In the Q&A below, get to know more about PBS'er Bill Merkel. Bill is Director of Research at PBS, focused on understanding the PBS audience through Nielsen’s national ratings service, and providing insights to a wide range of customers, including programming, marketing and communications, development, individual stations and independent producers.
Q. When did you join PBS, and what led you to want to work here?
I joined PBS in 2009 at the point when we were implementing the full-time Nielsen measurement contract. I had been doing audience research at Discovery Communications for almost 10 years, but left in 2006 and transitioned to stay-at-home dad for the next three years. Beth Walsh, Senior Director of PBS Research, talked me out of retirement to lead PBS' national Nielsen team.
Q. Tell us about a few professional highlights during your time at PBS, and why are they memorable to you?
The first six months of my PBS time were a real whirlwind. Almost every day we discovered some new hurdle we had to cross in order to get Nielsen to measure PBS ratings accurately and then deliver the data in the way we wanted it. And we quickly learned that no one else in the TV industry has to do anywhere near as much as we do in order for them to track their ratings. To address this, we implemented a home-grown automation process to prepare and submit all the station lineups to Nielsen, freeing our analysts to have time for actual analysis.
More recently I’ve been really excited our MRI/Nielsen Fusion project, which enables us to understand how viewers who are likely to also be PBS members watch TV. And Chief Programming Executive Beth Hoppe and her team are great consumers of research and I like seeing how the work we do influences what happens on-air.
Q. You and your team recently compiled PBS' 2012-2013 season ratings results. Tell us about what you learned.
I’ve been very pleased with the way our audience has been responding to recent programmatic changes in the PBS schedule. To be able to rearrange the nights and times of long-running series and see the PBS primetime averages increase steadily these past few years shows that viewers will follow the programs they love to their new time slots. I’ve also been excited about the performances of programs like CALL THE MIDWIFE and THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, showing a thirst that PBS viewers have for scripted drama even beyond MASTERPIECE.
Q. You also keep a close eye on ratings for all the networks. Why is it important to view ratings across the industry?
It’s always important to keep tabs on industry trends in programming and watch what drives the trajectories of other networks. What you often find is that short term successes are driven by a single program, and that can lead to a lot of volatility in a network's overall ratings when seasons begin or end. While certainly true for PBS at times, when "Downton Abbey" premieres, for example, we’re less likely to follow trends that often lead to lowest common denominator programs.
Q. Where did you grow up? What do you like or miss most about your hometown?
I grew up in a small town called Chelsea, outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. One thing I miss, living in Virginia now, is easy access to lakes and rivers. We used to spend a lot of our summer days in/on the water. To do that here takes quite an effort, and it’s one of the reasons we try to go back to Michigan each summer.
Q. Where did you go to school? What’s your degree in and what drew you to your major?
My grandfather was a shop teacher and I learned to work with my hands early on, so almost from the start I wanted to be an engineer. That led me to study mechanical engineering at Notre Dame, and my first career was as an aerodynamic component engineer for Pratt & Whitney, an aircraft engine supplier to Boeing, Airbus, etc. At one point I got sent to Japan to support a few airlines there and that got me interested in the management side of the business. So I left my job to get an MBA from UNC-Chapel Hill. I concentrated on marketing and operations research there, and that opened up a lot of different opportunities, eventually landing me in TV research. But I still have the need to work with my hands, and I have a small woodworking and carpentry business that keeps me busy when I’m not at PBS.
Q. And finally, finish this sentence: PBS is special because...
...our viewers believe in what we do and how we do it, and want us to be there for the next generation.