaving NBC just a few years ago, was the NBC lab in Orlando. I know because of course, I provided you with some consultancy work on that and helped with some of the planning for it. So I remember those days. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what that was about and what drove the vision there for opening up a lab in Universal Studios down in Orlando.

Alan: Well, it was this guy, Duane Varan, who basically was the motivator. [Duane laughs] Look, I was very jealous of your lab and the fact that ESPN, I guess at ABC had the lab in Austin, and I felt that, you [00:52:00] know, if we’re gonna be a world-class research organization, we needed to have a laboratory where we could do work with consumers, you know, directly.

And I guess I got to him in a moment of weakness. But I got to Steve Burke, who was the president of the company and told him what I wanted to do and he gave me 5 million and said, you know, God bless. And we did it in Orlando because there’s a lot of foot traffic. And the way these things work, the way we were working it was that we would recruit people and basically bring them in and there was never more place with more foot traffic than a theme park.

There were issues with that technique. I mean, you had to be very careful in terms of where you got your sample from and all those kinds of things. But we worked that out. They gave us this dilapidated closed building that was just falling apart and said, ‘here, go to it’.

And we stripped it down and built what I became very proud of and what it really [00:53:00] has, it’s very similar to what you do, Duane. I mean, in that, you know, it has a room where there are individual computers where we could show people content and have them, you know, respond to it. We have a big cinema screen if we wanted to screen movies and we developed a neurophysiological component, which we had to learn.

I mean, it took a long time and you’re way ahead of us in terms of that. That’s very difficult to do. But you know, over time we did it and it became a very, very successful operation. One of the things I said to people, ‘cause I had to get buy-in from the different businesses at NBC, ‘I said, look, we can do the research that you want to do with outside people for less, but you need to come and commit to us ‘cause we need that money’.

I mean, once I built it, it had to be able to be self-sustaining. And that was never an easy call. But ultimately when we would give people, you know, try one free kind of thing, they would appreciate [00:54:00] what it was and they would come back. Regrettably, COVID has killed us because the park’s down and all that.

And I’m not there anymore. So I don’t know, you know, exactly how it’s gonna come back. And if it will. I mean, I’m sure that you’ve found the same problem. It’s just hard in this environment to get people. So, you know, we’ll see. But it was a great achievement and it’s something I’m very proud of.

I told ’em not to name it after me in memoriam. They wanted it dedicated to me. Go and do it when I’m dead. But it’ll be called The Media Lab. But if you’re ever in Orlando, look for it and go and do a test. One of the great things about Orlando was it is so hot in the summer that people are thrilled to go into air conditioning and get a free drink. So, that was one of the main ways we could recruit people.


Duane: So, final question, Alan. [00:55:00] You know, the industry’s changed a lot. You could say that you left the industry at a good time to leave. [laughs] Just in terms of all the disruption, you know, that the kind of collaboration, I mean, the stories that you tell, you had the ability to go to the CEO, you had the ability to pick up the phone and call Poltrack and call Artie and sit around a table and introduce the standard and make things happen.

I mean, the world isn’t like that anymore. You know, there’s a new generation of researchers out there that are dealing with a very different kind of world and a world where I think research doesn’t have the influence that it once had. So what advice would you give to this new generation of researchers? What would your advice be?

So, final question, Alan. [00:55:00] You know, the industry’s changed a lot. You could say that you left the industry at a good time to leave. [laughs] Just in terms of all the disruption, you know, that the kind of collaboration, I mean, the stories that you tell, you had the ability to go to the CEO, you had the ability to pick up the phone and call Poltrack and call Artie and sit around a table and introduce the standard and make things happen.

I mean, the world isn’t like that anymore. You know, there’s a new generation of researchers out there that are dealing with a very different kind of world and a world where I think research doesn’t have the influence that it once had. So what advice would you give to this new generation of researchers? What would your advice be?

Alan: It’s hard to answer that, and the reason is because it’s so different. You said earlier, and I think it was true, that, you know, even though there were budgetary constraints and all that, [00:56:00] there was an appreciation by management of these different companies for the value of research, and they would give us resources.

I don’t see that anymore. I see, you know, budgets that are strapped. I see companies that are laying people off left and right. And the idea, if you were to come in and say, I need some money to do, you know, developmental research, it would be like, you know what? Are you kidding? We don’t have enough. You know?

And so what’s happened is, I think that the resources that people like me and Dave Poltrack and Artie Boren, you know, that we had and we were fortunate to have. I don’t think that younger people have that anymore. The other problem is that I don’t think we’ve taught management exactly the value of certain kinds of methodologies.

In my experience, at least while I was leaving, the mantra among these people was big data. I mean, the thought was that, hey, you just got a lot of data. You put it into a computer. You hire a couple of guys from [00:57:00] Carnegie Mellon to analyze it and you’re off to the races and get rid of all these other people.

Well, that doesn’t work. I mean, there may be a value to big data in some cases, but you know, there’s still a need for a sample. There’s still a need to talk to consumers, but it’s very, very hard. And then there’s the issue of cooperation. I had many instances. I mean, one of the things that we did, I’ll just do it very quickly, at NBC, one of my last initiatives was called the Alpha Boomer.
And what I realized was that advertisers were saying, we have no interest in anybody who’s over 50. They’re just not our audience. And I demonstrated that actually the Alpha Boomer, meaning the front end of the baby boomer, which was well over 50, were the most attractive consumers of anyone, and that you shouldn’t be ignoring them.

If anything, you should be catering to them. And I went out to the advertisers and showed this, and people said to me, ‘hey, look, you know, you’re probably [00:58:00] right, but if it’s good for you, it can’t be good for us’. And that kind of an attitude. This is very, very frustrating because I mean, okay, take a look at it, see what you think.

Now again, part of the problem is, if you follow the Alpha Boomer trajectory, you’re gonna be using money in one place and not using money in another. And I understand that a lot of this is still the business, but the fact of the matter is that there’s gotta be a point in which people sort of say, ‘look, for the sake of the business, we need to kind of get together and work together’.

What troubles me is that, and it’s partly I think, due to frustration, more and more companies now are trying to develop measurement that’s proprietary, meaning that they’ll develop it themselves and they’ll use it themselves. They’re not gonna share it with everybody else.

And that doesn’t foster any kind of collaborative effort. And more importantly, that doesn’t really move the needle ‘cause there’s no [00:59:00] one company that has all the answers. So, you know, I wish I could be more optimistic because I think that it’s so important for the business to, you know, have a research industry that is far seen and that’s looking around the curve and that’s trying to figure out ways to kind of make what we do better.

CIMM is still there, but again, I don’t know that it’s had the impact that it used to have. So, you know, I think it’s kind of tough. The best thing I think you can do is try to find a couple of people who are like-minded. And just sort of sit down and develop some projects. See where, you know, again, you can’t change Nielsen, you can’t make Nielsen do certain things, but there may be smaller things that you can do that, you know, if you do it together and if you represent a couple of the major players in the business that might get some traction to get people, you know, interested in it. So, sorry, I can’t be more [01:00:00] optimistic, but that’s kind of how I see it.


Duane: Yeah. Well Alan, you are a true legend of media research and on behalf of the industry, I really want to thank you for your 40 plus years of contribution to the industry. And thanks also for sharing your journey with us today. I think for a lot of the audience, of course, this will all be new and so, you know, there was so much for them to learn about what the industry was like in particular. So thank you so much.

Alan: Well, it’s very nice that you say that. Very nice, and I appreciate that. I will say I was really, really lucky. I had a great run, but I came into the business, I guess it sort of, the right time and things sort of broke my way. And the other thing I just wanna say, Duane, is, you know, I mean, I’m talking about I a lot– I worked with some amazing people over the years in the research and broadcast standards departments.

I can’t name them all ‘cause obviously there were too many. But the whole idea was that this was always, [01:01:00] always, a team effort. And so, whatever these initiatives are, it wasn’t just me. It was the people that I worked with. So thank you. I really appreciate the comments.

Duane: No, thank you, Alan, thank you for sharing all your exciting adventures with us today. And of course, thank you, the audience, for joining us today. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, make sure you subscribe to the series and tell your friends and colleagues about us so they don’t miss out either. And feel free to leave a reviewer comment about today’s episode. We’d love to hear from you.

And of course, feel free to stick around after the podcast for more information about MediaScience. Otherwise, I’m MediaScience CEO Dr. Duane Varan, thanking you for your company today, and inviting you to our next exciting episode of Legends of Media Research.