New CBS research site is no gamble

Apr 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

While millions of people go to Las Vegas every year to roll the dice, CBS heads to Sin City to make its programming choices less of a gamble.
At the end of the Studio Walk in the MGM Grand is Television City, the 5,000-square-foot testament to high technology, basic merchandising and familial branding, in which tourists by the hundreds this week will get sneak peeks at some 22 pilots CBS is considering for prime time in the 2001-02 season.
These casually dressed guinea pigs-who earn a $10 CBS store credit and the chance to win a Sony home entertainment system for their time-have a potentially profound power over what CBS unveils, where it is scheduled, who stars in it and even how the plots unfold and what jokes are told.
Their influence might extend throughout the season if they become part of the Web panel in which ACNielsen Entertainment will be a partner. David Poltrack, CBS Television’s executive vice president for research and planning, envisions a Web-connected pool of 100,000 people to whom CBS can turn with specific questions at any point.
“We want to have a continual dialogue with them,” Mr. Poltrack said.
But the focus of the next two weeks is on picking CBS’s next-season candidates and putting the research facility conceived and overseen by Mr. Poltrack-and technologically outfitted and integrated by Sony Electronics and SonyStyle-through its first official paces, 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We’re sort of on the bleeding edge,” said Mr. Poltrack last week as he showed off the equipment and methodology now getting its first real test at Television City.
In two interview rooms, the test audiences watch a program with game show-style buttons in each hand. The user presses the red button to indicate something disliked and the green for something liked, producing spikes that are easier to define than the curves resulting from dials that some research methods employ. Then users answer questions displayed on the touch-activated computer screens at each viewing station.
CBS executives in Los Angeles and New York can track the responses in real time and add or change the questions displayed on the computer screens in Las Vegas.
Across the walkway are two focus group rooms in which the reactions of people, who have hand-held red and green buttons but no computer screens, will be asked questions by a moderator. Again, midstream input is possible by CBS executives who can listen to the focus groups from L.A. or New York or watch from the other side of a two-way mirror in the minimalist room. Still to come is the video-conference equipment that will allow the executives to watch from CBS headquarters or via the Internet.
As the panelists in the interview rooms identify what or who they do or don’t like, the focus group members help identify why, sometimes in a most old-fashioned way: by having the moderator leave the room and give the group an opportunity to talk among themselves.
CBS has used various hotel locations in Vegas for testing grounds during the past 13 years because it is a destination for a telling cross-section of Americans. The MGM Grand was chosen for Television City because the hotel is the biggest in town. (On the average day, 60,000 people cross the threshold, and 1,000 of them wander past the CBS outpost, next to the concert venue that’s become tops in Vegas.) Plus, the hotel’s guest demos fall into the categories most desired by networks-especially CBS, which has been working hard for several seasons to shave years off its viewership.
“The demographics of this site are younger [than the stereotypical CBS audience],” Mr. Poltrack said. “They’re dream demographics.”
CBS also tests at a tourist hot spot in Orlando, Fla., during pilot season, but Mr. Poltrack said Orlando audiences tend to give higher scores, and Vegas screeners tend to be more honest. Test groups are told that while there may be CBS executives listening or watching, there are no stars who might be offended by honesty.
Each screening group of 250, with probably 35 to 40 states represented, will later be broken down by computer, which will randomly assemble them into five regionally and demographically balanced subsamples of 75 each. (The same person might land in more than one sample.)
Separate phone sampling and other testing will help CBS spot inconsistencies and biases from one research medium to another. Mr. Poltrack said that in his 20-year tenure, no show has ever outperformed the share-of-audience estimates that his research teams have produced.
“That is a chilling statistic to programming people,” he said.
The network’s record of overestimating shows’ potential share 10 percent of the time can be chalked up to such factors as it being easier to make a good pilot than a consistent series, commitments attached to pilots, or test subjects giving what they think is the “socially desirable response.”
Mr. Poltrack showed off his new “consumer interaction center” to CBS Television President and CEO Les Moonves last week. A spokesman for Mr. Moonves said, “I know he liked what he saw.”
What the public-on its way to or from the MGM Grand’s pool-spa-theme park area-will see is an eye-catching display of corporate logos and programming (some of it live and in high-definition format) from CBS and its Viacom sister brands.
They also can browse the shop that offers basic merchandise-Mr. Poltrack said boomerangs and other “Survivor” products are hot. The MGM Grand operates the store, and CBS collects the license fees for goods sold.
Once pilot season is over, research will continue at Television City. Mr. Poltrack said phone-survey research encouraged CBS to make the stunningly successful decision to put “Survivor II” on Thursday and break NBC’s longtime lock on the night, and research likewise has affected key aspects of “Big Brother II.”
In June, representatives of all Viacom divisions will meet to see the facility, which can be rented to them and to some outsiders. Visitors may test everything from movie trailers and Internet content to music videos and commercials or use it for video-conferencing that could have real applications in a convention-heavy town.
“It’s got to be entertainment related,” said Mr. Poltrack, who noted that commercials will be tested only within a program context.
“We have a lot of interest from advertisers,” said Mr. Poltrack, who foresees the day when the project’s partners will trade databases.
While the research executive is reluctant to be so “aggressive” as to predict that Television City, which went from concept and bids to completion in a year, might someday become a profit center for the network, he didn’t hesitate to declare: “This is going to be the most cost-effective research ever done.”