Audience Research: Making 'Ugly' Prettier

By Robert Marich
  Oct 16, 2009 – Entertainment research is the “least understood and most misunderstood” part of movie marketing, notes Marketing to Moviegoers: Second Edition. That means most movie people don’t know much about consumers surveys, focus groups and exit surveys, and what they do know is mostly off the mark.
   The Wall Street Journal published a story about audience research in TV that, while not about film, provides a rare glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors in Hollywood between TV program producers and network TV executive execs. Finding plots exhausted for its hit Ugly Betty, ABC Television is letting the lead character get prettier, but is testing audience reaction first off the tube. The Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chozick notes that, when the married couple in NBC Television sit-com Mad About You had a baby in 1999, ratings fell. ABC doesn't want another such unanticipated audience reaction.
   With that history, it's not surprising that ABC wants to guage audience reaction before taking the plunge. Audience research is common in the TV business. For example, NBC conducts online surveys about all its shows at the end of each season.
   “Helping drive the new testing push: The cost of research is falling because it can be done online,” notes the WSJ article by Amy Chozick. “ABC, for example, keeps a sample of about 2,000 viewers and it polled them online, showing them photos and video clips of a more stylish Betty to see what they thought.”

  Adds the WSJ article, “When CSI star William Petersen announced his departure after nine seasons as forensic entomologist Gil Grissom CBS tested how viewers would respond to a new character, Dr. Raymond Langston, played by actor Laurence Fishburne. After test audiences loved Dr. Perry Cox, a secondary character on medical comedy Scrubs, producers expanded his role. In the early days of The West Wing, Martin Sheen's President Josiah Bartlet did not have a major role. After analyzing audience feedback producers realized Bartlet should become the central character."

   Marketing to Moviegoers: Second Edition, which devotes an 11,000-word chapter that exhaustively analyzes film research, notes that Hollywood uses consumer reactions in several ways. First, it confirms decisions about to be made—or if not then suggests more study is advisable to double check. Research also alerts executives to issues that might not have considered important at all—the old “no one thought of that one.”
   Also, research is crucial in evaluating marketing messages—both creative content of advertising and also ad spending impact. Finally, it is a tie breaker sometimes in battles between executive office suits and movie creative figures.
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