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WB's rebooted Media Lab has multiplatform launch

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It was two years ago at the NATPE convention that Bruce K. Rosenblum found himself at a Las Vegas blackjack table opposite Bruce Rosenblum.

That's not a metaphor for inner conflict; there actually are two different men with the same name at Warner Bros. Bruce K. is executive vp media research at Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, while the latter Bruce is president of the Warner Bros. Television Group.

When he got a chance between hands of cards, Bruce K. grabbed a recent article he clipped about CBS Vision, a new division at CBS Corp. that included plans for an expanded research facility. He had been thinking of Warner Bros.' facility, going on 13 years without altering its infrastructure despite the changes rapidly transforming the media world.

With his boss at his side, Bruce K. seized the opportunity to make a change of his own. "I pulled out the article and asked, 'Have you seen this?' " Bruce K. recalls. " 'Well, we should be doing this.' "

Before either man dispensed chips for another hand, Warner Bros. had placed a bet of a different kind, one that all of Time Warner could utilize to help refine its future strategies.

Fast-forward to Thursday night, and Bruce K. is holding court at the unveiling on the Burbank lot of the Warner Bros. Media Lab, complete with open bar and hors d'oeuvres. Few who stopped in would recognize the original facility, which was stripped down to the studs and rebuilt into a state-of-the-art venue that says a lot about how the conglomerate's business has changed.

In ancient times -- say around 2002 or so -- Warner Bros. research was a simpler affair. Convene a focus group, slip in a disc of a film or TV program and watch consumers consume through a two-way mirror.

But Time Warner is in far more complex territory now. For one thing, the company continues to diversify its content offerings through Web sites and video games. And the TV shows and films that remain its bread and butter are finding themselves on an increasing array of new digital platforms that has led Warner Bros. to refocus its attention on the consumption experience through different interfaces.

"In the old days, we'd lumber in with a bunch of PCs and game consoles and there would be wires spilling out everywhere," says Keith Friedenberg, vp media research at WBDTD. "It was a hindrance to the respondents to be natural."

Now respondents are greeted by eight retractable 42-inch monitors provided by Hewlett-Packard that pop out of the wooden conference table where subjects can take in any form of entertainment. They can seamlessly move from the Nintendo Wii to DirecTV, just two of many high-definition platforms piped in from an adjoining room stocked with pretty much every gaming console, cable or satellite service and digital media receiver you can imagine.

Execs will have a lot more than a two-way mirror at their disposal to track consumer behavior. The new observation room offers a monitor for each of the eight subjects where the consumer's facial expressions can be studied side by side with their specific experience. Execs don't even have to be on the premises; they can be patched in for remote observation.

Bruce K. Rosenblum has been piecing together during the past two years with a simple goal in mind. "It made sense to have a facility where anyone could come to test any interface," he says, noting that Media Lab also would be accessible to third-party companies.

Before the open house was over, the other Bruce Rosenblum stopped in. He walked around the facility, asked a few questions and joked around with some assembled execs. But he didn't forget the man who got the ball rolling in Las Vegas. "This is really cool," he says, before clapping Bruce K. on the back and exiting the Media Lab.