The Role of Focus Groups in U.S. TV Programming

Las Vegas - that last bastion of all things tacky - may not at first glance seem like the most logical locale for television programmers to set up shop, but that's just what CBS and NBC are doing, establishing market research facilities deep in the heart of Sin City, hoping to weed out the good, the bad and the terminally unwatchable from their slates.

Since it opened in spring 2001, more than 200 people a day have flocked to Television City, CBS' state-of-the-art market research facility in Vegas' largest hotel, the MGM Grand. Not to be outdone, NBC opened its own facility in the nearby Venetian Hotel early this month.

Open 12 hours a day, 365 days a year, Television City, which touts itself as the most technologically advanced facility of its kind, is adorned with enough CBS, Viacom and MTV logos to influence even the most impartial of testers. But Joy Morais, operations manager at Television City, opined that the network's logos do little to skew viewer reactions. "When they go into a screening, they pretty much only rate what they're watching," she said.

Participants in pilot testing - who receive $10 in credit redeemable at the adjacent store and are asked questions ranging from what characters they find most intriguing to what elements of the plot they like best - use both computer touch screens and interactive dials to monitor their shifting opinions regarding the programming in question. Others who participate in lengthier focus groups receive between $25 and $50 in merchandise. CBS executives in Los Angeles monitor the focus groups via videoconferencing, and instruct moderators, who wear wireless earpieces, as to what to ask.

The network tested 18 TV pilots there in the past year - which means that gamblers getting reimbursed in store merchandise had a big say in what CBS ultimately chose to put on the air this season.

Though it may seem to some that NBC is playing catch-up, James T. Medick, chief executive of the MRCGroup Research Institute, which, in partnership with NBC and Nielsen, opened the facility at the Venetian, feels differently. "There are some primary differences [between the networks' approaches to this venture]. Our operation is generic in nature. There will be no branding of any particular network. It's completely enclosed. . . . There had been some concerns from [NBC and Nielsen] that there could be some preemptive biasing. It seemed best to keep it as an entertainment preview testing [center]."

The testing facility at the Venetian will be logo and merchandise free - even bearing the name MRCGroup Preview Studio rather NBC Preview Studio. Nevertheless, subjects will be compensated in T-shirts, coupons and even gaming chips, "because it is Vegas," said Medick. NBC also uses the center for cable channels CNBC and MSNBC.

The company chose the Venetian because it's "a must-see destination in Las Vegas," said Medick. In fact, MRCGroup found that 60 percent of respondents at preview testing weren't even guests at the hotel, but had come for a bit of sight-seeing.

Medick moved his New Jersey-based MRCGroup to Las Vegas seven years ago, recognizing the city's untapped potential as a test market. Last year, 35 million people passed through Las Vegas, staying an average of four days. "Los Angeles is getting a bit burned out as a test market," he said. "What's happening [in Las Vegas] is that we can give a fairly decent representation of the entire U.S. [population]. That's the benefit of Vegas." Morais is in agreement. "The demo in Vegas is so vast," she said. "You can get people . . . from all over . . . in a single sitting."

CBS has always been a big believer in the power of focus groups. The network used to lure in unsuspecting tourists to its Los Angeles studios to participate in focus groups long before the MGM Grand came a-calling. But when tourism dropped off after the L.A. riots of 1992, the net knew it needed a new polling place. Before discovering Vegas, both NBC and CBS had ascribed to the common belief that research via telephone calls spread over a broad geographic area was the best way to evaluate existing shows. But growing numbers of annoying telemarketers soured the public on that method, making the bright, beckoning lights of Las Vegas all the more inviting, especially for testing new shows.

Despite all the fuss made over the concept, focus group evaluations are not an exact science. The most glaring example of this is Seinfeld, a show that scored poorly in focus groups but went on to become a pop culture phenomenon that still has resonance today. Recruiters who lurk about Vegas are often sent out to look for people who fit a certain demo - age, gender, race - and to bring them back for testing. "We have recruiters around the [MGM Grand] who hand out tickets to the screenings," said Morais. Once the individuals arrive at the testing facility, they are separated and put to work. Though the networks are loath to admit just what elements they've tweaked on the basis of a focus group's opinion, they do admit that they often rework whole scenes before the program airs.

Considering CBS was the first to recognize Las Vegas' dormant potential ("CBS is a pioneer," confessed Medick), one might assume that the MRCGroup's similarly themed facility might be irksome to CBS, thinning the pool of potential testers. Not so, said Morais. "We'll possibly be working together at some point. . . . There's room for more facilities."