Mastering the Methods of Audience Research

This article was featured in the fall 2014 issue of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

Kathy Carroll ’76 (CLAS), ’79 MA, ’84 Ph.D., P’17 photographed at the Stamford Campus. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

In the mid-1980s—years before she found herself working on some of HBO’s most acclaimed original programs, including “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” and “Game of Thrones”—Kathy Carroll ’76 (CLAS), ’79 MA, ’84 Ph.D., P’17 was a recent graduate of UConn’s sociology Ph.D. program working at a market research firm in upstate Connecticut. Prompted by her husband landing a job in New York City and their subsequent relocation to Stamford, Carroll channeled her casual interest in television to make her next career move.

“I wrote a letter to the three big television networks to ask whether they had any open research positions, and I got a response from ABC,” she recalls.

This chain of events launched Carroll into a nearly three-decade career in television research, a majority of which she spent as Vice President for Primary Programming Research at HBO. While much has changed for the television industry and the tools used to measure it during that time, what has held constant for Carroll are the skills that she acquired from UConn and her palpable sense of enthusiasm for the school.

“UConn was basically my family’s school,” says Carroll, adding that she and her four siblings have ten degrees between them, eight of which are from UConn. “That’s where I learned about research techniques, ethics, and statistics that I still use to this day.”

As an undergraduate in Storrs, Carroll was drawn to sociology by compelling professors who taught her introductory courses. She soon realized that she had a passion for the research methods used to measure and analyze the “why” questions posed in this social science field.

“Back then, people didn’t really think about jobs when they went to school or picked a major, but sociology gave me a good grounding and I had great professors,” she says, naming emeriti professors of sociology James DeFronzo, Albert Cohen, Clint Sanders, and former UConn professor Myra Marx Ferree.

Carroll went on to pursue two advanced degrees from UConn, motivated in part by an opportunity to work as an editorial assistant for the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association that had traveled to UConn under the editorship of Professor Emeritus of Sociology William D’Antonio.

Carroll also mastered advanced research methods and techniques that helped shape her career path. Her doctoral dissertation—a content analysis study about women in American mystery novels—helped her secure her first job with ABC. The network was looking for a market researcher with content analysis experience to watch and code their programs for occurrences of sex or violence.

Carroll’s focus shifted to market research when she moved from ABC to HBO in 1988, which she says reflects the cultural differences between the two networks.

“At ABC, everything was based on the concerns of advertisers, but HBO is a pay cable channel and a unique player in the television field because it is not ad supported,” says Carroll. “The purpose of my work was not to tell the creative people how to make their shows, but instead how to best schedule, market, and promote the shows and improve the audience experience.”

During the next 24 years, Carroll conducted all primary audience research for HBO’s original television series, sports series, documentaries, and original films. Her work spanned some of the channel’s first original series like “Dream On,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Inside the NFL,” through its more recent hits, including “Boardwalk Empire,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and “Game of Thrones.”

Much of her work involved moderating focus groups, gauging participants’ reactions to series pilots or gathering feedback from existing fans of shows. Results would help the network determine how to market these programs and later what special features to make available on HBO’s website or as DVD extras.

“We would ask what they liked about the shows, who were their favorite characters, what adjectives best described the shows, and we would always ask why,” she says. “We learned that people like to watch things that reflect some aspect of themselves and they like stories with unexpected twists and turns.”

Another thing that Carroll learned, first from her studies at UConn and later in her corporate career: “Good research methods transcend product or topic.”

Carroll draws on this experience now as the owner and operator of Carroll Insights, which she started in 2012 after leaving HBO. In this role she conducts qualitative research for clients in television and other areas like shopping, new technologies, and public service campaigns.

One of her most recent examples involves pro bono work with The Public Good Projects, a nonprofit organization that produces campaigns that highlight complex and pressing national issues. The organization was founded by documentarian and producer John Hoffman, with whom Carroll had worked on several documentaries for HBO like the 2012 documentary special “The Weight of the Nation.”

“The focus groups that I did for his documentaries were some of the most interesting and moving work I have ever conducted,” says Carroll. “These current projects tackle public health issues and health advocacy, and we get to examine a part of humanity that has nothing to do with television.”

Carroll and her husband, Mike Barney ’77 (BUS), ’78 MBA, also regularly return to Storrs, where their youngest daughter is a sophomore. Carroll says that she enjoys touring the campus and stepping back into the classroom at events like the CLAS College Experience, a bi-annual lifelong learning event for alumni and friends of the College.

“I’ve sent three kids to college and see how great college is,” she says. “Our ability to go back and experience a college class with an outstanding professor again is priceless.”


By: Bri Diaz

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