NBC Chief Researcher Needs Skills of a Diplomat

Alan Wurtzel on Maintaining Standards and Parsing Ratings

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Strolling through the art deco lobby of NBC's legendary headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (aka 30 Rock), a group of scruffy young men call out their hellos to network research chief Alan Wurtzel, 59. He introduces them as comedy writers on "Saturday Night Live."
NBC's research chief, Alan Wurtzel: 'My job is not to say no but to say yes in a way that meets everybody's objectives.'
NBC's research chief, Alan Wurtzel: 'My job is not to say no but to say yes in a way that meets everybody's objectives.'

One might wonder why a guy from the corporate floor would be fraternizing with the "creatives," so by way of explanation he offered: "I'm also the standards-and-practices guy."

He's not, however, anything like the screaming corporate suit on NBC's high-profile new show "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" who demands that a producer cut a contentious skit from a live comedy show, which is loosely based on NBC's very real "SNL." Mr. Wurtzel's standards-and-practices role involves reviewing more than 50,000 commercials in addition to program content.

"The thing that's challenging is that society is moving and TV wants to be contemporary, but we have the FCC indecency thing hanging over us, and there's a bit of ambiguity," he said.

Keeping everyone happy
"My job is not to say no but to say yes in a way that meets everybody's objectives," Mr. Wurtzel said, cautiously sidestepping any dramatic anecdotes about the network's "Book of Daniel." The show was canceled after religious groups cried foul.

Mr. Wurtzel has been in the news of late because he's a central player in the debate over commercial ratings. His role is that of a diplomat, and he plays it well. Mr. Wurtzel late last month hosted the first commercial-ratings meeting at NBC in conjunction with Mediaedge:cia and urged participants to think not of their own short-term interests but the long-term interests of the industry.

Mr. Wurtzel described the meeting and subsequent exchanges as an "interesting psychological experiment. A lot of it is emotion-based. People are very resistant to change. Everybody has to recognize that they have to take chances. It's not going to be a smooth run."

Commercial-ratings debate
The commercial-ratings debate hinges on issues such as whether Nielsen Media Research is producing faulty data for cable and whether advertisers want ratings based on an average performance per program or some other metric. Mr. Wurtzel's meeting ended with many unanswered questions, but Nielsen did agree to label its commercial ratings data "custom research" and "experimental" and delay cable ratings until they're more accurate.

"What I like about him is that he understands the numbers better than anybody," said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at Mediaedge:cia, New York. "He understands the real world and how to apply it. He is just as comfortable talking to a programming chief as an ad guy. He's very good at being able to explain to people things that are relatively complicated and scientific in terms you can understand."

So what does Mr. Wurtzel's day job involve as president-research and media development at NBC Universal TV Group?

"It's anything from questions like 'How did we do last night?' to 'What will the consumer look like, and will we be there?'" he said.

How exclusive should content be?
He's also dealing with issues such as how exclusive or nonexclusive NBC content ought to be in the digital universe. Mr. Wurtzel said he's careful not to project his own obsessive media habits onto the ordinary consumer, since he's something of gadget guy. He admitted to owning every iteration of the iPod and to self-installing an antenna on his roof to get high-definition reception before anyone had even heard of HD.

One of Mr. Wurtzel's big frustrations is people who deal in myths, not facts. He said young people are often accused of not being interested in news, and while they're not as interested in it as older folks are, they do seek out news -- just in different places. Another myth? What actually constitutes mass media. Mr. Wurtzel said people often think of devices such as the video iPod as mainstream, even though only 3 million to 4 million consumers own one. "Mainstream is 50%" of the population, he contended.

Career path
Mr. Wurtzel began his career thinking he'd like to be a TV director but instead wound up writing books about TV production and later earning a Ph.D. He lectured at the University of Georgia before winning a post at ABC, where he rose through the ranks before joining NBC in 1999.

Returning to the lobby, Mr. Wurtzel admitted he once roamed the NBC studios, sneaking in to watch contestants being challenged on game shows. He probably never imagined the challenges of his job would one day figure into the plotline of an NBC drama.
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