Inside the Focus Group

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Inside the Focus Group

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot for KCRW.

There are a lot of highly educated people who work in Hollywood, which is the main reason so much of what we come up with is so awful.

People who are not in show business - or, to be more specific, people who do not live in the 310 or 212 telephone area codes - are an impenetrable mystery to those of us who do.

But the handy substitute for an intuitive gut sense of America-s taste is the focus group.

Say, for instance, you-ve just shot what you think is a hilarious television pilot. Here-s what they make you do. You troop over the hill to Burbank, and sit behind a one-way mirror to watch 32 demographically precise, audience-representative Americans in t-shirts watch your show, answer questions about it, and collect $25.

As they file in to the room, one particularly clever young man asks the group leader: -Hey. Is somebody back there, like, watching us watch TV?- The group leader smiles and shakes his head. -Oh no,- he says, -no one is back there. No one is watching you. Please take your seat.- The young man shrugs and sits. A woman turns to the mirror and begins examining her teeth.

Actually, you are behind the mirror. You, and about a dozen or so people from the studio. You are watching the young man and the Tooth Lady and 30 of their peers watch what it has taken you nine months and $2,000,000 to produce. As they watch, they manipulate a small dial attached to each chair: they twist it clockwise if they like what they see, and counter-clockwise if they don't. A computer records their responses, collates them, and turns the data into a line graph -- or, more precisely, a two-line graph: one line measures the men's response, the other measures the women's response. The graph is superimposed on a tape of the show which is playing on your side of the mirror. You are watching, essentially, an electrocardiogram of your career.

A friend of mine filmed a television pilot recently, and he and his partner, the director, take it to one of the market research facilities here in town to be focus-grouped.

The testing goes quite well. We call it -testing- the pilot around here because of the grim clinical connotations of the word. In my friend-s case, the focus group enjoyed the show, giving it a -will watch- designation, which is about the highest possible rank. They were unanimously negative, however, on one point: a particular actress they all despised with equally high intensity. In the guided discussion that followed the screening and the questionnaires they filled out, the participants, to a person, remarked on the general badness of this particular actress. They all hated her. They hated her face. They hated her voice. They hated her body. They hated her totality. At one point in the show she is standing next to a box of newborn puppies. They decided that they also hated the puppies, which was a market-testing first: puppies, kittens, and children in wheelchairs always test very well.

The problem was that the actress was married to the director. And the director was behind the one-way mirror, listening to America tell him how repellent his wife was. Also behind the mirror were representatives from the studio that produced the pilot, the network that bought the pilot, and the writer, none of whom had the courage to so much as steal a sidelong glance at the director, who, presumably, stared straight ahead into the middle distance, with that vague, abstracted smile people get on their faces when they don-t know what else to do.

Here-s what he did. He convinced his partners that if they wanted to replace his wife, he wouldn-t stand in their way, but if they did, they-d also have to replace the young girl playing her daughter. It was an awkward discussion, and this seemed like a good way out, so everyone agreed. So before the word got out - and when it comes to testing, word always gets out -- the director took his wife to Bacara, and somewhere between the pool-side Margarita and the hot stone massage, he told her that the young girl playing her daughter tested terribly, that audiences hated her, and that she needed to be replaced, that the network wanted an older younger actress to play the daughter, which means, honey, that you-re way, way, way too young to pass as the new actress-s mom.

This, of course, worked. Which goes to show that focus group results, like infidelity, can destroy a marriage, or make it stronger.

That-s it for this week. Next week, actors versus writers.

For KCRW, I-m Rob Long. This has been Martini Shot.



Rob Long