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TV Guider

Susan Whiting

President and CEO, Nielsen Media Research

Nielsen is arguably as famous a name in the history of television as Mary Tyler Moore or Jerry Seinfeld. Now, as traditional programming is being shattered by the rise of digital technology, the iconic audience-measurement company has charged Whiting, 49, with keeping the company relevant. Speaking to Fast Company, Whiting, who took over the top spot in 2002, shares her thoughts on the future of television, what to do in a fight with Rupert Murdoch, and the virtues of mystery novels.

All I knew was that I wanted an interesting job in a creative industry. And I wanted to travel. I graduated from Denison with a degree in economics and wanted to return to Chicago, where I'm from. Nielsen had an opening in their management-training program. I knew this was the right company from the moment I got here.

In a weird way, being CEO is a lot like being in a management-training program. That's where I started off 27 years ago. Both jobs require you to take a very broad view of the company. And both are great for anyone who is naturally curious and likes to travel. I've come full circle.

People say television is going away. They're wrong. For the first time ever, households are watching more than eight hours a day. And even though the average home has 100 channels, people only watch 14 or 15 of them. The tricky thing is that people aren't watching the same 14 or 15 channels.

The question everyone wants to know, of course, is what's going to happen to the commercial. We just don't know yet. TiVo, DVRs—they are definitely having an impact on viewing habits. All we can say for sure is that people with this technology watch way more TV than anybody else.

The only thing about the future of programming that you can count on for sure is that good actors and a compelling story line will still be important, regardless of whatever else changes.

My favorite part of the CEO job is mentoring younger people. It's important to nurture them because one day they'll be running the company. But I also get something out of it, too. I love to learn about how they see the business. It gives you a great perspective as a leader.

When you're the CEO, you've got to get off the elevator each morning with a big smile on your face. No matter what's going on in the company. Everyone looks to you for a temperature reading.

It's much harder for people to throw you off-course when you're patient and calm. I learned this when I got into a public confrontation last year with Rupert Murdoch and Al Sharpton [over local ratings and whether minority viewers were being counted properly]. You have to maintain great confidence about your business at all times and know your facts cold. Wherever a vacuum of information exists, that's where misinformation grows.

People always ask what my favorite shows are, but I can't tell them. Then they usually ask if I even watch TV. And, yes, I do watch television. But in my job, I can't go around saying I like one show or one network better than another.

There's no purer form of escape than a good mystery novel. I like Sara Paretsky's books. I started reading mysteries about 15 years ago while traveling, and now I'm hooked.

Our new puppy, Harley—a Labradoodle, part Labrador, part poodle—runs our house. He's very cute, but you've got to have a good sense of humor and some pretty thick skin. Come to think of it, you need that to work at Nielsen these days, too.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.