TV NotesProgrammers Keep Shows' Prospects in Focus (Groups)
By Craig Tomashoff, The New York Times
- May 11, 2012
In the spring of 1989 NBC seemed to have a new hit comedy on its hands. As the network prepared to announce its fall schedule, executives were thrilled to find that test audiences loved Sister Kate, a sitcom about a nun who takes in a group of orphans. Meanwhile the test results from another show about a stand-up comic and his quirky friends had also come back and seemed to be equally definitive, but in the opposite direction.
It was that research that pushed Seinfeld' to the back burner, Warren Littlefield, a former NBC president for entertainment and author of the book Top of the Rock: Inside the Fall of Must See TV, recalled in an interview. The overall evaluation of the show was weak. It was disastrous. It scared us. So we went with things that had better testing. We chose a nun who took care of orphans over Seinfeld.'
Of course, by the following spring, Seinfeld was on its way to becoming one of the most renowned comedies in television. And Sister Kate? It was canceled after 18 episodes. Pilot testing may have failed the network in that instance, but the process is still as much a television tradition as the Wacky Neighbor or the Smart-Mouth Kid. Which is why, as the networks prepare to announce their fall schedules, they continue to solicit the advice of randomly selected strangers who get paid $75 to $100 to hold dials measuring their emotional responses to potential shows. It's also why producers watch them from behind a one-way glass, snacking nervously on pretzels, jelly beans and M&M's while (mostly) resisting the urge to scream at the people who could determine the fate of their shows.
The feeling you have is akin to going to the dentist, said Carlton Cuse, executive producer of Lost and Nash Bridges, among other series. You're on this horrible sugar and salt jag, watching people turn dials up and down in an attempt to empirically evaluate your show. But storytelling is a magical art form that you can't reduce to an empirical set of numbers.
Audience dial testing has been around since the 1960s, said Elliot Rosenberg, president of ASI Entertainment. Networks and studios regularly use ASI to test their pilots, and while he's seen many an unhappy producer grimace through a poor screening, most accept the process and are open to what they're hearing back.
Mark Roberts, executive producer of Mike and Molly on CBS, is resigned to the process. It seems absurd to me, making a science out of a creative project. But I guess networks and studios are more comfortable making things scientific.
Not necessarily. The programming boss at TNT and TBS, Michael Wright, avoids discussing test results with his staff because once people see it, it informs how they discuss a show, he said.
Testing speaks to the instant gratification of this business, Mr. Wright added. And unfortunately this is a business, and people expect results right away. But as my grandfather used to say in reference to criticism: If one guy honks at you on the freeway, he's a knucklehead. If five guys honk at you, you're the knucklehead.' So with testing, if you're hearing the same criticism from a lot of different people, only an idiot wouldn't pay attention.
While producers generally welcome input they think will improve the appeal of their pilot, hearing that input from the other side of a one-way mirror can seem harsh. Pilot testing is such a dark art and the results can be taken in so many different ways, said David Hemingson, executive producer of Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 on ABC. He added later, I can appreciate listening to people talk about my show, getting some great, penetrating comments. But then you'll hear someone say about a character, She was mean to cats.' And there were no cats in any scene.
This sort of mistake will happen, producers say, because test audiences are easily tempted to be more critical. This isn't how they'd be watching TV in their living rooms, said Len Goldstein, executive producer of Hart of Dixie on CW and a CW pilot, The Carrie Diaries. Someone is prodding them and asking what they liked and didn't like about a show. So in that room they might react differently.
When people are in a position to be more critical that's usually what they'll do. Which can lead to the sort of responses that have amazed producers over the years, like I wish the dog could have talked, or A dead guy wouldn't say that, or Was there a vampire?
This process doesn't allow much foresight either, because pilots are a snapshot of a future series rather than the big picture. Mr. Cuse still recalls the tests for the Lost pilot and how audiences weren't shy about voicing their contempt for the Jin and Sawyer characters. However, he added, they were antagonists, and you weren't supposed to like them. And by the end of the series they were at the top of the testing.
While it may be small consolation to producers, network executives insist that they're well aware of these flaws.
It's very rare that a test compels you to order or not order a show, Mr. Wright said. All you're looking for is interesting feedback, to get insight you didn't have before. It's a tool. It's diagnostic. But you shouldn't be in this job if you don't have the courage to say, This show is going to work' and order it anyway, even if it tests average or below.
Which makes pilot testing kind of like the television industry's version of Santa Claus. While show creators say they don't believe in it, they have also devoted a significant amount of energy to it and have faith that they will be rewarded with the gift of a network order.
When the research is great, any executive will grab that piece of paper, wave it in front of your face and say, Look at the curve score,' Mr. Littlefield said. When it's not great, they'll say: What do those people know? They're the ones who nearly killed Seinfeld. ' http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/ar...arXOv/UnForEfQ