The Television Focus Group Blues

Oct 17, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Wayne Friedman

Focus group testing of TV programs and commercials is commonplace among marketers and producers. But sometimes, even for a veteran TV business journalist, it’s hard to know exactly what you are testing.

I received a letter in the mail over the summer from a research company asking me to participate in a focus group. Judging from the name of the company, Television Preview, the focus group might be expected to cover all things television, and one would assume that would include a lot of programming.

The letter encouraged me to come and offer my input. Apparently, common folk like myself are important to TV programmers’ decisions when selecting programs.

Here’s what Television Preview says on its Web site:

“Our goal is to simulate your television viewing environment. You will be asked to view pre-recorded half-hour television segments (including programs and commercials) just as you would in your home.”

Television Preview is not called Television Programming Preview, and for good reason: That might be misleading. What Television Preview really is-as I found out later-is a marketing research company that tests mostly the creativity of TV commercials, but is not so much about TV programming.

I agreed to participate, and took a few friends with me. At the Pasadena Hilton near Los Angeles a line formed outside a big meeting room. We were told we would watch TV programs and commercials for around two hours and answer questions concerning our product preferences.

We were told that we would see two TV series: a drama called “Soulmates” starring Kim Raver, who was on NBC’s “Third Watch,” and a sitcom called “City” starring Valerie Harper. We were told that the producers were looking to possibly retool “City” for a future show.

“And there’ll be some commercials as well,” our host told us.

Once inside we were asked whether anyone had previously participated in a Television Preview event. No one apparently had, which was good for the marketing firm to know. That’s because, according to reports, they would be seeing the same TV shows they saw before.

Not only that, but both “Soulmates” and “City” are very old shows. “Soulmates” never made it to air while “City,” written by Paul Haggis, had a brief run in early 1990 on CBS.

Television Preview has been using those two programs in focus groups for at least seven years, according to a number of bloggers who have written about the company. But a company official said it has as many as a dozen pilot shows in circulation at any given time.

Before and between the airings of “Soulmates” and “City” we were asked to answer questions from booklets regarding what types of products we use-everything from soap to household cleansers to pet food.

Regular-looking commercial breaks were run during the shows. When the programs are over, questions were again asked about products. Research analysts said this was to jog our memories regarding the commercials we had just seen.

Products are mostly household consumer brands, such as Febreze fabric deodorizer, Glad storage bags, Iams pet food and hair color. A number of Procter & Gamble brands were included.

Some researchers said this is an outdated method of testing TV programs but is still in use when it comes to testing the creativity of commercials.

“What they are trying to do is focus on TV shows to get a better read on commercials,” said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP and director of media research for Mediaedge:cia. “If you were told that you’d be watching commercials, that would predispose you to [focus] on the commercials. They are hoping that you watch the programming and that the commercials are incidental-just like you do at home.”

Consumers also wouldn’t be as receptive to the focus groups if they were told they would be evaluating TV commercials. Far fewer people are likely to waste their valuable Saturday nights to go to a hotel meeting room and review spots for bathroom cleaners and dental floss.

Lance McAlindon, a research executive from Procter & Gamble, said the company does indeed use Television Preview but it is only one of a number of focus group research companies P&G uses to gather information on how viewers will respond to commercials. He does not think Television Preview’s practices are misleading because viewers, in fact, are shown TV shows and commercials, as promised.

Not everyone agrees.

“They are kind of bringing you in there under false pretenses,” said Mediaedge’s Mr. Schwartz. “It depends on how they position it. It sounds [as though] they weren’t 100 percent accurate, but they weren’t dishonest.”

Mr. Schwartz agrees that the distinction is somewhat murky, but he notes that focus group research is not perfect. The alternative is to do more expensive test marketing, where participants are paid a small fee, he said.

Bloggers have complained for years that the Television Preview focus groups aren’t fair, specifically because the TV programs are dated.

“We were kind of lured there because we thought we were getting an inside view, but this stuff was old,” said Cassandra Richey, who attended that night in Pasadena. During follow-up phone calls from Television Preview marketing people, Ms. Richey said, she also complained about this.

Jamie Velcher, operations manager of Television Preview, agreed that the pilots were old, but said they still tested well, especially “City.” He says the Evansville, Ind.-based company, which has been around for 30 years, does in fact sell TV program data to producers-specifically to the producers of “Soulmates.”

Major television program testing companies such as ASI Entertainment are more technologically sophisticated, using meters or dials that can record the minute-by-minute reactions of viewers to characters, plot details and other production elements. Participants also get to sit in a better screening environment with bigger screens and more comfortable, theater-like seats.

Television Preview and other research companies work differently. We were told that in the past Television Preview held screenings in movie theaters but that environment failed to re-create the in-home TV experience. It was decided instead to block off about 150 people into four sections of a room, each section with a 26-inch TV screen, because most people watch TV on smaller screens.

Supposedly, an approximation of the in-home experience is what TV producers and ad agency creatives want as well. Television Preview assures its participants on its Web site, “This data will be analyzed and passed on to the producers, directors, sponsors and other people that make decisions as to what makes it to air and what ends up on the cutting room floor.”

The big question is, were the participants hoodwinked? In part, we were. We were told that we would be determining what would be seen on TV in the future, and that’s only partly right. No real potential TV programming was part of the mix, and only two of the 50-some pages of booklet material were devoted to questions about TV shows.

Television Preview’s Mr. Velcher admitted there are some problems with the presentation. “Our emcees explained [the situation] differently,” he said, adding, “They do probably stretch [the connection with TV programming] a bit.”

Ms. Richey, who has experienced a fair amount of product and TV program testing, said, “I’m a sophisticated person and I felt I was misled. I’m from Indiana and we are good sports about this. We used to get a lot of free stuff in the mail. Our family was a Nielsen family.

“In the follow-up call they asked me what I thought about some hair color product. I told them I remembered the commercials but I thought they were stupid.”

Television Preview has different results when it comes to satisfaction with its research outings. For example, on its Web site it says that for the week of Oct. 8, 44 percent of participants “liked program 1,” 77 percent “liked program 2” and 82 percent “enjoyed particip
ating.” The company said it is not allowed to identify the programs.

Just for the record, we’re pretty sure program 1 was “Soulmates” and program 2 was “City.” Which means that people like a good laugh and had a good time overall, even if it didn’t mean much. As Ms. Richey said: “Television Preview wasn’t a negative experience-but it wasn’t positive either.”