As senior VP of research for Fox Broadcasting, Melva Benoit knows human behavior well. So it didn't take long to spot the unease of her new colleagues when she arrived from NBC in 2004. Researchers, in the common view, are heartless number-crunchers.
To succeed, Benoit realized that she had to convey research's usefulness in key programming decisions. That's what she had done earlier in her career at Comedy Central, where the focus-group research she conducted played a critical role in development of The Daily Show and South Park.
She brought in outside experts to provide insights into human behavior. For example, Fox executives learned that, from age 2, people take only one or two weeks to break a habit. That information affirmed Fox's strategy of scheduling 24 straight through without repeats.
Today, Benoit “has gained the respect of all of her peers” while becoming “invaluable to all areas of the company,” says her boss, Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research.
“They're actually happy to see me in the room now,” Benoit says. “It's like, 'Oh, you're going to help me. You're not here to be a show-killer.'”
Soon she plans a trip to middle America to study how real viewers watch TV in their homes.
But Benoit's biggest immediate priority is the imminent birth of her second daughter, who will join her 2½-year-old sibling at home. Benoit might be better prepared than others to deal with the demands of motherhood and a high-pressure job, having gained some insights during research jobs at Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and The Disney Channel.
“Kids are much more honest and direct than adults,” she says. Sometimes, when dealing with creative types with fragile egos, kids' bluntness “makes simple things just a bit harder.”
One lasting memory of that was a focus group of 8- and 9-year-olds, who were brutally honest with the creator of Powder Puff Girls. She recalls that the producer “was literally in the fetal position by the time it was over.”