For CBS’s David Poltrack, executive VP, research and planning, the vanguard of network research is in Las Vegas.
In April 2001 CBS opened Television City in the MGM Grand’s Studio Walk, the casino’s main shopping and dining venue. Guests can buy Viacom-themed merchandise in Television City and are invited to take part in research sessions on CBS and UPN products in one of four state-of-the-art testing rooms. Real-time results can be sent directly to network offices in New York and Los Angeles.
On a typical day Television City gets 150 to 200 research subjects, and during pilot testing season that number can rise to 500. “The average survey of 200 people will have representatives of 30 different states in it,” Mr. Poltrack said. “We would have had to do focus groups or research in 10 different physical locations to even get a cross-section of America, and we’re getting it in one place.”
In an increasingly competitive world, where research departments are asked to turn out quality results faster and faster, Television City is the newest approach for trying to figure out what audiences think of network programming. In this scenario, audiences and technology are brought together in one research-ready location.
Mr. Poltrack wouldn’t say how much the facility cost. “Other networks might want to try it,” he said. But he made clear the facility was worth it. “We’re spending less money on research today than we were at the height of our research spending, and we’re getting dramatically more research,” he said.
Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC Universal, called CBS’s approach in Las Vegas “brilliant” and said that with the recent merger making both NBC and Universal GE entities, he is interested in experimenting with testing at the Universal Studios theme park in Los Angeles. He added that the new company would proceed cautiously because unlike at a casino, people pay to enter a theme park and are not looking for something to do once their money runs out.
He said he also has explored the idea of setting up a facility in New York’s Rockefeller Center, but prohibitive real estate prices put an end to that.
Last year ABC decided to use the Disney’s California Adventure theme park in Anaheim, Calif., not only to test new pilots but to promote its new fall schedule. Michael Mellon, senior VP, research, for ABC television network, called the ABC Prime Time Preview Weekend successful, because it allowed for promo testing, show testing and the collection of e-mail addresses for building out an ongoing panel. This year’s Preview Weekend is already on the books.
For Mr. Wurtzel, the ultimate goal of research is to “get video in front of people,” and entertainment destinations seem like the latest way to achieve that goal. But in the not-so-distant future, the Internet may allow networks to send product to test audiences without any barrier between them, trumping Las Vegas, mall intercepts and the hype surrounding the potential of digital video recorders.
“I have a feeling that broadband will be there before the DVR samples expand sufficiently to be representative,” he said. “It will be indistinguishable from watching a DVD on a computer. And when we’re there, we’re set.”
Mr. Mellon also said gathering research via the Internet is sure to change things, especially now that Internet usage is “much closer to the national sample of TV viewing.”
But he stressed that new technologies won’t change whether an audience likes a show or not. “Computers and the Internet and high-speed modems have changed,” Mr. Mellon said, “and the amount of data has been ramped up. But at the end of the day, one plus one equals two.”