Saturday, April 21, 2007

The best testing story EVER

But first – the current testing process and how it works.

I tell any producer that has a pilot – do not (repeat) DO NOT go to the testing session. Picture the George Clooney torture scene in SYRIANA. That’s what it’s like if your testing goes well.

An audience is recruited. Only people who need four tries to pass their written drivers license test are eligible. They file into a screening room, their knuckles dragging on the ground. The producers are on the other side of a two-way mirror. You scan the group. Tattoos on their eyelids, mouth breathers, no foreheads. You’ve worked for a year on this pilot and these are the people who will decide its fate.

They’re each given remotes. As they watch your show they’re asked to twist a dial to indicate their level of interest and approval. Ten minutes are required to give these complicated instructions.

You see the ongoing graphs. Blue for boys. Pink for girls. A rising blue graph means you have a lot of tit jokes.

After the screening they’re divided into two groups depending on sex. I think they should be divided by species but that’s just me.

Each group is led into a conference room where a moderator questions them. You watch unseen. And now these people who have never in their lives been asked their opinions about anything suddenly become Tom Shayles. Even if they laughed uproariously at your pilot they now have problems with it. I think back to one of my pilots.

The girl with the nose ring hated the lead actress. Why? “She wore that red dress.” The guy with the SHIT HAPPENS T-shirt thought the lead guy was a weak character. Why? “He drove a Passat.” When a woman was asked what her favorite new show was she said COSBY. This was in 2004.

I somehow managed to drive home while in a fetal position.

I wouldn’t mind testing if networks didn’t place such a reliance on it. If it was just used as a tool, another form of input (like studio audiences) that would be fine. Even welcomed. But all too often it’s not. All too often it’s the determining factor.

And even that would be okay except for one thing – they’re usually wrong!!! EMILY’S REASONS WHY NOT (yanked after one airing) tested well. STACKED tested well (duh!). Every cancelled show had high test scores. I dunno. There’s got to be a better way.


Okay, now the best testing story ever.

In 1939 the movie NINOTCHKA (directed by Ersnt Lubitsch, written by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett) was being tested in a theatre in Long Beach. Following the screening the audience was asked to fill out comment cards. Lubitsch and Wilder were reading the cards in the back of the limo on their way home. Lubitsch read one and burst out laughing. He showed it to Wilder. It said:

“This movie was hilarious. I laughed so hard I almost peed into my girlfriend’s hand”.


VP81955 said...

Ah, the Lubitsch touch. (Pun intentional.)

Ann said...

This brings back memories. I was part of a test audience for Kate and Allie. Didn't expect to like the show at all but wound up cry-laughing and gasping through, you guessed it, an open mouth.

My boyfriend du jour went too. Our hands were busy with the network-supplied buzzers, so that took alot of pressure off me, apparently ;) I can't believe people were watching through a mirror. Eek!

Anonymous said...

You know, I hate to tell you this, but those are not the audiences you get - at least not in L.A. They're out-of-work Industry Folk! Who the hell else would put up with three hours of CRAP for $50?? And has the time to meet at those hours? Sorry. Been there, been one of them during an extended period of unemployment. They are trying not to barf all over that halfwith Roger Whats-his-name who's been conducting those talk groups for-bloody-ever over at that bunch who run the testing out of the TV Academy building (boy, I never realized what a midget Johnny Carson was - or Jack Benny for that matter - till I walked past their life-size statues there in the statue garden - neither one even came to my shoulder). As to the comments, on a good day I'd give the show good comments. On a "bad day" I'd give that futhermucker-who-was-employed-and-still-creating-crap the equivalent of a size 10 up the posterior because I knew I could outwrite that crap dead drunk standing on my head and typing with my toes. And I sure wasn't the only one.

Anyone dumb enough to take an LA test audience seriously is in serious need of a crutch for their brain (which is why we have the kind of studio execs we do, since they do take that crap seriously).

Now that I am too old to be recruited to those audiences, and am regularly employed, I will share with you LA's dirty little secret (one of the many).

Anonymous said...

Agree with tcinla.

Many's the hour I spent at Preview House ("Hey -- wanna see a new TV show?"), mainly watching commercials.

As a control, they used the same Mr. Magoo cartoon (at a ski lodge) every time. And so they could say they were showing us "new TV shows"...well, let me just say I had no idea how many failed pilots starred Bill Bixby.

And I didn't get any damned fifty bucks, either!

Anonymous said...

So funny, I'm peeing into my girlfriend's hand now.

Anonymous said...

With this blog entry, you're going to attract a lot of pee fetishists.

Only saying. ;)

Marvin Gardener said...

Might be a good way to practice rejection and develop a hard outer shell though. On the other hand, I'm guessing there'd be plenty of opportunity for that without actually seeking it out.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much you get paid to successfully pee in your girlfriend's hand?

Good work if you can get it... maybe not.

Emily Blake said...

What kind of girl lets her boyfriend pee in her hand? She must have issues.

There's a good scene about testing sesions in John August's new movie The Nines. The network won't put the show on the air unless the creator replaces the lead because she doesn't test well. He is less than happy.

Todd Mueller said...

Ninotchka! Great movie. Garbo is hilarious and gorgeous. I laughed so hard I almost peed into my own hand.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Focus groups and even modest-sized audience auditorium testing groups simply aren't large enough for decently statistically valid conclusions, to say nothing of controlling intervening variables and other contaminants, which reaches horrible levels in these environments.

But try to tell the studio gerbils whose money is on the line...

...hence, barf bags all around for the writers behind the glass.

Advice: stay home and play with your Lubitsch.

Anonymous said...

Advice: stay home and play with your Lubitsch.

Advice well-written and words I have always lived by.

What? Whaaaat?

Anonymous said...

Emily Blake,

See, the funny part is that his girlfriend's hand was already...

I guess if you have to explain something it's not really funny.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope she had tissues as opposed to issues.

Anonymous said...

In elementary school we went to one of those. I still remember the show: "Vernon's Volunteers" about a volunteer fire dept., starring Tim Conway. The cool kids had us all turning the dial to BAD. So the show never saw the light. Too bad, it was allright. Hopefully we made a few writers drive home in the fetal position too!

Malachy Walsh said...

Put 10 strangers in a white room. Feed them bad sandwiches and luke warm cokes. Ask them to watch something together and then discuss it like they would as if they were in a 3rd grade classroom.

It's soooo like real life.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I can't beat the Lubitsch anecdote, but here's another. I believe audience testing started with Buster Keaton, who for my money is the funniest person ever put on film. Ken made a very good point when he noted the process can be constructive when it's controlled by the creators to get audience feedback. Famously, Buster noticed the audience laughing at a few rocks that were accidentally dislodged as he ran down a hill, which Buster then developped into the climax which has him dodging a barrage of ever-increasing boulders.

Of course, if the studio were in charge, they probably would have decided Buster's constant deadpan was causing "sympathy problems" with the audience.

Unknown said...

Since I am german and Lubitsch is too I wanted to mention that his first name is "Ernst", Ken.

You spelled it "Ersnt".

Thanks for telling this funny storry :-)

Richard Y said...

Ken, I realize that you are going to be the only one reading this comment from an original entry, (April 21, 2007) and that is fine as directed to you anyway. Regarding the 1969 filming of Vernon’s Volunteers (CBS) and audience testing (comment by tb) with a rotary dial of good to bad he says. He states that he remembers it starring Tim Conway which is understandable considering that it was actually Joe Flynn in Vernon’s Volunteers and both just off of McHale’s Navy. (I have actually been doing a LOT of research on Vernon’s Volunteers) My question actually involves audience testing. I remember being bussed up to LA from San Diego to view a screening of Stoney Burke (Jack Lord, ABC 1962) and all we had was a Q&A paper on a clipboard. How is the testing done today, result gathering wise before a program actually gets on the air?