Media All-Stars 2003: Research – Steve Sternberg

With his experience, the numbers game becomes not only easy to understand but also a useful tool.

At first glance, steve sternberg, executive vp and director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA, and this year’s Media All-Star in research, is a lot like every other research executive in the TV business. On a daily basis, he scrutinizes the TV landscape, examining the national ratings that come in from Nielsen Media Research. He identifies which shows are on the way up and which are on their way out. He finds trends, he issues reports. And he takes calls from the press.

But Sternberg isn’t your average research exec. Hints of his true identity, developed over the past 24 years, can be found in his office and home. Both are peppered with vast collections of pop culture from animation art to Sternberg’s childhood collection of 5,000 comic books.

When the network TV business runs into a tough question, like the recent case of the missing young male viewing audience, Sternberg goes into his office, sits down at his computer and becomes his alter ego, The Green Shade. His fingers fly over the keyboard, parsing Nielsen numbers and analyzing network television and cable lineups. Was it Nielsen that killed off the young males in its sample, or did the networks starve them out of existence? Only The Green Shade knows for sure.

“It’s my job to identify an issue, break it down, pull the data apart, dig beneath the data, and put it back together again, often in a different form and in a way anyone can understand it, so that when they read it they say, ‘Yes, that’s the answer,'” says Sternberg, who prides himself on making research palatable to the average person.

While he’s known for weeding through the numbers, The Green Shade also relies on his affinity to pop culture—heroes like Spiderman, cartoon icons like the Simpsons. “People don’t tune in for the plots, they tune in for the characters,” he asserts. No wonder his track record for picking which shows will soar and which shows will flop is legendary.

“There’s a tendency in this industry to think you have to prove everything,” he says. “You don’t have to prove the sky is blue. Certain things are common sense. There is so much mediocre research out there that gets used because there’s nothing else to use. I’d rather use nothing.”

The television industry first became aware of our hero when he came up with a new way to define networks by median age. Soon, his approach became standard practice in evaluating the different appeal of network audiences.

“He does seem to explain what is going on in ways that are grounded and easily understood,” says Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting, who first became enamored of Sternberg’s analyses when he headed up research at the younger-skewing WB network. “He doesn’t let statistics get in the way of simple understanding of audiences.”

It was that kind of thinking that landed Sternberg at Magna when it was founded two years ago to pool the TV buying clout of agency shops Universal McCann and Initiative Media. Critical to any negotiation between the media and the advertiser is the currency on which advertising is bought and sold, and Magna needed a researcher to cut through the ratings bravado of the media.

“I hadn’t really known him, but he had a reputation that could give us the visibility we needed in research and help put Magna on the map,” says Bill Cella, chairman and founder of Magna Global. “He provides us with a topline insight that helps us when we go to the bargaining table.”

“He has a mind that wraps around a question that most other researchers don’t do. He’ll open the box from the bottom and turn it on its side,” says Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vp and director of global research integration for Initiative Media, who considers Sternberg her mentor.

Like many in advertising, Sternberg got his start in the business because he originally wanted to be on the creative side. In the end, it was his winning personality that landed him his first job as media analyst at Ted Bates in 1979. “I got my job because I smiled when they said $9,000 a year,” he says.

At Bates, Sternberg soon found that his new job in television research required superhuman powers. That was the beginning for The Green Shade. “There were no computers,” he says, recalling that “I did manual post-buys, using a pencil, a calculator and huge spreadsheets. It took two hours to evaluate just one plan.”

The job at Bates led to a position as manager of broadcast research for McCann Erickson from 1982-1986, followed by a stint as senior vp of broadcast research for TN Media. Despite all the recent consolidation and reorganization in the business, Sternberg’s powers keep him employed and active in a number of industry committees, including the AAAA Media Research Committee, the Media Rating Council Television Committee, and Nielsen Media Research’s Customer Expert Committee.

But unlike a lot of researchers, Sternberg tends not to get into heated discussions, even about Nielsen Media Research, the only TV ratings game in town. “It’s easy to bash Nielsen,” he says. “They have a lot of different constituents, and when they make one happy, they anger another.”

The Green Shade’s powers have matured since those early pencil-and-paper days. Now Sternberg is looking ahead to the next incarnation of TV and the effects of TiVo and personal video recorders on viewing. He’s already planning his next move based on the new realities, asking, “How will it be measured? Do we know what people are playing back? Are they recording broadcast more than cable? Will viewing of a show be counted if it’s played back more than a week later?” Luckily for the television community, The Green Shade is ready to find the answers. Katy Bachman covers local media and research as a senior editor for Mediaweek.