May 15, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem

>When all the Sked PLAYERS gather in New York, the pilots have been screened for the network’s own executives, but the only “real people” who’ve seen them are those participating in Research testing.  The results of those tests become the only “objective” data regarding the appeal of a given show, so they’re a critical part of the process.

Tests usually involve 300-400 viewers.  Sometimes rough cuts are tested for studio editing purposes, but the networks themselves test pilots that are more or less final.  CBS and NBC tend to use recruited focus groups that are put together in tourist areas packed with people from all over the country (e.g., Las Vegas and Orlando).  The participants take part in “dial testing,” where viewers indicate their real-time interest and enthusiasm by moving a dial while they watch.  Then they fill out questionnaires, and a small subset of each group stays behind for more intensive questioning by the research team.  ABC and FOX rely more on very small telecasts over participating cable systems in a dozen or so selected markets.
Test results are broken down by any number of demographic markers (gender, age, income, and viewing behavior, among others), and in reviewing the results, the networks concentrate on their target demos, both for their network in general and their vision of the specific show.  
Once the test results are in, they’re subject to all manner of debate.  Did a show test well because its format was comfortably familiar (or badly, because it was something new and different)?  Did the star test well because he or she is a brand name?  Is it the kind of show that needs to be pre-sold via promos so that viewers will know what they’re going to be seeing?  How does the audience fit with the other shows set for that given night?  Seinfeld is famously a giant hit show that tested horribly–which leads to every producer of a show that tests horribly claiming their show is the next Seinfeld

Do pilot test results accurately predict success on the air?  The results are mixed.  Each network applies a different set of algorithms to the Research results in order to estimate on-air performance, and each has a variable track record.  The bottom line is that Research provides insight into the audience.  In the end, research is just one piece of a complicated puzzle–but because it provides actual numbers and statistics, an important one.

And when all this work is done, what happens at the Upfront presentations themselves?  Keep reading.


Stay with SHOWBUZZDAILY all next week, as we give you the smartest and most informed analysis of the network schedules as they’re announced.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."