The first time I met Radha Subramanyam was when she was a fledgling researcher with Comedy Central decades ago at a conference much like the one upcoming in Nashville this month. It was at one of those decadent client dinners that a particularly generous vendor was throwing, and I honestly can’t remember when or where it specifically was. Frankly, the food and the venue is never what’s memorable. The people are, especially if the vendor had an open bar policy, which clearly she, I, and our mutual friends were taking full advantage of that night.
Her lanyard was hidden from view when she introduced herself by her full name, the noise at the bar muffling her voice. Our mutual friend then repeated her last name to me and he challenged me to spell it. She smirked in my direction and mouthed, “Go ahead, spell it”. Little did she know that I my dad was being taken care of by a family of Indian descent, so spelling Subramanyam was second nature to me. She feigned being impressed.
As the evening went on, she proceeded to lecture me on what she saw as the failings of ratings, the quality of my network’s programming (this was pre-SHIELD, she wasn’t wrong) and even the color scheme for my suit. I was unusually quiet that night since I knew she was spot on. At the end of the night I remarked to my friend “This one’s gonna go places”.
I wasn’t wrong.
Radha worked her way into a position where she eventually succeeded the legendary Dave Poltrack as the head of research for CBS. Anyone who knew Dave knew he was a genius, a mensch and had the ear of every legendary personality at the Tiffany network for half a century. William Paley, Walter Cronkite and Les Moonves all listened intently to him when he gave a ratings debriefing or the results of his program testing. Dave even developed a way for program testing to become a profit center for the network, forging an alliance with the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to provide a venue where people from all over the country regularly traveled, guaranteeing a nationally projectable sample. He developed a system where no one was turned away from a screening but only the results of participants who met the desired target demographics were included in analysis. He made sure the air conditioning was cranked up, not the smallest detail when it’s 100 degrees outside. And, being CBS, people always wanted to see the shows, as the expectation was they’d probably be great. CBS was frequently America’s most-watched network, so expectations were always high. All he needed to incentive people was a pen with the eye logo and a discount coupon for merchandise at the swag store next door.
Dave was a crucial part of several regimes of extraordinarily talented executives who propelled CBS to the mantle of being considered the Tiffany Network and after some missteps in the 90s (Central Park West, anyone?) helped re-establish the mix, tone and habit that has now kept them as America’s most-watched network for 14 consecutive years. When he stepped aside four years ago he left on top.
So Subramanyam has stepped into some pretty daunting shoes, and she’s had to run a ship in an industry that’s hit more than a few icebergs recently. Linear audiences have declined precipitously. Traditional measurement companies have struggled to accurately measure them during unprecedentedly challenging times. The development and deployment of content has pivoted to multiplatform; indeed, the CBS brand is now hand-in-hand with the new name of the parent company, Paramount, and audience garnered via Paramount+ is as crucial to monetization and brand performance as that of the Eye.
Yes, the captain of the research ship has changed, and clearly so have the times. But yet, there are some constants. CBS still has the longest running prime time series (60 MINUTES), the longest-running daytime show (THE PRICE IS RIGHT), the number one new comedy (GHIOSTS) and the number one new drama (NCIS: HAWAII). You can still find both Tom Selleck and Magnum on their air as one could 40 years ago, although they’re on separate shows these days. And nowadays, since sweeps are kind of passe, they’ve already declared their season victory not even halfway through the May ratings period and a week ahead of upfronts. And despite what streaming has collectively done to the industry, CBS still commands more eyeballs on most evenings than any other entertainment option. Plenty of Sunday afternoons in the fall, too, despite having a lot of Jets games in their largest market.
Radha’s been outspoken about the challenges she and her team face and has not been shy about expressing her concerns publicly. She’s pushing hard for new and improved ways to look at audience performance and engagement as the definition of television evolves. And, best of all, she’s prepared to share her viewpoints in person in Nashville at this year’s Media Insights and Engagement Conference.
And if you haven’t already guessed, you can see her and many other experts by clicking on the link below to register, and if you message me you can do so at a substantial discount.
Just please remember how to spell her name. I think these days it’s P-R-E-S-I-D-E-N-T?
Until next time…