Like Charlie Sheen said at the end of the film Platoon about his experience and survival in Vietnam – “I have felt like a child born of those two fathers”. For me - it was a privileged start to have worked on a research project at the National Cable Television Association and then in local cable operations.
The privileged start came after finishing graduate school in Mass Communication and Research at Howard University. I signed-on to help with a cable demand and penetration study what was known at the time as the National Cable Television Association (NCTA). NCTA was nestled between several embassies on Massachusetts Avenue in northwest quadrant of downtown Washington D.C. In the way of Washington, the downtown digs were epitome.
I had just completed graduate studies at Howard University and my thesis had just won a national research competition (AEJMC/Alan Bussel Research Prize) with my lowly master’s thesis beating out 4 dissertations in the final round. It was one of the first studies to segment an African American television audience, so figured I was ready for anything.
It was a project job and not a full-time gig with the now defunct research and policy department. They had us camped out in the conference room between what was then NCTA’s Research & Policy Department and Marketing Department. I worked on the project with a guy that was getting his MBA from George Washington University that had been a music major in undergrad and a trumpet player in a Vegas show. At the time Char Beale was down the hall heading up the marketing department before later becoming CEO of CTAM and Bob Johnson had apparently just left the public affairs department to become launch BET. My direct boss, Cynthia Brumfield would later go on to found and become CEO of Broadband Daily.
But during that time, we had our hands full with over a 100 variables in the research model that was custom designed to drill-down on cable demand and penetration. The project was tedious based upon culling variable categories from Cable & Television Fact Book and Nielson’s On-line Database ranging from channel capacity to off-air Canadian signals. While tooling away at the study we would frequently be told to drop everything to work the phones calling local systems around the country to gather information on what we began calling “horror stories” of systems impacted by must-carry regulations (cable systems being required to carry local television stations) or copyright charges for distant signals. NCTA had a pending brief coming before the D.C. Court of Appeals on the must-carry issue, so in way of Washington it was a hot topic.
The department soon began to realize that I was good at interviewing and talking to local system GM’s and culling their stories of shrinking channel capacity due to must-carry requirements from local broadcasters. Some of these case studies are documented as footnotes in the brief Quincy vs. the F.C.C. on page 31 as I recall. Needless to say NCTA’s brief for a stay in Quincy Cable TV vs. F.C.C. was upheld and victorious. Cable operators could breathe a sigh of relief until it was struck down some years later before the Supreme Court. I like to think that if the trumpet I had been gathering some of the ground level intelligence for case studies, the cable industry would have won again.
As the cable demand and penetration study was winding down, I faced a crisis – I would be out of work and still in hock to the guy that did the word processing for my thesis (a real piece of work). Cynthia said she could keep me around on a part-time basis until something came-up, but I decided to get on my way and start what ended as a career in urban cable operations.
While at NCTA, I quickly began to call back some of the GM’s in the Washington area that I had been talking to on the must-carry brief to inquire about employment. I only got one bite, but got a job as a lowly coordinator in a LO (Local Origination) and PEG (Public, Education, and Government) programming studio for a Newhouse system in Prince George’s County Maryland. In a slow burn way it would set-off a chain of events that would culminate in a career in the cable industry in the “Golden Age” of cable.
I now realize, however, that I ended up similar to how I started. Although I now run my own research and consulting firm (W.G. Smith & Associates LLC), I do pretty much the same thing I did during my brief tenure at NCTA. We gather market intelligence from quantitative data and qualitative data at a ground or street level for input, analysis, and action. It’s darn right surprising how much information you get from just talking with people on both sides (consumer and business) on any consumer demand equation.
Of course the trick is to get the right information and perform the correct analysis that provides an accurate depiction and direction of market trends. Despite even the best research models and data, you can be 180 degrees off center without a ground level assessment and view of “what’s really going on” in the market and the system. This is something that became much clearer and more evident as I spent the next 20 years or so working in the trenches.
One thing became utterly clear during my industry tenure was that most business enterprises lacked an accurate understanding of how to tap into the urban market as well as operate in the urban marketplace. This would become my firm’s specialty and get tooled into what became known as the Urban Marketing Model and Urban Market Report: A Tapestry of Media & Life®. Our research processes are built from the ground-up and based first-hand experience with the market forces that truly shape consumer demand and penetration, and not what so many industry experts might think, predict or promote.
Taking marketing and research models and applying ground level components and insight has invariably proven to be the only real way to properly assess the rolling demand and penetration associated with so many consumer service and product lines. But perhaps most important -- is to see and discern when and how trends arise from the urban marketplace and then crossover into the mainstream market. In a nutshell, that is what we are about and what we do at W.G. Smith & Associates, because tomorrow’s trends are in the market today if you know where, when and how to look.
The war is over for me now, but it will always be there for me the rest of my days. There have been times since I have felt like a child born of those two fathers. Fighting for possession of my soul…Be that as it may, those of us that did make it have an obligation to build again and teach others what we know. Charlie Sheen, Platoon, 1986