CBS's Most Valuable Employee for the Last 40 Years Is on the Mend After a Heart Attack and Bypass Surgery. He Cannot Wait to Get Back to Work. How a Modest Gentleman Has Risen to the Top, Thriving in the Shark-Infested Waters That Are the TV Business
Lionel Trilling, the wonderful teacher of literature, in trying to articulate the greatness of Chekhov, wrote, “Whoever tries to account for the peculiar charm of Chekhov’s work will sooner or later touch upon a certain personal trait of the author … modesty.”
When one thinks of the history of top CBS executives over the last 40 years -- Paley, Stanton, Wyman, Tisch, Stringer, Karmazin, Redstone and Moonves -- modest is not the word to describe any of them.
But modest is actually a fitting adjective to describe the one man who, I would argue, has been the most important CBS employee over the 40-year time span those executives were -- or are -- at CBS.
This employee first joined the network in 1969, and over the years has been responsible for market research, advertising research, program testing and audience measurement. Bottom line, TV is a business and CBS has thrived over the years by raking in billions of dollars in this business. So, bottom line, if one is responsible for market research, advertising research, program testing and audience measurement -- the latter being the currency that allows CBS to make the money it does -- then that person, arguably, is CBS’s most valuable employee.
That person is David Poltrack.
Many of us have been shocked to learn that the ageless Poltrack -- truly CBS’s Iron Man -- suffered a heart attack several weeks ago. Fortunately, he received treatment in a timely fashion -- a triple bypass -- and is eager to return to work. Said CBS in a statement to TVWeek, “Dave is doing very well. His recovery is going great and he looks forward to getting back to work as soon as his doctor gives him the green light. He expresses gratitude to all who have reached out to inquire about his progress.”
Not only is Poltrack modest, he’s a gentleman. And in any gathering of people in the TV business, he’s usually the smartest person in the room. He’s the secret weapon of Les Moonves, Nina Tassler and Jo Ann Ross, and I’d be surprised if any of them would not say so themselves.
Most folks who do quantitative analysis like Poltrack does are usually the bane of those in the creative community. But I’ve never met any creative executive who does not like Poltrack.
That’s because, by nature, Poltrack is a teacher and a mentor. He’s both a terrific listener and explainer. Remember the brainiac friend with the seemingly infinite amount of patience you always went to in school who could really make clear to you the arithmetic or algebra or geometry problem you couldn’t understand? That’s Dave.
In his spare time -- and I’ve never known anyone who works as hard as Poltrack, so I’ve never understood how he’s had any spare time -- he’s an Adjunct Professor at New York University. Has been for years. He’s taught marketing at the grad schools at NYU and Columbia and is a visiting professor at a grad school in Beijing and God knows where else.
He genuinely loves helping people learn. So for any reporter on the TV beat who wants to have the intricacies of measurement explained to him or her, Poltrack has always taken the time to explain those intricacies. He’s certainly made me an infinitely better reporter.
And he’s someone who’s always been right on top of the latest trends and the newest tools.
For example, check out this account of a public appearance Poltrack made just this past December. It’s by Bill Niemeyer, who writes about digital media for The Diffusion Group:
“CBS Chief Research Officer David Poltrack spoke at the UBS Media and Communications Conference on Monday and said (as reported by Multichannel News), ‘... a viewer streaming our program online is now worth substantially more to us than a person watching that program in playback mode and skipping many of the commercials. ... In fact, the value of the online viewer is now surpassing that of the live viewer as well. Poltrack added (as reported by MediaPost), ‘This is a significant tipping point.’
“Wow -- quite an observation coming from someone who's been the CBS research chief for 17 years. And he's right, this is a tipping point. It's no longer a question of whether online and other digital platforms like OTT can monetize video content better than TV (at least on a per-viewer basis); it's now a question of how fast can business practices and consumer behavior change to leverage this knowledge.
“How did CBS get to this tipping point? While widely known that online runs of primetime broadcast TV shows generate higher CPMs than live TV runs, the total revenue generated per show has been lower for online due to its lower ad loads. Poltrack says that CBS is now running 10-14 ads/hour for online programming, much greater than the 5-6 ads/hour when CBS and the other big four broadcast nets first started showing episodes online. And a lot lower than the nominal 32/hour of national ads, local ads, and promos seen in live TV.”
Poltrack has also made the astute observation that one of the effects of the Internet and social media is that if someone suggests or insists you watch some TV program they like or love, there’s a good chance you can watch it right then, online.
Over the years Poltrack has been quoted thousands of times. In a real sense, when it comes to talking about measurement and TV, Dave Poltrack is a brand unto himself.
But what none of all those words about Poltrack captures is the measure of the man. In Yiddish we’d say Poltrack is a mensch. Leo Rosten in his “Joys of Yiddish” says a mensch is "someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being 'a real mensch' is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous."
Over the years, as various executives at CBS may have yelled and screamed and demanded this and commanded that, after all the histrionics have ended, they’ve turned to Dave, the dignified, quiet one in the room, and listened to his smart, sober, realistic assessments, and have acted accordingly.
One of my favorite writers, Somerest Maugham, once wrote the following about one of his characters. I’ve altered the quote a bit. It equally applies to Dave Poltrack: “The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the particular strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever growing influence over his fellow man so that it will be realized that there lives in this age a very remarkable creature.”
Dave, thank you for being the remarkable person you are. Get well soon and get back to CBS. Between you and me, what’s true today has been true for the past forty-three years -- they wouldn’t know what to do without you.