Managing Change in the TV-Ratings Biz

Whiting has helped grow new business at Nielsen

Conventional wisdom has it that you have to move along to get ahead in the corporate world. But don't tell that to Susan Whiting, president and CEO of Nielsen Media Research. She has been with Nielsen her entire career, starting in the company's newly established management-trainee program back in 1978.

Of course, in the TV-ratings biz, once you decide that's the game you want to play, you have very little choice but to work for Nielsen. But credit Whiting with climbing a corporate ladder that has changed hands three times, including a stint as an independent publicly traded company, before being bought by Netherlands-based VNU in 2000.

Whiting joined Nielsen when it was a family-owned company based in suburban Chicago and run by the founder's son, Arthur C. Nielsen Jr. (Whiting still keeps in touch with Nielsen, now 84, who has no formal role at the company but is still interested in what goes on there).

After completing the management-trainee program, she was transferred to New York, where she was attached to a new-business-development unit. It was there that she got hooked on the ratings business.

"I love building businesses and putting teams of people together," she says. Part of what that unit was all about was listening to clients and their needs and problems and basically coming up with solutions that spawned new businesses.

One of the biggest was the Nielsen Home Video Index, the company's cable-measurement service. "A lot of what we were doing was looking at custom research and helping people with business plans who were starting new television venture."

Her work in that area was going on just as the fledgling cable industry was starting to get serious about generating big bucks from advertising-supported programming services.

In 1986, after five years of helping to develop, shape and manage the cable ratings system (among other initiatives), Whiting was named vice president of Nielsen Home Video Index. At the time, it had no clients. Now it has 65 cable-network clients and hundreds of local-cable customers.

In 1987, she took on the additional responsibility of marketing for NHI. In 1997, she became general manager, national services and emerging markets (which developed such new businesses as ad-tracking service Nielsen Monitor Plus). In that role, she was in charge of sales and marketing of Nielsen services to the broadcast networks, syndicators, ad agencies and cable clients.

She was named president and chief operating officer of the company in 2001, assuming day to day management responsibility for the company. In January 2002, she added the title of chief executive officer.

The challenges going forward are enormous; the biggest, of course, involves implementing the largest expansion of the TV-ratings system in its 50-year history. The expansion includes shifting the nine other top-10 markets (Boston is done) to local people meter service, expanding the national household ratings sample from 5,000 to 10,000 homes and implementing new digital meters across that sample base.

As CEO, Whiting travels extensively. Almost half her time is spent away from her New York base.

But she doesn't mind the travel. Being in airplanes comes naturally. As she was growing up, her father owned and operated a regional air courier service. "We had an airstrip and two planes in our backyard," she recalls. And regularly scheduled rides in the plane with Dad were a part of her life.

Having grown up in rural Wisconsin, she is fond of country living, nature and the environment. She's a member of the board of trustees of Chicago's Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. She divides her time between New York and Connecticut and recently finished building a house in her hometown of Lake Geneva, Wis., where she still has family.