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Susan Whiting, President and CEO, Nielsen Media Research

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During Stern’s CEO Series on February 8, 2006, Susan Whiting, President and CEO of Nielsen Media Research, sat down with USA Today media reporter David Lieberman to discuss the evolution of measuring television programming as new technologies have changed how consumers watch TV.

In front of an audience of Stern MBA and undergraduate students and alumni, Ms. Whiting discussed how Nielsen Media, a 80-year old company, has become the sole independent “auditor” of TV viewership, providing ratings data to broadcasters and advertising companies. Ms. Whiting spoke about the many ways the company gets its data from viewers in 210 U.S. markets, including written diaries and the relatively new “people meters.” For people meters, each household member is assigned a number which stores his/her demographics (i.e., age, gender, income level, etc.). Each time a household member, who can be as young as two years old, turns on their television set, he punches in his number to track the programs he watches.

With the advent of TiVo and other TV recording devices, Nielsen introduced new ratings reports in December to measure when people watch a show live, within 24 hours and within seven days of a program’s original airing. While these reports are too new to show viewership trends, advertisers and broadcasters are already trying to anticipate how this data will affect advertising prices, with advertisers arguing that consumers who use TV recording devices are more likely to fast-forward through commercials. Since its data affects both broadcasters and advertisers, Nielsen is often caught playing referee. Ms. Whiting commented that as CEO, she spends a great deal of her time educating both customers (broadcasters and advertisers) to Nielsen’s measurement methods and the reliability of the data, but tries hard not to get involved in any interpretation discussions.

Ms. Whiting recognized that customers are changing how they choose to view content, as iPods and mobile phones have become alternatives to watching programs on TV screens. Eventually, Nielsen hopes to measure viewing habits through these new devices. While the majority of people still watch programs during their original scheduled time on television sets, Ms. Whiting is paying attention to the way advertisers are reaching their customers beyond the 30-second commercial by using sponsorship (Domino’s sponsored the Superbowl pre-game show) and product placement (judges of “American Idol” drinking Coke) as ways to get their products in front of consumers.

Although not aspiring to be CEO when she first started out at Nielsen more than 25 years ago, Ms. Whiting acknowledges that her hard work, curiosity and willingness to tackle a variety of assignments were factors that contributed to her career success. She also credits her breadth of experience at Nielsen as a key reason she was ultimately tapped for the top job.

Watch Ms. Whiting's interview in its entirety.