Exploring the hocus-pocus of focus groups

FOR EVERYBODY sweating out whether a pilot is going to be picked up, here’s a confession that speaks volumes about the arbitrary nature of TV life and death — at least, as it applies to focus groups.

Back in the 1970s, I helped kill somebody’s baby.

Having been a teenager at the time who subsequently inhaled, I can’t remember much about the particular series prototype that was screened at NBC, except that it was a youth-oriented project about a guy and his German shepherd, and the dog was central to the story.

When the lights came up everybody was polite, muttering things like “nice,” “good,” “fun.”

Then they got to me.

“I thought it stank,” I said, criticizing the plot and lack of action. The moderator spent several minutes probing what I didn’t like — at which point the floodgates opened and the rest of the room began turning on it, agreeing that maybe the show was kind of lame.

I have subsequently witnessed this dynamic on jury duty. People are often slow to speak up around a bunch of strangers, which sometimes means the first opinion dictates what direction the discussion follows.

The validity of focus group results continues to fascinate and irritate, embroidered as it is with fabled stories regarding abysmal test scores for the eventual blockbuster “Seinfeld” and to a lesser degree “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Friends.” (When “Friends” signed off after 10 seasons, the Smoking Gun Web site printed a 1994 testing report that gave the program a “weak” rating, concluding, “Stated viewing intentions for a series based on this pilot were not encouraging.”)

THE HOSTILITY toward such research is currently on display in “The TV Set,” writer-director Jake Kasdan’s indie feature charting the through-the-looking-glass journey of a producer making an edgy pilot. In the film, two versions of a series hopeful are shown to bored, bloated groups somewhat resembling the extras in a David Lynch movie, which the moderator addresses as if they were children.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about (the process),” conceded David Poltrack, CBS’ exec VP of research and planning.

Granted, plenty has changed since the 1970s. Some pilots are now tested online. Research also incorporates real-time responses via electronic dials that allow viewers to register their approval or disgust while they watch a program. CBS opened a splashy facility devoted to audience analysis in Las Vegas that’s marking its sixth anniversary, where I dutifully lined up a few years ago with other tourists wearing shorts on a hot weekday to sample the process.

IN THE MAIN, testing remains a useful tool, but one that’s rightfully viewed with suspicion, inasmuch as the experience is so inherently artificial. While dazzling test scores for a series such as “ER” proved a solid barometer of its commercial potential, there’s a prevailing sense that quirky, offbeat and darker concepts will have a more difficult time generating enthusiasm — at a critical juncture when networks are endeavoring to be bolder to stand apart from the herd.

Researchers say they are more sophisticated now about recognizing and adjusting for such factors, and that focus groups help put a human face on the reaction to series hatchlings — what “ordinary people” would think, not just network suits. Moreover, efforts to reduce or even eliminate the influence of testing — as the WB network did in 2004, when Jordan Levin announced that the netlet would dispense with such measurement and rely on management to “make tough decisions and trust their guts” — have invariably proved short lived.

I kept an eye out for that dog show, by the way, curious whether it would ever materialize. It didn’t, and only much later did I realize that my input might have played a role in its demise.

Although I was barely shaving yet, this idea of determining a show’s fate left a strong impression on me. “Boy, what a rush,” I recall thinking. “If only there was some way to approximate this sensation professionally as a grown-up.” Then again, there is something to the old Jesuit maxim that inspired Michael Apted’s extraordinary “Seven Up” documentary series: “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.”

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