Interview with Betsy Frank who led research at MTV and Time Inc at times when both were facing major industry disruption. Betsy’s career is characterized by her constantly stepping into lead roles in new industries (from advertising to network – then from TV to print), always navigating the tension between centralized and decentralized approaches to the research function, and always characterized by major industry disruption (at MTV with the dawn of digital and at Time Inc with the rise of mobile and tablets). An interview you won’t want to miss.
Duane: 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, CEO of MediaScience welcoming you to another episode of The Legends of Media Research. We’re very excited today. Today we’re gonna be doing an interview with Betsy Frank. In the industry, if there’s a key person who is the key to you getting your six degrees of separation shortened it’s Betsy Frank.
Almost everybody in the industry, many of our [00:01:00] legends, worked for Betsy at some time in their career. At one stage, when she was at MTV Research, heading up research there, she had the largest research team in the industry with over 200 researchers. She’s a fascinating person because she’s actually worked across almost every part of the industry.
And her career is really fascinating because she’s often been at the helm at these critical moments of transition. So it should make for a lot of really exciting stories for us today. So, without further ado, I welcome Betsy Frank. Betsy, welcome to our show today.
Betsy: Thank you, Duane. Great to be with you.
Duane: So Betsy, we’re gonna dive right in and we’re gonna start at the very beginning of your career. So, you had graduated as an art history major, I believe. How did you go from art history to the media industry?
Betsy: Well, it’s probably not all that unusual for the time that we’re talking about, because [00:02:00] what I have discovered is right now young people seem to know exactly what they wanna do from the time they enter college or university.
I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was an art student. I had studied art in high school at the high School of Music and Art, which has since transformed into a bigger high school. So I was an art major at City College of New York, but really felt that my calling was in art history and felt that what my career path would be was towards becoming an art history professor in a college level.
And so when I graduated, I took a couple of– I started my master’s at Hunter and in between I went to work and I went to work in a completely unrelated area. Because frankly, I couldn’t get a [00:03:00] job at a museum or any place where I kind of have preferred to work. I went to work answering telephones at a company that created TV commercials.
Not necessarily the creative end of it, but the more mechanical duplication and distribution and television commercials. So it was luck, because it happened to be an area where I had access and contacts with clients who were on the advertising side of the business. From that company, I was hired by Crystal Myers to work in their, at that point, brand new in-house media agency, figuring out how to put together all the time that they had bought in all these network television programs on behalf of all their clients.
And from there I went to work [00:04:00] for Ted Bates, which was a Bristol Myers agency. And after that, I kind of was pretty much on the path to working in research in the advertising business. So from Bates, I went to an agency. There’s so many agencies that don’t exist anymore, and I realized that when I tell these stories, you know.
What? Bates? What the hell? But I went to work for an agency called Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, another name that doesn’t exist anymore, but over the next couple of decades, evolved to be Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, which I think people have heard of. And as part of the media department as you know, the head of research at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, I became one of the founding partners of Zenith Media, which was one of the first of the so-called ‘media dependence’ [00:05:00] of that era in advertising.
These were separate media agencies. It was kind of an acknowledgement during the nineties that media was important enough and complex enough and valuable enough as an asset to an agency that it should be its own separate resource, if you will. So I became head of research at Zenith Media, and that rather puts an end to my advertising research.
Duane: Now when, when you were in agency land, one of the ways that you built your reputation was in studying the new TV shows, the new seasons as they would– as the upfronts would come up. And in making your predictions about the shows. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about that part of what you were doing.
I think you had a reputation for getting that right more often than not. So maybe you can tell us a little bit about how you did it and what your secret sauce was.
Betsy: Well, I don’t know if it was a secret sauce. My boss that I had said, ‘the secret is that you predict everything will fail and you’ll be right 85% of the time’.
Because at the time that was kinda true, but I absolutely loved that part of my job. It was very high visibility, as you say. It was going to Hollywood. It was meeting with people. It was seeing the new, what the new shows were gonna look like before anybody else did. And it was, once again, this doesn’t really exist in a meaningful way anymore, but there was such a thing as a TV schedule where you had, you know, the days of the week across the top and everything from eight o’clock to 11 o’clock down the side and shows kind of fit in, and you kind of knew what your competition was at any given point in time.
So to evaluate how a program was [00:07:00] going to perform, both in terms of a household rating, which at the time was kind of the most important thing, but then gradually in terms of who was gonna watch it. Was it young adults? Was it older adults? Was it women? It was less challenging than that might be today and certainly than that would be today because your competition was pretty much defined.
It was whatever was on the other two, or once Fox came along, the other three networks. But it was fascinating to be part of that, to write these reports, to predict, to try and pick a barometer that was not black and white, but had some shades of gray. And gradually, of course, as the television landscape.
And I, again, I am advisedly saying television because that’s kind of [00:08:00] what it was. It wasn’t even video, it was television. Even as that became more complex with the growth of cable networks, it was still basically a television landscape. And, you know, the cable networks delivered small ratings.
They weren’t available in every household in the country the way the networks were. So they were not– they were kind of like just a fly that you swatted away, but you know, sometimes, I confess that I still have all those reports and sometimes when I see that a show is either going into syndication or that young people have discovered Friends or something like that or, you know, that Seinfeld was that many years ago, I’ll go back and find what I said about any of these shows. [laughs]
You know, [00:09:00] I really believe that television programs represent almost a time capsule of, you know, of our society and our culture, and certainly the Friends in the Seinfelds are few and far between, were and continue to be, but it was a different time and it was a different role and I really loved every minute of it.
But, you know, at the same time, I was doing the work that an ad agency head of research had to do, which was to figure out what our clients’ delivery should be, what they should buy, how to advise them, how to spend their money, work with the media planners and it was great. And then creating, working with the group to create Zenith Media was extremely exciting because it was the first time I was hoping to create a new business and [00:10:00] a new type of business too.
You know, a business that was focused specifically on media practice. So yeah, I really love that part of my job. [laughs]
Duane: So, in a way, you did end up using that art history degree. [laughs]
Betsy: Oh, I, you know, and to tell you the truth, I think about that a lot. Because I still, you know, love art history, I love going to museums, I loved traveling when that was a thing, you know, and seeing so much of the art that I had studied.
And I think back sometimes on two papers in particular that I wrote. I think it was one in college and one in graduate school. One about a particular cathedral and one about the image of St. Sebastian at different periods of art, and I think to some degree, a lot of this is just what I wound up doing because it’s going to different places, [00:11:00] taking not just different pieces of information, but different types of information.
Going down some rabbit holes to, you know, to see where something was taking you, which opened up other places to pursue with the goal of putting together something cohesive and putting together something cohesive is such a critical part of what any researcher, especially in this business needs to do.
Kind of as if somebody who knew nothing about the Oton Cathedral could read this paper and understand how all the pieces fit together. Well, that’s kind of what a lot of our research reports and analyses had to do as well.
Duane: Now, at the time that you were in agency land, of course you saw the rise of cable. You had alluded to that earlier in the interview.[00:12:00]
And then I think that was another way that you developed a bit of your reputation on the agency side. Maybe you could talk to us a little bit about how you responded, as you saw this ‘small thing’, as you were saying, [laughs] kind of evolved and emerged.
Betsy: It was exciting. Uh, Ted Turner was cable. Cable was Ted Turner. We used to invite him over to the agency and you could see he would present in a– either if he presented in an auditorium, he was a little more on his toes, if he was presenting in somebody’s office, he would be putting his cigar out in potted plants. But he was, you know, a unique personality.
He believed in this medium. He believed in his, at the time, TBS Superstation, TBS and CNN. And what I have always believed, and there were some really [00:13:00] smart people, people like Kay Covitz at USA during this time who were– had created these new entities and wanted agencies to buy into them.
And a lot of the agency people were like, you know, ‘this is too small to think about’. Too small to even think about. But Ted Turner always believed that what he was doing was producing more, and was putting more television out there. And there were other businesses, other networks that thought this was not television, this was something else.
This was cable, was unique, but Turner believed that TBS would compete with the broadcast networks. CNN on a news basis, would compete with broadcast news and that in order to be accepted by agency buyers and clients, of course. It would have to be measured. [00:14:00] So I think this is probably why the agency, and at the time I was at Dancer, believed that research should lead a lot of the introduction of cable to the agency because there was certainly an awareness that if something were going to be bought, it would have to be measured.
And I think he was absolutely right. And when Turner, and a lot of this is probably a bit apocryphal at a certain point, but when Turner put at– had Nielsen, commissioned Nielsen to measure, and I don’t remember if TBS went first or CNN went first, but they produced an actual ratings pocket piece that was distributed to the agencies.
That was probably the most meaningful decision that could have been made in how this new medium became an accepted part [00:15:00] of clients and agencies ways of doing business.
Duane: So then you did something remarkably bold. You changed, I don’t want to say industries, but I mean you went from the advertising side to the network side as you transitioned from being at Zenith to going to MTV Networks. Now just for the benefit of our audience, at the time that you went to MTV, I think if you were around at the time, you know what MTV meant then.
I mean, MTV was the ‘be cool happening hit’, kind of like it was defining really a lot of youth culture at that time. And you went on to head research at MTV Networks, and MTV of course continued growing its research team, at one point reaching something like 200, being the largest research team in the industry.[00:16:00]
So maybe you could talk first about that transition. What was it like going from being on the advertising side to suddenly being at this wild place at MTV. [laughs]
Betsy: It was very wild, and I was not 20 years old, let me make that clear, when this happened. I’m not saying I was the oldest person at MTV, because you know, these were all business people who’d been around for a while.
But I was very aggressively courted by somebody who would not take no for an answer. And I said no a couple of times, and they kept coming back. What MTV was in the process of doing, and this is something that I think I’ve spoken to you, Duane, about this, that this is something that a lot of big companies, multi-brand companies wrestle with.
MTV, as you say, was the flagship, you know, that they named the company after it. It isn’t any longer, but at the [00:17:00] time MTV was the lead dog, and so VH1 and Nickelodeon, which at the time were the– those three networks were basically the Viacom cable networks. Viacom was just coming into the picture, but it was still an MTV centric organization.
But as the other businesses started to grow, there was a sense that perhaps there were some efficiencies that could be maintained by developing some corporate organizations that were able to handle, say, HR across all the businesses or technology across all the businesses, rather than have every network created its own individual infrastructure.
So that’s what they recruited me for, to create a centralized, if you will, and that’s a dirty word, centralized research department for this company [00:18:00] that would be able to maintain the importance of each of these networks individually. And its built their ability to reach these very, very specialized audiences, whether it was teens and young adults or, you know, older adults for VH1 or kids for Nickelodeon, yet have some efficiencies of scale by creating a corp, someone corporate overseeing it all.
So that’s what I was hired to do. There were a bunch of other people who were brought in at the same time to do the same kind of job in different fields of expertise. I’m not sure that anyone else actually survived that because it was not slight by the people at the individual networks who wanted everything to be their own.
So it was challenging. Of course then I went on to do the same thing at another company, but it was challenging to try and [00:19:00] figure out how to get the advantages of something larger, having someone, and in this case who could look across and see where there were commonalities, where there were opportunities, where there were no opportunities and, you know, acknowledge those and yet maintain the each client’s ability to feel that they had their own.
So, you know, you would never centralize Creative, so the question is, ‘is research more like Creative or is research more of a business function?’ It was a really interesting time at that company. I mean, it was already, let’s see, MTV was born in 81, so this was not quite 20 years later, so still young, you know.
I think we had a party when it turned 21, they had parties for everything, as you can imagine. And it was fascinating because at the time we acquired a lot of new networks. We created [00:20:00] brand extensions for a lot of networks, so we were expanding aggressively internationally.
So it was, you know, a fascinating time to be in the cable business. There was so much changing. You know, the broadcast networks were really starting to show their lack of dominance. I mean, they were still dominant, but were starting to erode and then suddenly this internet thing, you know, came along and all of a sudden cable wasn’t the newest shiniest object anymore.
So now it was all the time that I had been kind of defending broadcast television in other parts of my career, now defending cable television in this part of my career against the AOLs of the world. So it was, you know, I dare say the turn of the century was [laughs] [00:21:00] an interesting time when kind of a lot of changes were happening in the media business and then, you know, the explosion kind of took off after that.
Duane: Yeah, and that’s another common theme we wanna explore in your career, because there are a number of times where you are tasked with grappling with the disruption. Something comes along and you are at the helm as you have to try to figure out how the organization’s gonna navigate with that inevitable question about whether you embrace or whether it’s cannibalizing your audience or you know, what is going on and how do we respond.
So let’s start with your time at MTV. How did you respond? [laughs]
Betsy: I think we erred on the side of being decentralized. That was a company that really did not want to be anything that smacked a corporate because centralization [00:22:00] equals, you know, corporate. And for a while, as long as business is good, you know, you can do that.
You can do that. I think as soon as businesses are challenged, as soon as there’s competition, then suddenly centralization and corporate overlays don’t look quite so bad and then it becomes a new challenge. How do I, you know, let’s be frank, how do I save this company money and still make sure that, especially for a company like MTV, which really does pride itself and still does on the way it knows its audience.
I mean, you know, that was its thing. We know our audience, and they sure did. They sure did. How do we make sure we don’t lose that and still get some efficiencies? You know, you’re not gonna have the same research person [00:23:00] work on MTV and Nickelodeon, but maybe there are ways of sharing information that is less painful to the executives, especially the creative executives at each of these networks.
Maybe I’m making it sound like it was easy. I’ve gotta tell you, Duane, it was not easy because, did you ever pull like an animal [laughs] in the direction that it doesn’t wanna go and you say, ‘this is for your own good. We’re doing this for your own– this is how you’re gonna survive. I have to take you to where the grass is greener. You know, and you still have–’.
So it was extremely challenging. As I said, I was there for, I don’t know, maybe eight years, nine years, and I think I was the only one who was still, you know, other than my [00:24:00] immediate boss, there were very few of us who were still in corporate roles by the time I left the company.
And I’m not sure how they’re organized now, it’s not my job anymore, but it’s very challenging for a company that is, that built itself, especially that company, which built itself on one very singular important brand needed to grow bigger, did grow bigger. It was a company that, again, was very focused on its audience.
But now it had to figure out some better ways of doing what it had already done so well. It was challenging, but it was a great place. It was a great place to be.
Duane: I would imagine that the digital question, the digital disruption would– I mean, MTV was, you know, almost dominated and owned– and Nickelodeon as well, dominated and owned that youth audience, right? And so these [00:25:00] are the people who are most rapidly embracing the internet and these new arenas. So I imagine the issue would’ve impacted you guys more than others even. So maybe you could just tell us a little bit more about how you all responded to that.
How did you cope with that? You know, the AOLs of the world.
Betsy: Yeah, AOL was not necessarily, you know, a kid’s brand, a young people’s brand. It was more of a kind of a step to whatever the world of the internet had to offer. I do remember some research we did at Nickelodeon. That I always found fascinating because it was the kids who were on computers.
The kids were actually, I think, leading in terms of internet access and internet habits, but I remember being in a focus group with kids, and we asked the kids to draw [00:26:00] their favorite.. I don’t think we used the word media, kids don’t necessarily know that, but when you come home from school, you know, what do you do?
Draw your pick, draw yourself. And what I was amazed at was that most of them still drew themselves watching television, even though, you know, it was a time when a lot of kids were already embracing whether it was AOL or something else. But I remember that most of the kids in the room, because at the time, remember what computers looked like.
I mean, they were fat things with screens. And so to draw a screen, well, could be a television, could be a computer. The way these kids differentiated was they put rabbit ears on the televisions. This astounded me because these were kids who had never seen rabbit ears in their lives, [Duane laughs] and I always felt it would be a fascinating research [00:27:00] paper on the persistence of rabbit ears in the media landscape.
But, you know, the businesses had started, digital channels had started subsets of the networks themselves. Nickelodeon started Noggin for younger kids. So it was, you know, it was definitely a time when everything had broken loose and there were linear channels, there were digital channels, MTV, and I don’t think we were alone in this, but the network needed to respond to digital meaning online businesses.
So I think a lot of companies may have overreacted and we created a separate business. Don’t remember if it was called ‘MTV Online’ or it was something like that. And as it turned [00:28:00] out, you know, these brands had to transcend different platforms. But at the time we thought platform was more important than brand.
I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets. It was probably not the smartest move the company could have made. And so it a time of figuring it out, but unfortunately, companies spent a lot of money thinking they knew already what to do, that they needed to create a separate entity for online.
But I think what we’ve learned certainly over the next couple of decades was that the brand is the most important thing, and the brand is kind of the thread that goes across all these platforms, the sense was people were gonna consume digital media, especially online media so differently that we better create a separate company and a separate business.
So it became a much more challenging time to be [00:29:00] part of that company because there were a lot of things being pulled in a lot of different directions. And I think at the end of the day, that company really wanted to be siloed, and I was not a siloed person. So I went to another company and did the same exact thing. [laughter]
Duane: Now, from the get-go though, when you came to MTV, you were an outsider, right? I mean, you started the job, you started the gig as an outsider. You were different in a lot of ways culturally from a lot of the other people. And that’s gonna be another persistent feature in your career, is this extent to which you were kind of like this outsider.
So maybe you could talk to us a little bit about what that was like, what that experience was like.
Betsy: It was interesting. Yes, you’re right. I was the outsider, but I was, and you’ll forgive me if I say this, I was famous. I had a reputation on the agency side. I had [00:30:00] been featured in the Sunday Times Arts & Leisure section about my crystal ball, you know, and how I knew television and it was flattering and embarrassing and all of the above.
So I came in as, yes, I was an agency person. If anything, a broadcast television person came into a business that I did not know much about. I mean, you know, we certainly were buying it.
We were working with cable, but I was not born cable, and this was a company that liked people who were born cable. So it took a while. I was part of the executive team. I would be part of the big Tuesday morning meetings, you know, with Tom Preston, Judy McGrath, Herb Scannell, all the big people from the cable [00:31:00] networks.
And I felt like, a bit like an outsider, I mean, I was an outsider, but I felt like, ‘oh my God, what have I done? These people are, you know, they’re so smart, they’re so creative’. They, you know, I may have been an art major, but I never felt that I was creative once I got into the business. But they were great and they looked to me, they seemed to depend on me for answers.
They may have gone off in another direction, but they– I never… once I was there, and once I learned the language, now they have their own language. And if you didn’t know what that language was, you felt… you know, it didn’t help feeling this outsider feeling. But once I became kind of one of them, it was great.
[00:32:00] And you know, then we were hiring a lot of people who did not come from cable, who are also outsiders. I hope I helped them make the transition a little easier.
Duane: Yeah. You’ve had a lot of amazing people work for you, Betsy, in that time.
Betsy: I had, yes, I know.
Duane: It was eight years. [laughter] But wow.
Like, you know, Colleen Fahey-Rush, Barry Blyn … and his friend.
Betsy: When we used to have conferences, and I’d go to conferences, ‘oh, he worked for me, she worked for me, they worked for me’. But there was a woman who was my assistant kind of throughout my whole time at MTV and then also my whole time at Time Inc.
And she would sometimes say, you know, ‘he worked for you’00[laughter] He worked… oh, my God, I forgot all about him. [laughs] So we figured it out.
Duane: Now let’s talk about your transition then. I mean, we could talk all day just about the MTV era, which was very exciting. Then you made this transition to Time Inc. [laughs] A very different [00:33:00] industry. Once again, a big transition.
Betsy: And may I say one other thing about MTV. The networks had their upfronts, their big annual, you know, big announcements to the industry. MTV decided it was gonna do an upfront, and the idea that it didn’t necessarily have new shows that it was introducing, but it was…
You know, wanted to compete with the networks for the same dollars that advertisers were spending. So we would have these amazing upfronts with star power and research and so, you know, John Stewart would be delivering the research from Comedy Central. But I presented at their upfronts a couple of times and I was in their videos.
I mean, so I may have felt like an outsider when I started, but the [00:34:00] people there were incredibly warm and recognized you. If you’ve got talent, they will take you in. So when I left MTV Networks, I was pursued by a couple of things. The one that seemed most, I don’t wanna say fascinating ‘cause it wasn’t fascinating, but it certainly felt like something I had done, was with Time Warner and to run the research at Time Inc., which– so it was, and I kept saying, this includes the video properties, right?
No, this is just the print brands. So, you know, alright, so I had left the agency world, gone to cable, which I knew nothing or very little about, left cable and went to print. You know, it’s all about media brands. It’s all about brands that have a connection [00:35:00] with their audiences.
Regardless of the platform, Time Inc. was going through its own disruption, as you say, when I got there magazines were still king, their circulations were on the rise, people loved magazines. There was a relationship between a reader and her favorite magazine that seemed to transcend anything I had seen on the TV side.
So, and it was the same kind of job, you know. They had individual silos of each magazine, each one had its own research team or research person, and they wanted to see if there was some way to gain some efficiencies and greater effectiveness by overlaying a corporate [00:36:00] level. And, you know, been there, done that. So that was my role. So once again, I had to learn a new medium. I had to learn the metrics of magazine measurements, certainly.
I had to learn more about these brands and what, the research that had been done, what they represented to people. I mean, of course I was familiar with People and Time and In Style and all the other incredible Time Inc. magazines. But once again, I was inheriting a pretty large research team at the cost of what would prove to be a very extremely challenging disruption.
Here digital was really shaking things up as you well know, so circulations began to decline, print [00:37:00] circulations. People were reading, but they were reading online and the economics of that someone had to figure this out. Could we still do all the cover tests that we did when circulation was down so low for People Magazine itself and then mobile was coming onto the scene?
And that was a really exciting time to be in the business because our CEO at the time, knew Steven Jobs, and Jobs wanted Time to be one of the first pieces of content on this new device called the iPad. We did some amazing research from that point. For the next couple of years, we had a lot of [00:38:00] lab work, which I know you’re familiar with.
We had created a Time Warner research lab across all the divisions of the company. We couldn’t have the device itself, so we had to kind of replicate what it would be like, you know, to use your finger, do you use– and what an amazing time to be in research. I mean, talk about an eye opener and an eye tracker also, because people were obviously gonna be reading content differently, and so the content had to be different.
So there were a couple of years just of figuring out, well, the magazine isn’t gonna go away, the website isn’t gonna go away, but now there’s also gonna be a phone and a tablet, an you know, if you have the same story, Jen and [00:39:00] [laughs] whoever, Brad and Jen, I’m going back ways, what goes on which platform.
So for a research person that was terrific. But then clearly the economics of a company that had so much invested in the print platform, you know, could not really survive. And they tried, they tried really hard. They were going to be a digital-first company, which I’m sure is a phrase we heard a lot of companies espouse, but it’s very hard, and I saw it at MTV and I saw it at Time Inc.
It’s very hard for a company that has been born from a certain medium to move to another medium, another platform. I used to think, and I suspect, and I’m not saying that I don’t anymore, that Nielsen had the toughest job in the industry because they had to make sure that [00:40:00] the information they produced today was as good as it could be, so that billions of dollars could be bought and sold today.
But at the same time, they had to be thinking what next week’s media landscape was gonna look like. So it’s like they had to run two companies. But that’s the same thing. It’s very hard for these media companies that started in one place, whether it was the executives who ran the place as well, you know, whose heart and soul and frankly, financial gain was in one place to move as the consumer was moving to a new place. Very challenging.
Duane: Now, there was this enduring thread of a story throughout your whole career around this push to centralize, decentralize, centralize, decentralize, that constant tension. Looking back at your career, and I mean, it’s still [00:41:00] a tension, let’s be real. All organizations still go through that yo-yo.
Looking back at your career, what do you think you have gleaned from that tension?
Betsy: I think what I’ve learned is how important it is to balance the business realities of what we’re doing with the goal of doing great research and coming up with great insights about the consumer. But sometimes you wanna forget that there’s a client involved, but you can never lose that balance between the business aspects of what we do and the research or analytic aspects of what we do.
So I think the most important thing is that the research we’re doing is in support of our businesses. And it’s always good to know what your client would like the research to be. It may not be what the research shows, but we’re [00:42:00] doing this so that our clients can build their businesses better.
Especially as all of these– as media is transforming so rapidly now, it’s just important to remember that we’re not there just to do, you know, cool research. There’s somebody who needs this research to grow their business. I think the other thing that I’ve learned is that research is a PR asset. Research is part of the brand of a company.
Maybe research is like a shorthand for understanding consumers, it certainly was at MTV and it certainly was at Time Inc. And frankly it was at the agency too, where I worked very closely with people from the creative department who did research for their creative productions. So I think it’s important to remember that you’re also part of the brand that’s going into the [00:43:00] company that you’re working for.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because, you know, Nielsen is undergoing new– I don’t know if you’d call them threats, but new RFPs are coming out. There were a lot of issues about how well Nielsen maintained its panel during the pandemic when they couldn’t go into people’s houses. I saw something that I had, I don’t know if I wrote it or an agency said to me: ‘Nielsen is a lie we tell ourselves’. The fact is that the research that you’re doing in the media business again, it’s business research. It’s research to support the business, but it’s also highly critical because we’re working to create a currency. We’re working to create something that will result in, you know, whether it’s billions or it’s, you know, more multi-billions of dollars being traded, bought, and sold, and makes [00:44:00] it even more important that we think about what we do, that it’s always with a business focus in mind.
Duane: And I guess that business focus often tugs things towards the central, you know, more towards the central rather than decentral.
Betsy: I mean, it has up to this point, but, you know, again, I don’t know how these companies are organized today.
Duane: So, Betsy, you’ve been across a number of organizations now where this disruption came in and, you know, the established media player had to figure out how it was going to respond to the new kid on the block. In some ways threatening, in some ways with opportunity and having to grapple with what that means.
Maybe you could tell us what you’ve learned, you know, as you look back across these different organizations faced with this kind of disruption. What have you learned from those encounters?
Betsy: What I’ve [00:45:00] learned is that the tendency among many analysts and business people in the media is that when a new media or a new medium, a new platform, new technology comes along, the initial reaction is to assume that it’s a zero sum gang.
That it won’t be survival across the board. It means that the new player will eventually steal audience from the existing player and that the audience will walk away gladly to embrace a new technology and then they’ll make decisions based on that. Because I’ve seen it happen in organizations that I’ve worked for, and that’s really not the way it works.
You know, I think it’s been said that when we make predictions, and I used to be in the prediction business, things are either faster than we think they’re gonna be, or slower than we think they’re gonna be. Which again, [00:46:00] is kind of like what I think I had said to you that when you’re predicting which TV shows are gonna succeed or fail, all you have to do is predict that everything will fail and then you’re gonna be 85% correct.
But the fact is that we make decisions based on the assumption that consumers will embrace a new platform, a new technology, and will walk away from an existing one. And I think the clearest example of that that I saw was when cable, and especially the major cable networks, the Turner Networks and USA and Lifetime came along, there was an assumption– well, depended on which side of the business you were on, that the cable networks would take audience and therefore take ad dollars away from the broadcast networks.
But the broadcast networks were just as convinced that nothing would ever shake their dominance, especially in [00:47:00] primetime. So you had these two sides and the agencies were trying to play both sides. And again, the thinking was that these cable networks might not challenge networks in primetime, but could certainly challenge at other times and day.
More to the point, even though their individual audiences were small, these were– because this was cable, cable was new, cable was still mostly an upscale purchase that households made so that the audiences that they would take would be the most desirable audiences. They might be small ratings, but they would be the most upscale, youngest audiences.
And I remember this, and I’ve asked Dave Poltrack about it. I’m not sure if he still has a copy of it, but CBS produced something called The Cable Fable that basically wanted to make sure that agencies knew all the negative attributes of cable television and [00:48:00] that it was just nothing but a big puffery.
And the broadcast networks available in every single home, pretty much in the US, had it all. But in order to address some of this back and forth, Nielsen started to produce their share of audience reports. So you could see that the networks in, certainly in primetime, still had maybe 90% of the available audience. Cable had a sliver.
But gradually over the years, you would see that network share start to decline, and the cable shares start to increase. And you could look at it for men, for women, and you would see that. Again, because cable in the early years was a lot of sports. You would see that among men. Cable was making pretty substantial inroads.
But again, everything survived. Everything continued to, in [00:49:00] theory, improve because the competition was more fierce. And so as a result, there was more diversity of programming and perhaps you could argue if you were so inclined, maybe better programming all around because there was competition. So it wasn’t a zero sum game. Right?
So one plus one equals three. And then we saw it again when AOL and the other very early ISPs like, here’s where I date everybody. Who recognizes these names? You know, Prodigy and CompuServe came along and I remember Marshall Cohen who worked there at the time saying, ‘by the year 2000, nobody’s gonna be watching television’.
Everything’s gonna be going on the internet, and of course, AOL was the gateway to get to the internet at the time. And that didn’t happen, by the way, because we’re still [00:50:00] watching a lot of television, so I guess the point that I would make is that more recently you’ve seen these predictions for digital.
You’ve seen them for mobile, you’ve seen them for streaming, that everything is gonna take the place of everything else because consumers will gravitate to the shiniest, you know, newest object. But the important thing to remember is that as long as a medium stays relevant to its audience, fragmentation does certainly not automatically lead to obsolescence or disappearance.
I remember having a presentation that we used to think, and I guess in some areas it’s still true, that if you build it, they will come. But here you could build things, but if the audience wasn’t ready for it they probably wouldn’t come, but when they were ready to come, you better have it built. So it was, it made more sense probably in 1995 [laughs] than it does now.
But, you know, I think that the [00:51:00] most important thing is that new technologies are probably invariably gonna be more seductive to the people who are evaluating them and not necessarily the people who they have been created for. And it’s exciting to contemplate new platforms and new technologies and assume that people are gonna be walking away from everything that exists.
But I think until a consumer is able to see the value, it will not be a one-to-one replacement formula. And I’ve taken a long time to say it, Duane, but this is why the business world will always need research people, not just analytics people, but consumer insights people who can help the businesses understand how consumers are using these technologies.
You know quite well that a lot of the agencies have [00:52:00] produced overall use of time studies to understand, you know, exactly what people were doing. And we started to see that people will, you know, if they wanna keep things in their lives, they will figure out how to do that. Whether that means doing things simultaneously or, we’ve started to see more activity in the overnight hours.
I mean, people will find ways to keep what is important to them and relevant to them in their lives and research needs to be at the forefront of helping businesses understand that.
Duane: It’s a great point. When you look back historically, I mean, this is not a new thing. This goes back, I mean, when movies came along, people were saying theater was dead and there would be no theater. People still go to musical theater and theater today.
When radio came along, people said newspapers were dead. When television came along, people said radio would die. I mean, it’s a consistent, [00:53:00] you know, it’s a consistent thread throughout media history.
Betsy: You’d think we’ve learned. You think we would’ve learned, but it still happens.
Duane: Now you made the decision at the end of your time at Time Inc. You left Time Inc kind of like retiring effectively a bit early, Betsy. What drove that decision for you?
Betsy: You know, this push pull on how to maintain some centralized efficiencies while still making sure that every business got its specialized insights came, you know, how many times do you have to cut your budget to [laughs] somebody to say… Okay, so I said, ‘you know, I’ll show you how to cut this budget. Bye’.
I mean, it wasn’t quite that casual. It’s very challenging. It’s very challenging. I mean, I worked with some great companies at a great, great time [00:54:00] when life was changing and the media landscape was changing, but to know when it’s time to say, ‘you know what? I’m not having fun anymore’. I think that’s important too. You gotta know when to hold them and know when to fold them, you know?
Duane: There you go. There yo go.
Duane: What would your advice be to, I mean, there’s a whole new generation of researchers out there. Most of the jobs that you’ve had don’t even exist anymore. [laughs]
Betsy: Yeah. Most of the companies I work for don’t exist anymore.
Duane: What would your advice be to this, you know, to a new generation of researchers in the media industries?
Betsy: Well, I don’t know if there, if I– I think there’s a lot of data people, you know, there’s data analytics and there’s consumer insights, and I’m not sure how organizations are set up anymore.
I loved consumer insights. I think even if you are a data person, I would say don’t [00:55:00] lose sight of the fact that every piece of data you’re looking at represents a consumer and these are people that you’re trying to understand. And again, to go back to what I said earlier, it’s about understanding these people in order to make somebody’s business grow.
Duane: Well, thanks, Betsy. What a wonderful and inspiring career. Again, I come back to that theme of the six degrees of separation. How many legends that we’ll be interviewing, you know, used to actually work with you.
Betsy: I’m not sure, I’m not sure. I mean, the ones that you’ve mentioned so far, those are big guys, you know. [laughs]
But it’s possible you may be interviewing dome people who worked for me, but I remember it was always fun to be at these conferences and, you know, be surrounded by them. Do you remember me? You know, I worked for you. [laughs]
Duane: I think in [00:56:00] particular another real distinguishing feature of your career was your courage in always being willing to embrace a new challenge that was a completely new world, a new universe, and your ability to kind of like step into those roles, you know, in a new space as an outsider and and take charge and help navigate through the challenges of the day.
Betsy: I think that that’s what makes it interesting.
And even when, you know, the years that I was at Saatchi, I mean, we could talk about some of the way that company changed. You know, whether that or whether Saatchi’s, and there was always some new executive that I had to brief on what we were doing. But I don’t think there’s anything that is, that doesn’t change.
I mean, that must be really boring when things don’t change at all.
Duane: Well, you’ve embraced change, that’s for sure. [laughter] So thanks again, Betsy.
Betsy: Thank you so much for asking me, Duane. [00:57:00]
Duane: We learned a lot today about managing for change, about the constant tension between centralized and decentralized management, at least as it pertains to the research function.
And I think about having the guts to take on new roles. I mean, people are often faced with a job move into a new arena where they’re not sure if they have adequate command to take on the new terrain, but they can always look back at your inspiration, Betsy, and say, ‘if Betsy can do it, I can do it’. [laughs] So that’s it for this episode.
Thanks again, Betsy, and a big thank you to you, the audience, for joining us today. Remember to subscribe or follow this podcast, tell your friends about it, and leave us a rating or review. And if you’d like, stick around after the podcast for a quick message about MediaScience, the leader in media innovation research.
Until next time, I’m MediaScience CEO, Dr. Duane Varan, thanking you for your company today.[00:58:00]
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