Turnabout Is Fair Play
Quality Is Hard News At NBC
NFC: And how have you done that?
Doerr: In a couple of different ways.
We basically break it down into two components. One is
the product appeal components. There are analyses that we
can do which will help make our product more appealing
and interesting to viewers. If you are a viewer and you
are watching a program, what are the things that you want
in order to be satisfied that you got a quality program?
On the other side are the business practices. What are
the best practices we can use to better sell our time, to
control our inventory, etc.? What are ways we can
re-engineer the back offices of the way an invoice comes
in or the way an invoice goes out?
Doerr: It has been going around for awhile at GE. It was introduced to NBC in 1997. I joined the program in May of '98. What they did was say your career would be tied to being able to run a quality project or program. This was what happened to GE. In order to be certified for promotion to a big job, you had to run a quality program. They think, and I agree, that quality and the way it develops managers is a key driver for both the quality of the product but also the stock price.
NFC: So NBC said to everybody that this was going to be tied to your advancement?
Doerr: They said that Quality is one way to make progress. It is tough to do in TV. You can't tell Jerry Seinfeld that he has to go to quality training in order to get the best slot on television.
NFC: Or your anchor…
Doerr: Or your anchor, right. So what they did was basically said, they identified some managers that they thought were high potential and they asked us to enroll in quality and do it for a year, year-and-a-half. We went away for a lot of extensive training. We learned a lot about not just the tools, but how to make change.
NFC: What was the training that you went to?
Doerr: Our whole program is based on a model called "DMAIC" (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control). It is a statistically driven module that we were trained in. We also went to a variety of training programs aimed at change, facilitation, training to be trainers, all the things you need to learn.
NFC: How did people react to this in the newsroom?
Doerr: Very cynically and I was the leading cynic. I felt that there was very little place for it. I didn't fully understand what the intent or methodology was going to be. I spent a lot of time reading about it. At GE it was all basically an engineering application. Being matters one-one thousandth millimeter off when you are drilling a bolt for an aircraft engine is a very big deal in that business. We are a television company. We shoot from the hip. But when you drill down a little bit, you realize that there are definitely ways that a program like this can be used to improve your product or your business processes.
NFC: How have you seen it improving your product?
Doerr: One of the things that all of the NBC owned stations have done is cut back dramatically on the number of errors we make on the air. So, for example, the little graphics you see on your television screen would sometimes be spelled incorrectly. All those little screw ups that are so vexing. You have the same meeting week after week. You bring in the same people and yell at them, "Why can't we get this right?" Well now we have used Quality tools to develop systems and processes to get things right on the air. So the product appeal has gone up because our programs are cleaner.
NFC: Take the spelling errors for example. Did one station have a problem solving team to resolve this?
Doerr: Yeah, actually we did it at three of our stations. We put together problem solving teams. You go through the module and you walk through it step-by-step-by-step. One of the reasons that we are having problems on the air is that so many people are actually involved in doing the work. They say, "We get things late or they are misspelled coming in or there is no spelling on the chyron to begin with." You ask them, "How does that happen?" "Well it happens because a reporter doesn't call it in or because they sent out the dispatch to the story." When you get to the root causes of some of the problems, you realize that there are some controllable variables. So what we basically have done is develop a style guide so people know exactly how and when they are supposed to call things in. Re-engineering that whole process, getting somebody's name spelled right on the air, doesn't sound very complicated, but we had a lot of problems with it and we have re-engineered that process. It has made a big difference.
NFC: But people in newsrooms are bright to begin with. Wouldn't you think that they would have done this anyway?
Doerr: I think that people in newsrooms tend to be creative more than analytical. They are very smart people, but they need a game plan, a playbook. And so they need a step-by-step guide at how you get at some of these things. When you lay that on top of their ability to look at their own business and do things well, they really now have a way, a road map to get at the answers.
NFC: What's been the hardest thing about all of this in your work?
Doerr: Making sure that people
approach it with an open mind and are willing to consider
a pretty rigorous, what appears to be an academic series
of applications, rather than kind of being closed minded
about it and saying "Whoa, we're news people or we
produce entertainment programs. We don't need that
stuff." You really can use this stuff and you don't have
to be a statistical genius to be able to figure it
Doerr: No, it was very difficult. It continues to be difficult because it is still the business of people who are creative at heart. They don't want to be tied to data and they don't want to take the time to get to the data. One of the things that we deal with is that kind of halfway through the project you'll find people who say they think they have found the answer and then they try to hurry along more quickly, and that is probably something that you do not want them to do. So you have to teach them patience.
NFC: Can you think of another example of where the rigors of a quality approach has helped improve something that we would see on air?
Doerr: Should you run a commercial coming out of the end of primetime? Or at certain times at the end of one program and the beginning/before the next, whether it is going into your late news or from between shows and that kind of thing. Some people would say that yes, you absolutely should because you can make the money there. Other people would say no, no, no you have to have flow. We were able to use quality tools to help come up with data that helps us make some of those decisions. Ultimately the station managers, based on their own business conditions, have to decide themselves whether they want to run commercials in different spots.
NFC: What data are you going to look at?
Doerr: You are going to look at ratings information. You are going to look at falloff from show one to show two. You'll look at competitive ratings information. You'll run some tests maybe. You'll run it a few nights and then you won't run it a few nights. And what you wind up with is a group of people who are trained at running those experiments and to also look at the data analysis and give you an analysis based on what they see.
NFC: A lot of the quality methodology is driven by the customer. And obviously that customer for news is the viewer.
Doerr: Well we look at it two different ways. We have customers and we have consumers. So your customer may be your advertiser, the consumer may be your viewer. But both are equally important to you, so you have to find out what your consumer wants before you can provide them with a product that your advertiser is going to buy. You are basically the convoy, you take the customer's message to the consumer. So you have to find out if you can use quality tools to figure out a way to make that product more appealing to the consumer. You advertiser who pays the bills is going to be happier, too, because she is going to get a bigger number and a bigger rating.
NFC: What makes you feel good about your job?
Doerr: I like seeing something that
actually works. I came from that school of jaded cynics
and when you see a group of those people banging heads,
coming up with ideas and figuring out ways to make their
jobs better and our business better, that is a very
rewarding thing. And it is a very tough time for the
television business. The economics are tough and there
are mergers happening left and right. And if we are able
to make a better product, help our businesses kind of
weather this tough time, they come out stronger in the
end. I think that it gives us a competitive
Doerr: I have plenty of spare time. I play sports, spend time with my family. I live in New York City so there is always something to do. Going to a show, the theater a lot.
NFC: What's the last theater you saw?
Doerr: I went to see "Ragtime" on Friday night.The last two things I saw before were straight plays. One called "The Weir" and "The Death of a Salesman", which I thought was just overwhelming.
NFC: Interesting, Death of a Salesman is an old, old play.
Doerr: I saw it with my parents as a matter of fact. My father described seeing it fifty years ago when he got out of the army after WWII and he said this production was still every bit as riveting.
NFC: So why did it have an impact on you?
Doerr: I think it talks to that place in you which is that desire to do more, overcome that little bit of self-doubt. The need to be successful. The family which may not be what you want it to be or the way you think it should be. It touches all of those buttons. It's just brilliant.
NFC: Speaking of families and people leads to my last question. All of the stuff that you have talked about is what is called in the field, "the hard stuff." The statistics, the data, that kind of thing. What about the "soft stuff", the people side?
Doerr: Cut them, get rid of them. Just kidding.
NFC: Very funny. But all humor has a morsel of truth in it. So is the morsel of truth that we are too coddling of people?
Doerr: No I don't think so. I think that the television business is changing right now, like it has not changed in 50 years, from the time of the Philco radio. You used to listen to the "Shadow" and "Lum and Abner." The days when you sat in front of your TV at 6:30 at night while Walter Cronkite or some other omniscient white guy sits in front of a camera and tells you what happened, are long gone. So the question is how is our business going to change? How is the delivery going to change? How are the people who work here going to change? The days of working in a small market then a medium-sized market and then a big market and then going to the network, forget it. So I think that what quality can do, the hard stuff, is to get people ready for the hard times that are definitely ahead. And I think that people need this stuff to help them. We are better operators of business because of this and as a result our people are better.