A Short History of Audience Research

I recently sat down with David Poltrack, the executive vice president, research and planning, for CBS Television Network. Poltrack, who is highly respected in the research field, gave me a primer on the history and methods of audience research, which has come to have a significant influence on the news. Below you'll find a brief history of audience research over the years, based largely on my interview with Poltrack. In other posts this week, I'll discuss the methods used by researchers, and look at the audience breakdown for "The Early Show," which sheds a light on why producers choose the stories they do.

Audience research is just what it sounds like: Research designed to reveal what a particular audience looks like and is interested in. Television ratings, which reflect what people are watching, are an indispensable tool in audience research, but research goes beyond ratings to delve into peoples' preferences. Researchers looking at the news might ask a group of people to rank their interest in topics like international news and health issues. They might discuss with a focus group which kinds of personal finance stories they want to see. And they might ask for feedback that will yield a news anchor's "Q rating" – his or her appeal to an audience. I'll get into audience research methodology in greater detail in my next post, but first, here's a quick look at how research came to play a role in the news.

In the early days of television, news directors had little use for audience research – it was far more the province of entertainment programming. The network news was only 15 minutes, and with so little time, the focus was almost exclusively on which stories had the most journalistic merit. But by the 1970s and 1980s the news was changing: Local stations were expanding their broadcasts to an hour or longer, and the compelling stories of the day no longer filled the time. Producers needed to know what kinds of stories would keep the audience. And so they embraced research.

Viewers, researchers concluded, wanted "useful information" – stories that were relevant to the way they live their lives – in addition to the traditional news. Suddenly, stories about health, finance, and consumer concerns began popping up on the local news. Soon the network morning shows turned to research as well.

They had plenty of reasons to do so. Like local newscasts, the morning shows had longer running times, and research helped producers figure out which lifestyle-type stories best held an audience. The morning shows also relied on a team of correspondents instead of a lone anchor, and audience research allowed producers to see the audiences' response to various on-air personalities, who in some cases played a larger role in the broadcast than the content itself. (Examples of this type of personality abound, though perhaps there is no better than NBC weatherman Al Roker.) And the research helped producers better understand the audience, which, in the morning, is divided into two distinct segments with very different needs: People who are in transit and watch briefly before beginning their day, and people who stay home and are more likely to be there for the whole two hours.

The evening newscasts, by contrast, resisted research into the 1980s, preferring instead to rely on journalistic instinct. But circumstances would soon intervene to change that: CNN launched and immediately provided 'round-the-clock competition, and the local stations started covering national news in their expanded broadcasts, an area that had traditionally been the networks' turf. Soon, the evening news audience began to shrink. "The question was, if a national network news was going to be the third half hour you see in a newsblock, how do you prevent it from being redundant, when the local news is able to give people a lot of information about the leading stories?," says Poltrack.

The answer, at first, anyway, was franchise pieces like "Eye on America," which might spend a week on a topic largely unrelated to the news of the day. Eventually, the kinds of lifestyle pieces that had traditionally been the province of the morning shows came to the nightly news broadcasts, which increasingly offer stories about topics such as the pressure on kindergartners that would not have traditionally made the broadcast. The development has troubled news purists, who complain that there should be more focus on "hard" news in the nightly news broadcasts – and thus have little love for researchers. Those who value research, meanwhile, argue that with the Internet and cable news offering consumers their fix of news whenever they want it, the nightly newscasts have to provide a mix of traditional news and lifestyle features in order to compete. And research, they say, is merely a tool to help figure out what sorts of features people want to see.