Psych-ing out over NBC’s consultants for David Gregory

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 20: David Gregory pauses backstage before the start of NBC's
David Gregory  backstage before the start of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” (Photo by Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

Call it a collective media psych-out.

When our colleague Paul Farhi wrote on Monday about the lengths NBC has gone to boost the sagging ratings for “Meet the Press” under host David Gregory, he reported that the network had hired a “psychological consultant” to interview Gregory’s friends and his wife to glean insight into the man — presumably in order to better translate the guy’s likable qualities to the television audience.

Reporters seized on the nugget, leading NBC to quibble with the phrasing, insisting that the consultation was about “branding,” not scary-sounding “psychology.”

Media consultants and former NBC employees who’ve watched consultants at work say the two fields are entwined, and that it’s standard practice for the network to bring in consultants who truck in both. The experts gauge how an anchor is connecting with his audience and divine what they can do to improve on-air performance — anything from shifting the types of stories they cover (more human interest, perhaps) to nixing a pocket square (too stuffy!).

“A process like that is an important but minor piece in the sequence,” says Steve Ridge, the president of the media strategy group at Frank N. Magid and Associates, of the consultants interviewing Gregory’s loved ones. He says that would be a standard early step in evaluating an anchor, and would be followed up with focus groups and the like.

Typically, networks bring in consultants when anchors (or “the talent” in TV parlance) are struggling, though it can be just a matter of polishing already successful performances. Consultants might watch tape frame-by-frame, sit in on meetings, and observe the anchors in interviews to analyze their approach, former employees say. The lengths NBC is going for Gregory may be uncommon — others in the network’s stable of talent have had more truncated consults —  but it’s not unheard of.

“It’s not the norm,” a former employee says. “But Gregory’s not just anyone.”

Ridge says his firm has performed such services for a “vast number” of anchors, spokespeople, even CEOs.

And it isn’t cheap. Elastic Strategy, the company that NBC hired to perform the psychological/branding consultation for Gregory, didn’t return our calls. But Ridge said a full project, including research and recommendations, can run “six figures as an opener.”

 

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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