Game the System

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

A few years ago, a friend of mine shot a pilot. It was supposed to be a promising pilot, but somewhere between the script and casting, the network started getting concerned about the darkly comic tone, the suggestive, edgy storylines, and the sharpness of the writing. All of those items introduce a level of risk into the development process -- career risk for the executives, specifically -- so usually that's the first stuff they want out.

So my friend was naturally anxious and jittery, and so treated himself to a few days of decadent unwinding in Las Vegas, which these days means he spent a lot of money on dinner. And lunch. He doesn't gamble or fool around, so his big activities were eating, drinking, sleeping, and hanging out at the spa at the Wynn.

One day, sauntering through the lobby of the MGM Grand, smelling of eucalyptus massage oil on his way to Joel Robuchon, he's stopped by a guy with a clipboard and asked if he'd like to participate in a consumer research project. The MGM Grand hotel, it seems, in addition to fine dining and gaming, houses a huge television research and focus group facility. They grab people out of hotel lobbies -- I guess under the impression that these people are representative of Americans in general -- and sit them in a dark room and show them as-yet unordered television pilots, stick a dial in their hands, have them turn it one way if they like what they see, another if they don't, and then, after the show, gather them in little groups and ask a lot of circular questions.

So my friend says, sure, I'm free. He's signed in, led to the room -- the whole process required only one outright lie: on the questionnaire, they asked, are you involved in the television, advertising, or motion picture business? To which he replied "no," which at the time wasn't entirely false -- I mean, the whole pilot process had been so awful and debilitating he was seriously thinking about quitting the business altogether -- so he sits in a room with a lot of strangers from every socio-demo-racial-gender group they could find in the lobby at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas at one in the afternoon in April -- and he watches what turns out to be his pilot. He's focus-grouping his own work. So, needless to say, his dials were up. His focus group response was very positive. On the "are you somewhat likely, likely, extremely likely, or not at all likely to seek out this program and watch it," he responded "extremely" and added a lot of exclamation points and stars and hearts and smiley faces.

Unfortunately, when he lied about being in the entertainment business, he forgot to lie also about his age, which he checked off as 35+, which made the network a lot less enthusiastic about his enthusiasm.

The point here, though -- and I'm speaking directly to those who are in the television business on the sell-side, is that there's really no reason why, when you've got a pilot on the block, you can't rent a bus -- hell, rent three -- fill it with a bunch of young people, pay them all a hundred bucks or so, truck them out to Vegas to mill around the MGM Grand and get sucked into a focus group. To which they've been coached to respond "extremely likely" and to keep those dials way, way up. And, really, there's no reason why a bunch of writers with a bunch of pilots couldn't club together and flood the lobby of the MGM Grand in the middle of the afternoon for the month or so of pilot season, on spec.

Look, if they can have a research facility on call, why can't we do the same with research facility participants? Wouldn't it be cool if someone tried it? Wouldn't that be cool if it worked? And wouldn't it be interesting if we really did affect what got on TV?

Of course, what if we do and no one notices?

That's all for this week. Next week, we'll read the bible.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long