By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
It lacks a sexy name, and the winners get an engraved glass plaque instead of a gold-tone statuette or a pricey gift bag. But for researchers who toil in less-than-glamorous number-crunching, the CTAM Research Case Study Award Competition is nonetheless a unique chance for a turn in the limelight.
CTAM has been handing out the awards at its annual research conference for two decades. In recent years the sessions with the winners have been widely attended, as companies facing increased competition from new technology and new platforms search for groundbreaking ways to identify just who is watching what and how viewers relate to what they see on the screen.
Number-crunching is increasingly the least of it. This year’s winning entry involved coaxing reticent and emotional teenagers-first in small group meetings in cafes, hotel rooms and apartments and later online-to divulge the most intimate details of their sex lives, from the number and kinds of sexual experiences they have had to how many times they have caught sexually transmitted diseases. The study, “Contemporary Teen Sexual Culture,” was for Viacom’s teen-targeted The N network and was overseen by Radha Subramanyam, VP of research and planning for Nick Digital TV Networks.
In choosing a winner, the judges looked at five criteria, from innovativeness of the research design to how effective the findings were when put to use, said Dana Fragnoli, research analyst for CTAM. Eleven projects competed this year.
The N, whose research unit is less than 2 years old, devised the study to help it understand teen behavior and attitudes toward sex, part of the channel’s strategy to “imbue all shows with the authenticity that we believe is so important to teens,” Ms. Subramanyam said.
The study, whose findings were not released publicly, broke new ground when the online portion, which surveyed 1,500 teens, was conducted anonymously through a company that has a standing database of pre-screened teens willing to participate in market research. With no parents, teachers or researchers in the room, The N felt it got a more representative look at teen sexual behavior, some of which was radically different from that found in previous surveys by other companies, Ms. Subramanyam said.
Among the findings in the 130-page final report: Sex among teens was more common than previously thought, particularly among 13- to 15-year-olds; teens are very aware of disease risks but don’t always practice safe behavior; and technology is changing both the way teens find sexual partners and how they learn about sex.
The research was presented to the executives and producers who oversee The N’s shows. It has been used to inform character development in the new show “South of Nowhere,” in which the lead character is trying to figure out her sexual identity. And it helped producers craft an episode of “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” televised last summer, that dealt with sexually transmitted diseases. “We carry the burden of responsibility very, very seriously,” Ms. Subramanyam said.
Second place in the awards this year was a tie. One of the two winners was Ken Walker, director of marketing for E-Poll Market Research. In conjunction with Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, E-Poll looked at the effectiveness of product placement and how it was affected by the location of the placement and prior brand awareness.
The MTV Networks family also received a second-place award, for its study examining how today’s 30-year-olds live compared with past generations of 30-year-olds. It was conducted by the VH1 research team, headed by Executive VP Colleen Fahey Rush. The team also included Carole Smith, Leslie Greene and Tracy Visconti.
MTV Networks has taken home a number of CTAM awards in recent years, not surprising for a company that has traditionally used research to understand the niche viewers it targets.
“When it’s harder and harder to find the ways to talk to consumers, to listen to them, to get them to pay attention to you, we’ve had to come up with a lot of creative new ways of understanding them,” said Betsy Frank, executive VP of research and planning, on a consultant basis, for MTV parent Viacom Inc.
Two years ago the company’s Nick at Nite won a CTAM award for its study on the “emotional anatomy of the nighttime television viewer,” which generated new ad revenue when Nick at Nite was able to show that post-midnight viewers weren’t all couch potatoes. Last year two MTV Networks research projects tied for first prize.
Winners are required to discuss their research techniques with the convention audience, which inevitably includes competitors. “There’s always a balance,” Ms. Frank said, between presenting information that is helpful and not sharing proprietary secrets. “You’re not necessarily going to give away the recipe for the secret sauce,” she said, but “You find a way to share things that hopefully are going to be helpful to someone else.”