It’s Time to Put Pilots to the Test

May 2, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The testing of TV programming, promos and talent has become a year-round business, but it doesn’t get any busier than this time of year, when the programmers for the broadcast networks are preparing to assemble their fall lineups, each hoping they have found the next “Lost” or weeded out the next “Father of the Pride.”

Each network wants to know as much as possible about how a cross-section of real people feel about the new shows the network is considering. And they need to know quickly.

That’s a tall order. Each seeks feedback from 400 or more viewers for each of roughly 20 pilots over the course of about two weeks, starting almost as soon as producers deliver the pilots and ending right before the networks put final touches on their new season schedules.

Michael Mellon, senior VP for research at ABC, said he loves this time of year. “It’s an intense time. We get a tape in at 8 o’clock in the morning. We report back the next day. It’s an ongoing cycle of crazy fun.”

“A lot of people say this is pilot hell season. I think it’s pilot heaven season, the ABC executive said. “If you don’t get excited about this next couple of weeks, I don’t know what you would get excited about.”

Just as the networks are looking to find and fine-tune their best programs, a handful of leading research facilities and services providers constantly evolve their offerings to offer the television industry the most information in the most efficient way. TelevisionWeek has learned, for example, that research company ASI Entertainment is testing a methodology built around an instantaneous response dial it can deploy in viewers’ homes.

CBS saw so much value in program testing that it built a dedicated research facility in the quintessential American way station. Since 2001, the network has done most of its testing at its Television City at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

NBC Universal is the major client at Robert A. Brilliant Inc.’s facility, Hollywood Previews, in the Desert Passage shopping mall adjacent to the Aladdin, also in Las Vegas. In addition, NBC Universal is creating a new facility, the Delancey Street Preview Center, at Universal Studios Florida, where beta testing is under way and launch is scheduled for this summer.

NBC, which is testing some 20 programs over a week and a half, expects to be able to test pilots next year at both its Orlando, Fla., facility and Mr. Brilliant’s Las Vegas facility.

Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development for NBC, considers cable his primary test platform. Roughly 30,000 people will be interviewed as possible participants for favorite programming genres and other basic information. Each test audience will consist of about 400 people ages 18 to 60, 75 percent of them in NBC’s key demo of 18 to 49 and the rest 50-plus.To test audiences in bulk, the chief option for most networks is to use cable as well as independent research facilities such as ASI Entertainment on the West Coast; a brand-new Nielsen Entertainment research facility in Vegas’ Fashion Show Mall; and MRCGroup, which operates the Las Vegas Preview Studios in the Venetian’s shopping area in Las Vegas.

Researchers buy time from cable operators in cities selected to suit the network’s demographic profile, and recruited audiences are contacted by phone afterward and asked questions about what they saw.

“In Vegas, you wind up cuming people. You can only run a certain number of people through the system at any one time. We’re basically [hoping to talk] to 400 people when it comes to a pilot. In order to do that in Las Vegas, you probably have to run it for a couple of days. We don’t have enough time. That’s the reason we are not doing pilots right now in Las Vegas,” Mr. Wurtzel said.

On the other hand, CBS, which is screening about 22 projects for CBS and 10 for sister network UPN, has weaned itself off cable testing for pilots and focuses on the video-theater testing at its Vegas facility.

The challenges attendant to cable testing include:

  • Cost. Buying the time to telecast a program on 10 to 12 multiple system operators was dirt cheap when there were numerous little-used public access channels on most systems. In today’s more crowded cable universe, time buys have become “prohibitively expensive,” said David Poltrack, executive VP for research and planning at CBS, who puts the cost of a cable test at three to four times the cost of a Vegas-style test for the same basic sample.
  • Lag time. If the respondent is not questioned immediately after a screening, he or she is likely to see other TV programming that could alter their impression of the test show.
  • Lack of the instantaneous response record provided by dials or button use during the theater-style screening setups in dedicated research facilities.

    ASI is testing a methodology, built around an in-home dial, the ViewTrac II, that would transmit data to ASI, in combination with follow-up questioning conducted via the Internet, designed to address the latter two challenges.

    “We think it’s the next frontier,” ASI CEO David Castler said.

    ASI will work with a sample of 500 to 600 homes in which respondents manipulate dials while watching the test programming. Afterward, subjects place the dial into its cradle, plugged into a home telephone jack, thus sending a signal to an ASI phone number that the device has data ready to be received.

    To complement this raw data, the company has a Web site where respondents can give more detailed answers about their responses to the shows. It also asks whether they would continue to watch the potential series.

    Mr. Castler said ASI will attempt to avoid creating “professional respondents”-because, he said, “They’re not your typical viewer”-by limiting the length of time they can remain in the sample and the frequency with which they participate. Those who come in to ASI’s AllMedia Centers in Glendale, Calif., and in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles, for example, are barred from participating again for at least a year.

    “This certainly addresses two of the issues,” Mr. Poltrack said. “For an individual test this would improve the cable testing significantly.” But the CBS executive said he thinks the sample seems too small, and expanding the sample could get “really expensive.”

    At-Home Feel

    The goal of researchers is to attempt to make the testing experience as similar as possible to actual home viewing, one reason Internet testing is not in widespread use.

    Viewing video on a computer screen is markedly different from the experience of watching TV. The computer screen is much smaller than the average TV screen. The computer is built for solo viewing and is most often upright and leaning forward.

    “Television is a lean-back experience,” Mr. Mellon said. “I’ll stick with cable until someone shows me something better.”

    “We have upgraded our Internet connection,” Mr. Poltrack said. “We can have people put on a pair of earphones and watch video on the computer. We don’t do that to test programs. Sometimes promos when we want to get a lot of turnover. Everybody can come in and start at their own time.”

    Another reason Internet program testing is not de rigueur is that homes with good broadband access tend to be younger, more upscale and techno-savvy than the average TV home, and thus not representative of a national sample.

    Concerns about the possibility of piracy also are real.

    MRCGroup CEO James Medick, whose Las Vegas Preview Studios can process several hundred respondents a day, said he believes his company has addressed the piracy issue with measures that include “a special player that does not allow the video you are downloading to get into your machine” and by making the experience “as short and as entertaining as possible” by not repeating the same block of questions for each character.

    “I need to get that experience done and get you out of there,” Mr. Medick said.

    ABC does not have an in-house testing facility. It has rough cuts of pilots (27 this year) tested in focus groups in as many as 12 markets. It sends the rough cuts back to producers for twe
    aking and then runs cable tests in up to 12 markets.

    The network will test awareness and marketing in September at corporate sibling Disney’s California Adventure theme park.

    “It gives a first blush of where we are with these shows,” Mr. Mellon said.