Back at Annenberg: Susan Roberts (M.A.C. ‘99)

A seasoned media researcher, Roberts helps to develop and shape children’s programming at Nickelodeon. 

By Julie Sloane

Reconnecting with our alumni can be fascinating, not only for the opportunity to hear about all the incredible work they’re doing in the world, but also to reminisce about different eras in the school’s history. 

Masters alum Susan Roberts — then Susan Lape — graduated in 1999, a time when most of the building was under construction, resulting in the facility we largely know today. Roberts still works on some of the children’s media topics she studied as a masters student, but the experience of being at 3620 Walnut St. is slightly unfamiliar. 

I spoke with Roberts about her work as Senior Director of Preschool Content & Consumer Products Research at Nickelodeon as well as her time at the school. 

What brings you back to Annenberg?

I’m doing a guest lecture for Children and Media. [Annenberg Lecturer and Ph.D. alum] Kim Woolf and I were in Annenberg together, and we were the teaching assistants for this class way back when it was taught by Amy Jordan. It’s my second time speaking in Kim’s class, and I love it. I’m excited to have a chance to visit and meet some students. And to see Kim, of course.

What have you been doing since you got your master’s degree?

I have been working in media research. I spent about 15 years at NBCUniversal where I worked on Bravo, USA Network, Syfy Channel, NBC News, the Olympics, and more. Now I work at Nickelodeon where I work mostly on preschool content like Paw Patrol, Rubble & Crew, Dora the Explorer, Tiny Chef, Bossy Bear, and new shows that are being developed. 

Kim Woolf and Susan Roberts
Kim Woolf (left) and Roberts

What does it mean to do media research?

It’s research about the content and research about consumers of that content. We talk to youth and parents about what they like and don’t like. We ask them about the characters, the settings, any specific elements. We get feedback from people who are potentially consumers of that show and then we share that with the creative teams.

Is there a place in the Annenberg School building that holds special memories for you? (If not a place, is there a person?)

When I was at Annenberg there was a lot of construction. We were here in the Annenberg building for a very brief period when I started, and then we moved to an office building at 40th and Chestnut. We came here for class in the 108-111 classrooms, but that’s about it. I’m remembering Papa John’s pizza parties at 40th and Chestnut. 

We had a computer lab with stationary and printers. It was really communal — we worked together in the labs. I remember before Halloween, we all decided we were done, and we went down to South Street to go costume shopping and hang out.

You’re now at Nickelodeon working on early childhood subjects, which was also the subject of your master’s thesis. Are there threads from your Annenberg education that you find yourself returning to? Has children’s media changed a lot since then?

Dr. Hornik often reminded us not to underestimate the value of a good crosstab and I still find myself thinking that. I spend a lot of time looking at crosstabs! 

My thesis research was an ethnography of the use of TV in preschool and daycare settings, so I spent many, many hours watching preschoolers watch and interact with TV shows. And I do that today at Nickelodeon. The focus is different, but there are similarities still in what kids say when you talk to them about TV shows.

Children’s media (and all media) has changed a lot since then. Streaming didn’t exist at the time and people weren’t watching shows on the internet.  In other words, no one knew what a YouTuber was.

You have two small children. What kind of children’s media do they watch, and what kind of rules do you set down for them?

For kids today, there’s a billion places they can watch video content. My kids tend to watch Nickelodeon, Disney, Netflix. I tend not to let them watch on devices - if they watch, it will be on the TV screen. I don’t want them to think of it as portable, and wherever I am, they can watch something. It’s something we do at a certain time, but not all the time. 

Are you an alum who will be visiting us in Philly soon? Let us know!


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