If you’ve ever thought that network TV shows might just as well be chosen by a random bunch of drunks working for cigarette money — sometimes they might be.
How do I know? I was one of them.
In truth, I was perfectly sober. But I can’t attest to the state of the dozen or so people in the room with me, considering that we’d been flagged down at random in a Las Vegas casino.
I was returning to my hotel from a trade show when I was buttonholed in the shopping arcade of the Paris casino. I was directed to a nearby suite, where a large sign promised me the opportunity to “Help Pick the New Fall Network TV Shows!” It was market research by Nielsen, best known for its TV ratings but active in all kinds of marketing intelligence.
I was seated at a computer screen in a room that held about two dozen people. We were asked to view a series of print and TV ads for “Revolution,” an NBC science-fiction show that’s returning from hiatus in March, as well as a trailer promoting the show.
We saw five print ads, each of them fairly similar but with slight differences in taglines, type treatment or prominence given to various characters in the layout. After viewing each ad, we answered a long series of questions via touchscreen: Does this show seem sexy? Do you understand the concept? Does it seem scary? Is it appropriate for all ages? Does it seem exciting? Are you more or less likely to watch it after viewing this ad?
It was an interesting process, and I understand why the network and the producers would want to gather information on their major investment. But the ads we viewed were so similar that it felt like overkill to obsess over slight differences in tone or look.
Having worked on a number of ads myself, I shudder at the thought of my work being subjected to this kind of knee-jerk analysis by random people. Clearly, the creative team had arrived at a basic concept they liked.
In my view, they’d be better served by going ahead based on their own reactions, not by tweaking based on input from a bunch of people snatched from the slot machines.
We also viewed a trailer for the show while pressing red and green buttons to register like or dislike. You’ve probably seen focus groups on TV political coverage doing the same thing, with the lines rising or falling in response to what the politicians are saying.
We didn’t get that kind of visible feedback; all we knew was to press the green button when we liked something, and press the red button when we didn’t. I found it challenging to accurately express my feelings with the buttons. The clips moved very quickly – fast cuts from one character to another, from an impassioned speech to a sword fight to a spurned lover. With only a few seconds to respond to the rapidly changing input, I usually either just held down one button if I basically liked or disliked the general artistic direction, or sat out the action by pressing neither button.
When we finished, I went over to a desk where a nice lady gave me two crisp $5 bills.
That was my contribution to NBC’s programming. To me, it felt like a futile effort — a bunch of people weighing in on something they knew nothing about, selecting among narrowly prescribed options with little time to think or provide additional insight.
If that’s how network TV shows — and their ad campaigns — are made, then it’s no wonder the content of both is so often a soggy, uninspiring mess.