Saturday, I was invited to attend a focus group TV viewing. You know, one of those events where you go and watch a pilot episode and tell them if it was good enough to make into a series. I have heard of these before, but never attended one. My wife and I went with a couple family friends (one of whom received the original invitation and asked us to join her) into a Marriott Center, in a conference room. About 200 other people attended. We we ushered into the room and, after surrendering our tickets, were instructed that this would last a little over 2 hours, that we would be watching two pilots and filling out questionnaires. We were told that we should be prepared to stay, because if we left, it would ruin the study results. A few groups left, but most stayed.
After one man warmed up the crowd and assured us his company had nothing to do with the shows or commercials we were about to watch (just the presentation), we started watching the first pilot, a drama/mystery/supernatural mess called "Soul Mates." When I say mess, I really mean it was bad. The story unfolded too quickly, very choppy, the main love story was weak ("You mean we are supposed to believe they are in love?" was one of my responses to the following questionnaire). Nothing was resolved at the end. The portions of the mystery that were explained made little sense. Oh, sure, you could see what they were trying to accomplish, but they failed. I can't help but think this was a pet project of somebody who did all he or she could before getting stumped. "What else can I do?" I hope nobody actually thought this was ready for prime time. For all it wanted to do and say, the show should have been an hour long, not a half hour.
Anyway, it was pretty painful to watch. We all did our best to kill any desire anyone had to continue working on this turkey. Then we watched an episode of "City," a Valerie Harper vehicle from the early 90's that was actually pretty funny. Think "Spin City" and you have the right idea. Not terribly original, and maybe it was just the comparison between this and the previous disaster show, but most people seemed to think this would be a great show to remake. That was the idea. Would the public like to see this show remade for the new millennium? Possibly. I think they could, if they made sure it had fresh ideas and a tight script. I can't help the "Spin City" comparison, but that show is very tight. I just hope, if they do remake "City," that they don't just rehash old ideas. Funny thing is, I did a quick search on IMDB.com and one of the comments about this show was that "in 1999, someone in Hollywood is trying to revive this . . . sitcom." It seems that they have been trying to remake this show for a while.
In addition to the rating of shows, we also filled out booklets indicating our brand preference for a variety of items and turned that in, once at the beginning of the session, and again at the end. After turning them in, three booklets were chosen at random and prizes were given (actually, vouchers for prizes were given). Many of the commercials we watched during the pilots were of products we saw in the prize booklets. I felt a little crass. "Oh boy, oh boy! Maybe they will give me some of these great products, and all I have to do is give them valuable insight into how I think." That valuable insight in turn enables the advertisers to better shill their wares.
After filling out the prize booklets the second time, we commented on paper about the second show, then filled out a questionnaire about various products. Do you wash your hair? Do you have a dog? Do you use a computer at home or work? Those kinds of questions. I fed a statistic last night. The attempt to codify my product preferences, to pigeonhole me based on what brand of chewing gum I like, helped strip away my deluded sense of independence from corporate America. I felt cheap. And yet, it was a fun time, making me feel even more cheap.
I've gone for long periods of time where I didn't watch television. The longest and most significant time was from between 1992 and 1996. I really didn't miss it then. There are few shows I really like now. "CSI" (not Miami, though) and "The Simpsons" are the two biggest ones. I'll sit and just watch whatever's one sometimes, but actually, I have been wanting to get away from excessive TV, because most of what it does is to persuade you. Those who produce the shows are not after your well-being. They are after money. They have their own message to get across to you. Buy this or that product. Live your life this way. Their agenda is not mine. It was interesting to see a small portion of how television executives make their decision. I felt like a media whore by participating in the process, but I might do it again. What does that say about me?