With the fall television season in full swing, our TV critic goes behind the
scenes to see what most shows go through to get there. By Ken Parish Perkins



We'rein a 48-seat screening room, sitting in comfy swivel chairs andwatching a television pilot. We're also snickering and hissing insteadof being objective and unobtrusive, as was gently suggested by ourhosts at ASI Entertainment, a market-research concern that deals mainlyin television programming. But imagine Lisa Rinna and Gabrielle Reeceportraying kick-butt secret agents undercover as volleyball players ina series called, no kidding, I Spike, and you'll understand our unintentional insubordination.

Usuallythe people in these chairs are average television watchers (not cynicaltelevision critics). Reporters aren't normally allowed here, but we'reparticipating in a mock trial of sorts so that we can see what goes onat ASI; I Spike was left to die long ago. So for now, we arenothing more than normal viewers, the sort to whom ASI givesapproximately $75 and bottled water in exchange for their honestopinions, delivered via a dial that registers every second of desireand disgust. Viewers also fill out a lengthy survey with questions like"What would you change?" and sit in a room to discuss everything aboutthe show: plot, dialogue, titles, music, scenery, and characters. Whilenibbling on finger sandwiches and fingernails, show creators view itall from behind two-way mirrors, taking in every facial expression,tic, or twitch of these critics and even meticulously studying,depending on their heart conditions, a real-time line graph of likesand dislikes, which is charted right before their eyes on a monitor.

Sittingin on focus groups like these can be, as one producer of a half-hourcomedy put it, "like sticking a sharp knife deep in your gut, and everynow and then, twisting it." Which explains why Carl Reiner once brokeup a discussion group by bursting into the room and yelling, "I'll takeit from here."