Discoveries: A little TV research in Vegas

02/10/2013 12:00 AM

02/08/2013 2:16 PM

LAS VEGAS – Way in the back of that crazed-consumer maze that is the MGM Grand Hotel – past no less than three Starbucks, eight bars, 18 restaurants, 23 retail stores and beyond every inch of the 171,500- square-foot gaming floor – lies a curious little corner whose aqua-blue neon sign proclaims it "Television City."

Next to it is the CBS "eye" logo so, yeah, this must be the place.

I had heard that, among the multifarious other things a consenting adult can do in Las Vegas, you could be a couch potato/guinea pig and watch free screenings of CBS-commissioned TV pilots and advertisements, or even occasionally rate techie products such as 3-D TV sets or Sony gizmos.

Oh, the power we consumers can wield. I am told by a pleasant, blue-jacketed fellow named Bruce Kirsten at the front desk that we, the average viewer, can make or break a new series depending on our electronically monitored reaction.

Did it make us laugh? Cry? Snooze? Producers get immediate feedback, and decisions are made partly based on our input.

Or, at least, that's what Bruce is saying. I have no reason to doubt him because he's not selling anything and, in fact, is sort of paying us for 45 minutes of our time with such nice parting gifts as a free scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and a free Nathan's hot dog – both conveniently located in the MGM Grand.

"Decisions aren't made in some ivory tower in New York or Hollywood," Bruce says. "This is where these shows are tested and decisions made. We aren't some casino attraction. We're doing real work here. We're here in Las Vegas for one purpose – the demographics. We get people from everywhere. Our results are very accurate. 'The Big Bang Theory' was tested here, '2 Broke Girls.' We test CW, Nickelodeon. We'll even test Super Bowl commercials."

If this is merely a come-on, Bruce is quite deft in his presentation. But I sense he's sincere. (And, later, I will unearth a 2010 Advertising Age story on Television City, quoting CBS' chief research officer, David Poltrack, who told the magazine, "We're open to doing research for anybody.")

But CBS shows garner the most attention, Bruce says.

"A program will come in with a quota," he says. "Say they want 300 people to watch it. Once that's met, it moves on, and the next one comes in. We test a lot during pilot season, mid-March until the end of April. That's really the time to come if you want to really be part of selecting the real TV shows."

Really.

In TV City's corner are four conference rooms, called "studios" for verisimilitude's sake. Only Studio 1 has a window, where folks can peer in and see rows of black computer monitors with a flat-screen TV mounted on the front wall.

I, however, am herded to Studio 2, where I line up next to Don and Kate Nichol, a middle-aged couple from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. We joke that we aren't exactly the prime 18-to-34 advertising bracket, but our test proctor, Maurice insists, "Our demo is 18-to-64."

Once inside and behind a terminal, Maurice tells us to log on and give our personal data. Then he explains how to use the knob on our right. I believe the technical term he used was "dial." He wants us to twist the dial, which rests at "50" to the left toward 100 or to the right toward 0, at every point in the show in which we have a reaction. Afterward, he says, we will also fill out a lengthy opinion survey.

Maurice, a taskmaster, admonishes us to answer truthfully and "Please don't look down too often; you want to keep focus on the program. If there's any time during the show you want to tune out and stop watching, press this button, the X."

He then goes for the big reveal. The show we'll watch is a sitcom called "Friend Me." He tells us nothing more about the show. We will not see the title sequence, nor hear the theme song nor see any ads.

The lights dim and the laugh track begins.

It's a comedy about two 20-something tech geeks who move from Bloomington, Ind., to Los Angeles. to work for Google. This is a pilot, so we get some backstory and get to see them meet the supporting characters, a little person ("not a midget"), a blonde-bombshell ER doc, three online poker friends in Indiana and a stripper or two.

I'm not tempted to press the deathly "X" button, but my dial isn't going much past 60 at any time, either.

Here's some sample dialogue (reconstructed from memory; I wasn't taking notes):

Rob (young, fresh-scrubbed techie in a coffee shop after a meet-cute with Julia, a young, fresh-scrubbed doctor): "How are you supposed to meet new people anymore? Everybody's so busy tweeting and updating their Facebook status. One person can't focus on another for 10 seconds without – "

Julia (glancing down at her buzzing smartphone): "I gotta go."

(Cue laugh track.)

Afterward, the electronic survey asks about each character and the show's premise, with questions such as "How do you find the character Rob? Silly, in a good way; Silly, in a bad way; Annoying; Friendly; Boring "

Then we're asked if the plot confused us or was hard to follow. (Heck, it's a sitcom, not "Finnegan's Wake." Of course we could follow.) Then, we're asked to rate current shows we watch and reveal our viewing habits, such as how often we use the DVR and what times of day we watch TV live.

I debrief Don and Kate afterward. Don shrugs and says, "If it winds up on TV, I'll probably give it a couple of episodes."

I'm not so sure. I return the next morning to Television City to take part in another screening, this time with proctor Patricia.

But when she announces we'll be seeing "Friend Me," I slump in my seat and endure another 20 minutes of techies, "little people" and strippers.

The man next to me this time, Dan Pagan of Hayward, likes it much better than I, saying, "When you walk into a coffee shop, that's the way everybody is, staring at a screen. They nailed it. Perfect."

I think about CBS honchos agonizing over whether to place the show on the fall schedule. I hope they have plenty of Maalox. A few days later, Googling "Friend Me," I find a Hollywood Reporter story from Dec. 6, stating "Friend Me" was shelved from CBS' midseason lineup because one of its creators had died.

" 'Friend Me's' run will be announced at a later date," the story says.

Not until they pore over my insightful data, of course.

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