Inside TV Audience Testing

TD00428I visited Las Vegas this week with my sister to see Britney Spears’ show at Planet Hollywood, but we had to find stuff to do the rest of our three-day stay because neither of us likes gambling. Good news! It’s fall-pilot-testing season for the broadcast networks. And CBS and NBC reps were out in force recruiting people off the Las Vegas Strip during the day to watch some shows and answer survey questions about them. Oh, and they were offering anywhere from $20 to $50 for opinions, depending on the length of the show and the intensity of the questioning. Brilliant! Now we could “win” money in Vegas and lose nothing. We couldn’t present ourselves to the recruiters fast enough.

Both of us are TV nerds, so we loved this idea. I’ve always wondered about the mythical testing process, which is an integral part of any great show’s origin story. Inevitably in these stories (please see: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld), the audience testing says a show is total garbage, and later it goes on to great acclaim, popularity, and otherwise legendary status. Audiences hated The Mary Tyler Moore Show because they thought she was a single loser who hung around with annoying and scary people (Rhoda and Lou). They hated Seinfeld because they preferred Jerry’s standup to the actual story, and they thought the whole thing was kind-of pointless.

I won’t get too much into the specifics of the shows I watched, because I feel some sense of duty, like I just served on a jury or something. But I can tell you that it was really interesting to see the differences in how the two networks tested shows, as well as the questions asked. Both nets had the legendary Good/Bad buttons: At NBC we had Yes, I Like This! (green button) and No, I Hate This! (red button); at CBS, we had dials from 1 (hate) to 100 (love) that we had to keep moving through the entire show. We also answered endless questions about our feelings toward every character, plotline, and relationship in the shows. We picked our favorite and least favorite shows among those already on. We, of course, specified our ages and genders and income levels and places of residence. The worst part about this system is the binary; it’s incredibly simplistic to ask people whether they “like” or “don’t like” a show at any second. What does that mean? Do people really need to “like” a show every second for it to be good? It’s easy to pick out shows that, whether or not they were tested, you can imagine testing terribly. Mad Men? Too slow. Game of Thrones? Too confusing.

If you go back to the Mary Tyler Moore example, obviously the audiences weren’t quite ready for an independent, single woman or any characters who weren’t all sunshine and happiness; the show would push those boundaries until audiences did like, or at least more readily accept, such things. Seinfeld, I think, is a little different, because anyone who loves the show and watches the pilot episode now can see that it wasn’t anywhere near what it would become. So the testing question is somewhat moot when it comes to Seinfeld, though it does prove that some shows need a chance to find themselves before random people from the street pick them apart.

My favorite part of my testing experience this week was when we finished watching a drama pilot at CBS, which was obviously targeting younger women (18-49). The workers rushed my sister and me afterwards because we fit the target demo, and asked if we wanted to come back in a few hours for a more detailed discussion (and another $50). I was lucky in that I have a red-eye flight out of Vegas tonight, so I had time to stick around; she didn’t. Listening to the more in-depth discussion with my fellow target-demo ladies and a moderator, I could imagine how a writer would go absolutely nuts listening to what we all liked and didn’t like. (I wanted more backstory! I wanted less backstory! I hated this person! I wanted more information about every single ancillary character! The opening drew me in! I loathed the opening! And was that the main character’s sister, best friend, roommate, or lover?) As someone who writes books, I can’t imagine how infuriated I would be. (Yes, I can, actually, because I’ve made the mistake of reading some of my Amazon reviews.) Obviously the creator wrestled with all of these questions for months, and he has his own vision, and suddenly a bunch of randoms wandering in between eating tacos and drinking a 45-ounce margarita have all kinds of ideas for him?

At the same time, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. A lot of the women pointed out areas of real confusion and had some genuinely great insights as to how to make the show better. If the shows I watched air, I’ll have a lot more insight as to how testing affects final products. And I’m grateful to CBS and NBC for helping me win in Vegas.

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