- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

LOS ANGELES

Here we sit, 48 willing judges with palm-sized dial gizmos clutched in our hands.

An overly enthusiastic guy named Neal, who sounds like a Disney tour guide — or a bubbly cartoon character — welcomes us to the 68-degree theater and gallops through directions for our mission. It’s a well-rehearsed spiel delivered with high-octane energy.

With the new fall TV season just weeks away, you might be wondering how new shows are selected. Testing by willing judges such as us is a big part of the equation.

Our job, Neal tells us, is to spin the dial from neutral to a double-minus to a double-plus, depending on our impression of the embryonic TV show that’s flashing across two old-fashioned square screens. If we like a particular character, we might inch the dial toward plus; if a joke falls flat or an action scene looks ridiculous, we might spin toward minus.

Another option is a red button, which we can push if we’re so turned off by the show that we would rather change the channel or flee the set than continue. The results of our dial-spinning are communicated instantly to testers in graph form, not unlike a cardiogram, for each seat in the room. The testers are lurking somewhere unseen, monitoring these real-time results.

This frigid little screening room, nestled on the glamorous grounds of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, belongs to ASI, the granddaddy of all pilot-testing companies. Audience Studies Inc., as it is formally known, is a market research group that has been around since 1966 and counts all the major broadcast and cable networks, along with most production studios, among its clients.

In the screening room, with video cameras watching our every move and a two-way mirror behind which corporate voyeurs crouch, we are told not to talk to each other or even to ourselves. Reactions can be contagious, so if we begin laughing uproariously or groaning audibly, we might skew the results. This is serious business; millions of dollars can be riding on a future hit or dud.

On this particular day, a horrid thing called “I Spike,” about a volleyball team made up of voluptuous women (Team Venus, to be precise) who moonlight as undercover agents, is screened. To say the reaction is negative is an understatement of epic proportions.

“This is an interesting example of a dud,” ASI Chief Executive Officer David Castler says after the horror ends and the results are revealed. “There’s no margin for tweakability.”

By the way, Mr. Castler says men tend to push the dial toward plus for violence and sex, while women tend to respond favorably to babies and dogs. “I Spike” is a cross-gender dud; not even the bikini-clad beauties or bloody violence have captured the men.

The goal of pilot testing is not just to see if viewers laugh at a sitcom or engage in a drama. The goal is to fix what’s wrong, if possible, and improve what’s good. If a particular character makes the dials spin to minus, that character can be rewritten or recast. If a joke falls flat, it can be reworked. That “tweakability” factor is what clients are seeking.

Over the years, we have all heard producers and network executives brag that a new show “tested through the roof.” Well, testing well doesn’t guarantee a show’s success. A pilot might be well-received but subsequent episodes ignored. Failure results.

Conversely, some shows that test poorly can become major hits. “All in the Family,” for example, received terrible negatives and went on to become a long-running, groundbreaking sitcom. Mr. Castler concedes “All in the Family” was his worst misdiagnosis. “Seinfeld” also scored in the dud category.

“The tests give insight and information,” Mr. Castler says. “We can’t predict how a show will do on the air.”

The two-hour sessions at ASI begin with the screening and dial spinning, then move on to questionnaires and conclude with a focus group that provides more specifics and context for the client.

It’s not always, as you might imagine, a pleasant experience for the creative types watching and listening behind the mirrored windows.

“We had one actor-director who watched a particularly bad testing of one of his projects,” Mr. Castler says. “During the focus group, he paced, he swore, he drank, he lost it and eventually came out and took over the session.”

The offender was Carl Reiner, whose legendary TV credits include “Your Show of Shows” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Participants are recruited by phone and paid $50 to $75 to dial up their opinions. The aim is to use people who actually like and watch TV. Clients want to test their shows on likely viewers, not people who hate TV. Clients can specify age and gender, too, if a particular audience is the target, and they can request that participants like (or at least not dislike) a specific genre.

ASI tests about 150 pilots a year at a cost of $20,000 a pop to the client. Home testing through designated cable channels also can be done for $40,000 per show, if the client wants to test in non-California locations.

Mr. Castler says just about every scripted show headed for television stops off for testing at his company.

“Except for reality shows,” he adds. “If it’s reality, they just throw it on television.”

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