"He lost it," recalls an ASI employee. Theincident happened after someone in the focus group blurted, "He used tohave so much class. And now he's associated his name with this?"
Testingtelevision pilots before committing to air a multiepisode series hasbeen a time-honored tradition since pretty much forever for broadcastnetworks hoping to lower their margin of error. Because costs ofcreating, staffing, and airing a television series are well into themillions, the idea is to get as close to guaranteed success aspossible. Of course, a great pilot does not a great series make, nor doall poorly testing series go down in flames. There's a matter of weeklyexecution, as Steven Bochco found out with the cop drama Brooklyn South, which tested high but went, ahem, south after a handful of episodes. On the other hand, Seinfeld tested poorly but ended up, well, you know where.
Shows with lukewarm results often use the information to retool and try again. All in the Familywas trashed for its lead being an unapologetic bigot, the wife beingtoo submissive, and the family dynamic being too chaotic, but a heavilyaltered pilot convinced CBS to air what turned into a classic. Nowonder few things are as vital, and as secretive, in television as thefocus group, which has the power to rewrite dialogue it finds stale oroffensive, dump a title it doesn't think makes sense, or indirectlypink-slip an annoying actress.
ASI owner David Castler tells his150 or so clients a year, who pony up $20,000 a session, to use thefocus groups for insight, direction, and information.
"It's an excruciating process but a necessary evil," says Ian Biederman, creator and executive producer of the new CBS series Shark,starring James Woods. "You know from minute to minute whether they areenjoying it or falling asleep. And you get to watch 12 to 14 people sitaround a table with a leader and answer specific questions about yourpilot: Did you like this character? Why not? Were you interested inseeing more about this or that? It's educational. But you may end upgoing to a bar afterward."