Inside The Focus Groups Who Determine What You See On TV
Focus groups are treated like a symbol of everything that's wrong with Hollywood. Instead of taking creative risks, networks will put a new TV show in front of a bunch of random nobodies and either alter it to their whims or kill it altogether. It seems very weird and deeply unscientific, so we had to know more. We talked with Tyler, who has helped run focus groups for a whole bunch of shows, most of which never made it to your screens. He says ...
Networks Will Try To Get The Answers They Want
The process sounds simple, if you've never actually done it. "We would lead people to rooms," says Tyler, "they watch the pilot or episode, and to keep track, [they] all have a knob that goes from 0 to 100, 0 meaning no interest in a certain part to 100 for total interest. There's also an option for them to 'click off,' which means it would be the part at which they would change the channel or choose to stop watching it."
After that, there's a list of questions, either written by the testers or the network. And here is where you start to see the ways an interested party can put their thumb on the scale. "We've been asked to treat something as 'special' before. You can tell they're really pulling for a show or want to make a certain actor look good, or at least try to push them."
Tyler specifically remembers actor Jason O'Mara, who's starred in so many doomed TV shows that he's basically an Irish Nathan Fillion. "Each year the questions got more and more desperate. They went from 'What do you think about the main character?' to 'What don't you like about the main character?' to his last show we had that blatantly asked 'Why don't you like the main character?' By the end, they were asking focus groups assuming they were going to hate him again. That's how bad it got."
They Get Immediate Insight Into America's Cultural Divide
Entertainment is still made on the coasts, and creators like to set their shows there -- it's close and it's what they know. Well, guess what? Middle America has started to hate that shit.
"For any scripted show set in New York or LA, the top reason for not liking has often been 'It's set in New York or LA.' ... There's usually one extra note from a person in the group, and it says, 'I hate New York City. Stop making shows about it.'" Tyler describes scores tanking when characters in a Brooklyn-based show joked that Indiana was a "wasteland." It's the same any time they make a joke that only locals would get. "One note said, in all capital block letters, 'What the fuck is a Gowanus Canal?'"
The divide between red and blue America has become more pronounced in the last few years, as every show runs into the same paradox: You either contort things to desperately avoid mentioning politics at all, or take a side and lose half your audience.
"For example, we had a screening of a Roseanne-like pilot ... it was just a family comedy until politics got involved for a few minutes. It was at a steady 70 or 75 on the graph, then as soon as pro-right things were being talked about, half the room went up, the other down ... Then, about ten minutes later, there were a few potshots at Republicans. On the graph, you can tell exactly when they were made ... the individual clickers went to either 100 or 0."
The questions then have to try to account for this. They had a reality show about fan boat pilots in Louisiana (you can already picture it in your head), and "One of the questions was 'Do any of these characters not align with who you are?' Which is a really awkward way of asking if they liked that the fan boat guy was very right-wing or not."
The Composition Of A Group Skews Things In Unexpected Ways
If you follow politics, you know that polling can be a nightmare due to sampling. Call in the afternoon, and your results are biased toward people who happen to be available to answer their phone during the day. So clearly, when forming a focus group for a multi-million-dollar TV show, they're not just going to grab random people off the street. Right?
"We grab people off the street." Tyler says. "I've done this in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In Vegas, the screening place was right off the Strip, so all we had to do was go around and offer people coupons, and suddenly we had a huge diverse group of people show up. In Los Angeles, it's usually Hollywood Boulevard."
When he says "diverse," he means racially diverse. Whether they want to or not, they are still filtering for people -- often tourists -- who are willing to drop everything for a coupon.
"We usually don't get too many wealthy people unless we're closer to a more upper-class hotel or casino, and we won't get many poor people, because we purposely won't pick homeless people because they aren't on our radar, and poorer people usually won't vacation to these places ."
This can, Tyler admits, affect results in ways that not even experts fully anticipate. "A lot of pilots are tested during the summer. And this is Vegas and LA, so when you come to a bunch of hot people outside and offer them a few hours inside an air-conditioned TV screening, many will jump." So they wind up tilting their groups to, let's say, people who don't like standing in the heat. Or, to put it another way, "we're going to have rooms full of fat or old people judging shows."
Other Random Factors Skew Things Even More
Hey, remember that Louisiana fan boat reality show pilot? The first time they tested it, they got fantastic scores. Like, too good. Well ...
"That weekend in Las Vegas, there was a whole Louisiana contingent in town for some conference ... our people outside had inadvertently picked off everyone at this conference. The showrunner was going to the executives after that, saying, 'Look! Look how much interest there is!'" His hopes were dashed when he saw what the non-Louisianan data looked like. This is apparently more common than you'd think.
"We also had a reality pilot for Discovery or Nat Geo about tech startups ... Somehow it was scheduled during CES, which is a huge electronics and tech showcase in Vegas. It got high marks all week from people at the conference. The network, based on that, was about to green-light it, but wanted a few more [tests] for 'demographic purposes.'"
You can probably guess what happened next. "The overall scores between the two weeks went from the high 80s / low 90s to 20s, because we had average people watching it now. They hated it so much. We leave a space for comments, and they went from 'A true look at my industry' to, and I'll give you the most common words from our world cloud, 'pretentious,' 'assholes' ... 'I hate San Francisco.'"
The other thing to remember is the general atmosphere -- focus groups are infamously harsh just because they think that's what's expected. If you're being prodded with detailed questions, "It was fine" seems like a weak response, so you invent things to criticize. Oh, and Tyler is pretty sure the furniture can screw with the scores as well. "Most people watch TV now on a couch or on their bed. But in focus groups, you're in this little room in a cheap office chair. And we're bombarding them with questions, so they'll be more critical."
He's actually seen this in action. "We had a pipe burst in LA once, and that ruined the room we were in, so we had to move it to a conference room that had a bunch of recliners in them, because executives at that studio were spoiled. We were doing some new show with Betty White in it, and it wasn't testing well for several groups, but once they were in that room, it suddenly jumped up."
Streaming Is Changing Everything
If this process all seems kind of old-fashioned to you, know that much of the industry agrees. Amazon is doing all of it's testing online by letting viewers rate TV pilots like any other product, Netflix doesn't even bother with focus grouping, and biofeedback has been in the industry for focus groups for about a decade now -- that is, gauging how viewers respond on a physical level.
Streaming platforms, of course, have detailed data about who's watching what, and then can use that to make decisions (Netflix is infamous for relying on its algorithms). But that method has flaws, too. It can tell you that someone stopped watching something, but it can't tell you why. There's also another reason traditional networks still use focus testing, and it has to do with money. "It's based on how they're funded. Networks want certain demographics for advertising." So if they've got a show specifically for middle-aged males, and have pitched it to advertisers pushing pickup trucks and cholesterol medicine, they can tell focus testing to get them a group of precisely that audience. "For Netflix, there's no real advertising, so you don't need to worry about demographics."
This is what every frustrated fan of a canceled show fails to get. A small group of passionate viewers isn't enough. There is a separate game being played behind the scenes that is entirely about how much a network can charge for ad space. "[Focus groups] won't be correct all of the time in seeing if a show will be popular, but what they will tell you is who it's for and how much it can bring them ... there's only a 6 percent chance that a bought pilot will make it to air, so they need to be sure. That's why we still do this."
As You Can Guess, Show Creators Hate All Of This
Many in the industry hate focus groups because of how easily they can make or break shows, as well as, you know, crush their dreams. For example, one comedy pilot about zombies was pretty much killed because of a single bad focus group that didn't like all of the cannibalism. The creative minds behind the shows do not enjoy this, as Tyler can tell you. "This thing they've spent years on can be deep-sixed in a matter of days ... I've seen veteran showrunners, who have five or six good series under their belt, start shaking in the booth when they watch a focus group."
You are, after all, talking about hundreds of hours of their work, millions of dollars of someone else's money, and who knows how many creative decisions along the way. All hanging on this one group of strangers pulled off the street (the creator of Lost likened it to going to the dentist, though at least there your sensitive nerves are in the hands of a professional).
"We had Chuck Lorre here once (the guy behind The Big Bang Theory, Two And A Half Men, and others) ... that whole screening was a disaster ... about five minutes in, one of the writers said, 'This is my favorite joke,' and Lorre said, 'Mine too.' Not only did it tank, but half the audience 'tuned out' right after it." As in, they hit the button that says they'd have changed the channel after that joke.
"Those screening room booths are like a two-way police station mirror, and it's also soundproof. I'm telling you because [the writer] got so mad and said, 'You fuckers don't know comedy! What the fuck is wrong with all of you!' ... By the end of the screening, with 60 people watching, all but eight had tuned out ... Lorre had already left."
Would you have liked those jokes the focus group hated? We'll presumably never know.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, journalist and interview finder guy at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience for a Personal Experience? Hit us up here today!
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