Knack for Stats Pays Off for 'TV Jack'

Former academic Wakshlag studies how people watch TV

From the halls of Indiana University to the Turner Broadcasting headquarters in Atlanta, Jack Wakshlag keeps schooling others in television research.

Wakshlag, Turner's chief research officer, has always been a television fanatic: When he was growing up, his family called him TV Jack. But it wasn't until college that Wakshlag found that he could make a career studying how others watch TV.

The New York City native dabbled in a few majors at Queens College before he aced a statistics class. Wakshlag had a knack for stats and research—"a gift or a curse," he quips—and could pull out patterns in numbers. At Illinois State University, where he was working on his master's, Wakshlag began to study the social effects of television. He went one step further, earning a PhD in TV research from Michigan State University.

For 10 years, Wakshlag was a blissful academic, teaching television courses at Indiana University and conducting his own research. He says teaching college gave him valuable tools that he still draws today.

"Whether you're talking with managers or staffers, they don't all learn the same way," Wakshlag said. "You learn to explain things in two or three or four ways."

Wakshlag got his first taste of the business side of the TV industry while on sabbatical in Britain in the 1980s. He was working with the Independent Broadcast Authority (the U.K. version of the FCC), studying the effects that introducing commercials on British networks could have on actors' wages. He returned home with thoughts of doing more consulting work for American networks.

Back in New York, Wakshlag stopped by the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau to see an old friend and discuss his options. While he was there, someone from CBS called, looking for candidates to head its station group research. "It was just plain luck," recalls Wakshlag. He stayed at CBS for 10 years, eventually adding new-media research to his watch.

When colleagues at Warner Bros. suggested he meet with The WB founder Jamie Kellner, Wakshlag took the bait. They met just as The WB was getting off the ground, and Wakshlag was enticed by the plans for creating the fledgling broadcast network.

"The WB was going young, and CBS was the classic, standard American broadcast network," he says. "This place was being built from the start."

Wakshlag and his research expertise helped build almost every department. "What we do," he says of TV researchers "is manage information and get it into a form that helps people make decisions."

He aided the marketers with their campaigns and watched over ad-sales research. One of his favorite duties was advising programmers on development and scheduling.

One example of the effect of Wakshlag's research on The WB: the realization that Buffy the Vampire Slayer
was a strong enough show to anchor its own night. Originally, the show aired after drama 7th Heaven. WB programmers like Jordan Levin and Susan Daniels loved the show, but other execs were concerned that it was too action-heavy. Wakshlag's team culled research showing viewers knew—and loved—Buffy for its action.

"This was a show that was bringing in viewers from other networks, not leaning on its lead-in," Wakshlag says. "We moved it to Tuesdays with a great deal of confidence."

When Kellner, following the AOL Time Warner merger, headed to Atlanta to become chairman of Turner Broadcasting, he recruited Wakshlag to join him. Once again, Wakshlag found an enticing opportunity. And he became a student again, learning the ropes of the cable business.

In broadcast, he tracked a handful of competitors. Now his networks battle almost 50 Nielsen-rated channels and an array of digital upstarts.

As always, Wakshlag is a quick study. "The average person watches 14 channels a week," he says. "The first challenge [in cable] is to be in that 14. The second is to be strongly in the top 14."