Focus Groups Move West So Ratings Can Move North

Before advertising executives at New York City’s upfronts can make their preliminary bets on the potential hits in the new U.S. primetime series, a whole other group of people who don’t know a thing about CPMs (Cost per thousand viewers or College Preparatory Mathematics) help decide how to tailor a new series to advertisers’ and fellow audiences’ preferences.

Indeed, participants in TV programming focus groups rate a show’s potential “watch-ability” before the advertisers get to see it and help steer the networks toward tweaking the pilots they decide to pick up.

Stephen J Davis
Steve Ridge of Frank N. Magid Associates

         Traditionally, the most popular location in which to hold focus groups in the U.S. was the Midwest (the Peoria, Illinois factor). The idea behind that being that people in middle-America best represent the “average” TV viewer, a far cry from the New York or L.A.-dweller portrayed in the TV shows they watch. Because, to paraphrase a popular saying, “America is what one sees on the plane from New York to Los Angeles.”

         But over time, the glitzy, campy town of Las Vegas, Nevada has become something of a Mecca for research groups. The reasons are varied, but a few stand out. “Vegas is the fastest-growing city in the U.S.,” said Don Hein, director of MRC Focus, the qualitative division of the Las Vegas-based MRC Group Research Institute, which acts as an intermediary between networks and viewers. In addition, “Almost 40 million people come through Vegas each year,” he said.

And, because a large majority of those people are on vacation, their schedules are more flexible, and, one can assume, their incomes more disposable. And of course disposable incomes are crucial in the minds of the advertisers that networks attempt to woo.

         “The close proximity to Los Angeles helps too,” added Hein.

 “Las Vegas, for us, is the place for entertainment research,” said Paul Cunningham, president of Cunningham Research Group, a Florida-based, full-service marketing research group that runs focus groups in various Las Vegas venues and counts Nielsen Media Research as one of its major clients. “Because Las Vegas is primarily a vacation spot, we can recruit people in 24 hours or less. And because many people come to Las Vegas just for a short time, we get a lot of ‘virgin respondents’, meaning they haven’t been in a lot of groups before.”

For these reasons, said Cunningham, “all networks are a lot or a little involved in Las Vegas focus groups.” In fact, of the Las Vegas-based focus group facilitators interviewed, each one said they have counted a fair number of cable and terrestrial TV networks as clients.

But if there’s one network that could be credited for this mass exodus to Las Vegas, it’s CBS, which, under the auspices of David Poltrack, evp, Research and Planning, opened the CBS Television City Research Center on the Las Vegas “Strip” at the MGM Grand hotel in 2001.

         Unlike the average focus groups, where participants are financially compensated for their time and feedback, CBS viewers do it for almost nothing. In exchange for their time they get a $10 coupon good for the merchandise in Television City and the chance to win a $9,000 Sony home entertainment system.

         “If you look at the success of [CBS] shows now compared to a few years ago, it looks like Poltrack must have been doing something right,” said Cunningham.

         MRC’s Don Hein concurred, “CBS certainly was a driving factor in how it’s all transpired,” he said. Hein’s company, however didn’t experience quite as much success in their Venetian hotel shopping area, and relocated off of the Strip.

But just like every other aspect of the entertainment business, technology is putting its footprint on this traditional research methodology and now Las Vegas isn’t the only hot spot for focus groups. In fact, a new location is becoming more popular . . . the World Wide Web. “The Internet can play a bigger role in ascertaining how consumers feel,” explained Brad Adgate, svp, Corporate Research director of marketing-driven media services company Horizon Media. “You can get an opinion from more people and are not limited by geography or time constraints,” he said.

However, just as traditional focus groups carry limitations (such as the likelihood that one person will dominate a particular session, or the human tendency for participants to remember the negative over the positive), online focus groups have shortcomings as well: namely that you can never know for sure whether the respondents are who they say they are, and that people are more likely to review something if they’ve had a negative experience with it.

But despite these problems, online focus groups are a thing of the present. “Our online panel business was something we had to get into,” said Cunningham, whose company adopted an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ mantra. “We were seeing competition from the online focus groups,” he admitted.

Steve Ridge, evp of Frank N. Magid Associates, — the U.S.’s premier media research and consulting firm — said his business uses multi-media and multi-genre strategies to get ideas of broader trends rather than specific consumer likes and dislikes. “We almost never use focus groups in isolation,” he said. “There are two types of research that we facilitate,” he explained. “The first is quantitative, meaning we sample a large number of individuals; the second, is qualitative and leads to a greater depth of understanding — it’s the level at which we flesh out what’s been learned.” Ridge explained that focus groups fall into the qualitative category and are used subsequently and in conjunction with quantitative surveys that are usually Internet or phone-based.

Quantitative results from Internet and phone surveys are used by the networks to determine how attractive a show will be to advertisers and, therefore, whether or not it will be picked up. Qualitative research from focus groups, on the other hand, helps the network fine-tune the shows they’re going to pick up.

In fact, Ridge stressed that as a company, Magid Associated sees quantitative research as the most important foundation from which to garner information. He identified the inherent weakness in focus groups as their small sample size, something that a prior quantitative survey can help eradicate.

         But without a doubt, traditional, quantitative focus groups are big business. In fact, there is enough money going around to justify hundreds of media research companies popping up across the country. “There are somewhere near 800 companies across the U.S.,” estimated Eric Souza, president and owner of Las Vegas Field and Focus, who described the traditional TV programming testing method his company uses as “very accurate, perhaps the absolute best way to hear from a consumer.”

Besides being accurate, it seems the business is lucrative as well. “We base our price on the degree of difficulty, depending on how broad the demographic is. The more specific the demo the network is looking for, the more money it will cost,” Souza said. While he declined to say exactly how much his company’s service costs, Souza said that the average client will have to pay about $2,500 for a typical focus group (of 10-12 people), which covers the price for recruiting and compensating respondents, as well as facility rental.  LC