Dr. Poltrack had some interesting news for a group of CBS executives trying to sort out the network’s primetime schedule in 1992. The patient wasn’t sick at all.
Before “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” launched on CBS in 1993, few of the network’s executives fought to get the show on the air. No one thought viewers would flock to a Western period drama with wholesome themes. The ad-sales team complained they couldn’t get anyone to sponsor it. David Poltrack, the company’s research chief, had done audience testing. And he said it proved the show would be “through the roof.”
After some back and forth, “Quinn” premiered Jan. 1, 1993, with nine full episodes at the ready. ”It got a huge rating. It was an instant success,” Poltrack recalled. “It lasted six seasons, produced 149 episodes. And we owned it. It was on ION. It’s on Amazon. It was on in over 100 countries.”
Poltrack, often given the title of “Doctor” by colleagues, has for years used data and research to prove things others might dismiss on gut instinct. He has spent decades proving the viability of hundreds of TV series pilots and warding off dire predictions about the effectiveness of TV advertising in a world that is increasingly reliant on digital technology. And he may be the TV’s industry’s longest-serving academic, having taught as an adjunct professor for the past 40 years at both NYU Stern School of Business and the Steinhardt School of Education. But he is getting ready to let others take up the fight for the next generation.
Poltrack will retire from CBS at the end of June, having served 50 years at the company, most recently as its chief research officer. The move has been planned for years, he told Variety. Four years ago, he expressed a desire to work until he completed his 50th year with the company, and CBS agreed so long as he set up a transition to a successor. He will be 74 when he steps down next year.
Radha Subramanyam, who was named executive VP and chief research and analytics officer of CBS Television Network in November 2017, will take the baton from Poltrack. She will be responsible for overseeing all research operations, including audience measurement, analytics, market research, program testing and advertising research for the company. Poltrack will spend the next few months doing research about media consumption; brand equity of broadcast networks in new media, and the long-term outlook for broadcast networks.
Those projects will cap off a career of delving into viewership habits; patterns in ad spending; and demographic studies. “I don’t know how many more people are left out there that do that kind of stuff,” Alan Wurtzel, the former NBCUniversal research chief, told Variety. ”I don’t really see that many people these days dealing with the media research and the bigger picture.”
One could argue Poltrack is stepping down at a time when broadcast networks need his support the most. Viewers are moving to TV programs they can binge-watch with the help of a subscription video-streaming service. The move has prompted new prognostications about TV’s demise – along with the advertising that supports it.
Some broadcast-TV executives might admit defeat. But Poltrack believes the broadcast outlets have a good chance of thriving in the new future. He thinks the rise of so-called “skinny bundles” – or niche packages of TV programming – will favor broadcast outlets, not cable networks that have long collected high programming fees from distributors. And he believes new technology will allow the broadcasters to insert commercials tailored to smaller groups of viewers – and get a better price from advertisers for doing so.
“I’m retiring from CBS,” he says. “I’m not retiring as a champion of broadcast network advertising.”
Poltrack joined CBS in 1969 after a stint working at Ted Bates Advertising. He has worked at several different iterations of the company, which during his time has been controlled by William Paley; Laurence Tisch; Westinghouse Corp.; and, for the past 18 years, Sumner Redstone’s National Amusements.
He has spent a great deal of time fighting back against narratives about new technology ruining broadcast TV’s dominance. Over the years, some of the major studies he has pioneered examined broadcast’s market share as cable began to gain traction; called for measurement of TV audiences to break free of reliance on viewers between 18 and 49; and pushed back on the notion that fast-forwarding of commercials via DVR would spread to such an extent that TV ads would no longer work.
“I would argue that, right now, broadcast television is still the fundamental basis for our media marketplace and the government should do everything thing in their power to keep it that way,” Poltrack said. “It’s what is unique about this country – people have always had free access to television, and that has a lot of value.”
He has also devoted hours to researching how people watch TV, and used his findings to determine whether a pilot would be a hit or miss for CBS. In 2001, he opened CBS’ Television City research facility in Las Vegas, where the company examines not only whether people like specific programs, but also the various ways they watch the shows. The facility has findings about some 700 pilots in its database.
Executives take his research seriously. “It is easy sometimes to get lost in the blocking and tackling involving development and putting shows on the air,” CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl told Variety. “David always reminded us that there was somebody out there on the other end of the signal watching those shows for whom that show meant a lot.”
Poltrack’s time delving into statistics and studies has helped him grasp concepts before others. These days, more advertisers are eager to use data and technology to find more specific audiences, like first-time car buyers or expectant mothers. Poltrack’s call for better audience segmentation “was way ahead of the curve,” Jo Ann Ross, CBS’ president and chief advertising revenue officer, told Variety.
He may not have a perch at CBS’ Black Rock headquarters in New York after next June, but Poltrack says he will be eager to keep having conversations about where the medium is headed. “I’ll keep talking,” he said.