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Marketing surveys: eternal damnation for television pilots

10/21/07 | by Adam | Categories: Whining

Every year, a crop of shows are made for the TV networks. Of these, only a few actually make it to air. But what happens to the ones that aren't selected?

Well, the answer is that the lucky ones never appear again. Ever. The most unfortunate few get picked up by market research firms like Television Preview. Television Preview sends out letters with nicely printed cinema-like tickets inviting you and some friends to come be a testing audience for "upcoming shows". The written intent is that your opinions will be used to develop and direct the shows to be more successful. Sounds good?

Well, you knew it wouldn't be. I received one of these invitations and figured I might as well see what was going on. It's a given that the adverts are going to be the focal point of the evening -- at least from the network's perspective -- but, hey, if it helps get decent shows on the air, I was happy to play along. I went to the hotel in North Calgary where they were holding the session and was shown into a largish room with four or five older CRT-style televisions and a bunch of uncomfortable chairs arranged around them. I was also given a folder with some printer forms and general instructions. The forms fell into two main categories: first, there were the show evaluation forms. Did you like the show, the actors, the plot, and so on. The second was -- not surprisingly -- the advertising part where you were supposed to circle one product per page that "you truly want". We're talking mouthwash, dog food and toilet tissue here. I'm not sure "really want" was an appropriate term. But hey, I figured that this would be the cost of seeing something new. And we got free water.

Well, not really. They made you pay for the water in brain damage. The two pilots were abysmal. The MC was painful. The XBox (!) they were using as a source for the video bailed half way through first show forcing us to watch the same excruciating 20 minutes of one of the shows over again.

That first show was a remarkably poorly cut drama called "Soulmates" about a psychiatrist who had flashbacks to a former life in World War II. Partially X-Files, partially turd -- actually more the latter than the former -- it had some of the worst acting and dialogue I've seen this side of a Fox sitcom. While watching it, wondering about the dated cars, hair styles and particularly the cellphones I began to have a sense that maybe -- just maybe -- I'd been had.

The second was a sitcom about three divorced fathers called "Dads". Think of the most generic, anodyne American sitcom that inhuman minds could produce, and you might start getting the feel for this one. This probably was a Fox sitcom. I knew it would be terrible as soon as we were told it starred C. Thomas Howell. It didn't disappoint. Sadly.

After the trip, I decided to be a bit of research and find out where these two crocks came from. "Soulmates" never even made it as far as being a pilot. It was created as a conceptual set of scenes to get money to *become* a pilot. From the Farscape forums, circa 2003:

The drama will be called Soulmates, starring Kim Raver who is now on Third Watch. It's a hodge-podge of scenes that were filmed to show a "tone" of what the show might be. By no means is it anywhere near finished and has no coherent story of any kind. It's very likely an aborted pilot, but for their usage it doesn't really matter. The scenes were filmed a good 5+ years ago, and there's no chance in hell the series will ever exist on any level.

"Dads" at least qualified as a pilot, but again it's ten years old and hardly an up and coming show. From the IMDB:

Yes, 'Dads' is back from the dead as a market research tool. You're asked to watch this "new" sitcom to help with its development on a "self-erasing" tape, then drilled for 45 minutes about the commercials. Beware! Audience Responses, Inc. is truly evil, because this is quite possibly the worst sitcom I've ever seen, and they make you watch it under completely false pretenses. It's got acting from the "Three's Company" school, child wannabe-stars who make you want to commit infanticide, Rue McClanahan with a "German" (drunk/Southern/Russian) accent ... ack. Vile. But "Mr. Lizard" holds a special place in my heart.

I don't mind being used for market research if there's at least something in it for me. In this case, nothing. It wasted a Friday evening and I didn't get to see anything new as promised in the hook; I'm certainly not fond of being lied to. I suspect I won't be terribly polite when the inevitable phone solicitations follow. And no, I don't use Listerine. Or any of the other poxy products listed in the catalogue. Even if I did before, I won't now, although the toilet paper I circled might be a trifle hard to give up.

Anyway, just for comparison's sake, here's another blog from 2005 with basically the same comments as I've made. Even worse, this one from Toronto in 2000 (!) says the same thing. This is the take of a blogger in BC. However, I think this 2001 review of the scam is the funniest.

The saddest thing? I actually feel sorry for the actors here. This pair of terrible shows is paraded around indefinitely, displaying their "I was young and needed the money" moment to irritable people year after year after year. Truly, marketing research is where appalling television shows go to serve their penance.


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