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Viacom and CBS have eyes for Sin City

May 8, 2001 9:04 AM

For every Frasier or Survivor that comes along to light up the life of a studio boss, there’s a dozen new shows each fall that ”¦ well, don’t.

The wiseguys in Hollywood know that picking a winner is a gamble. Looking for an edge, entertainment giant Viacom has set up shop in, of all places, Las Vegas.

What the nation will be watching on TV this fall will have a lot to do with what’s going on very quietly and very seriously - probably as you’re reading this - behind a series of closed doors in a corner of the Studio Walk retail arcade at the MGM Grand. Down where the sunlight streams in from the entrance to the outdoor pool and the Grand Spa, the new CBS Television City store is the hub of a public opinion research center unlike any the network has ever run.

Inside it’s your basic merchandising aimed at your basic fanny-packer - baseball caps, T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, some toys and CDs.

What is happening outside is something else altogether, something that speaks to Vegas as cultural nexus.

This is high social science.

Every day for the last month, under a glowing CBS eye and clusters of madly flickering TVs, a couple of polite young people in matching blue blazers have been working the crowds who stroll by, gathering about 500 to 700 volunteers to view and pass judgment on some 22 prospective television pilots. In exchange for their time they get a $10 coupon good for the stuff in Television City and a chance at a $9,000 Sony home entertainment system. (One of these is available for inspection behind glass doors inside the store.)

Volunteers are shepherded from two screening rooms to two observation rooms to two "focus rooms," these last two for heavy-duty interactive brain-picking. Viewers in the first screening room, "Studio 1," are sequestered behind curtained glass double doors. The doors to the other rooms are innocuously labeled: "Studio 2, Studio 3," etc. Each door is painted with a blue star.

While the volunteers watch TV, network brass on both coasts watch them via live remote. From the responses they get, executives like David Poltrack are attempting to smoke out the winners and losers in preparation for the big day a week from now when the network announces its fall lineup to the advertisers.

Poltrack won’t say how much the research center costs, but it’s ultra high-tech. Viewers make choices on what they see by working two buttons on a joystick: green (they like it) or red (they don’t). The focus rooms are unique to the MGM Grand facility. They’re a bit more sophisticated and are equipped with touch screens for more detailed choices and observations. The live component allows observers in New York and L.A. to jump in at any stage of the process to switch a program or enter a new one or even fire a question at an individual or a panel of viewers based on the answers they get and the reactions they see. The facility is running about 30 separate screenings a day.

For Poltrack, Las Vegas is a natural for this sort of thing. More than 200,000 people a day descend on the town. If you want to know what America thinks, this is the place. As executive director of research for CBS, Poltrack wants to know what America thinks.

"Without any attempt at control, we average participants from 30 to 40 states," he says. "You can’t do that anywhere else in the country."

TV networks, of course, do viewer surveys all the time. Poltrack has used Las Vegas before for different kinds of spot research. Television City, however, is the only center outside of Los Angeles that will operate year-round, generating a continuous stream of opinions for the network to sift through as it makes decisions on everything from promotions to movie trailers to whom among our prime-time heroes will be wooing and bedding whom.

It is also the first location of its kind to combine research with marketing and retailing.

Viacom’s other television subsidiaries, Nickelodeon, MTV and VH1, will also be surveying from the site.

"We want to represent the TV viewing population to the best of our ability," Poltrack says.

And once Viacom has its finger on the respective pulses of Mr. and Mrs. America, it intends to keep it there through home surveys conducted by phone and over the Internet. Every time somebody fills out a questionnaire they get another shot at that $9,000 Sony system. Poltrack is counting on the MGM to net him 100,000 names a year with whom he’ll try to maintain what he calls a "continuing dialogue."

With about 65,000 people a day ambling through the property, it’s likely he’ll get them. They represent samplings that in his words are "particularly appealing."

"Our research tells us the MGM Grand is the most effective location in town for generating traffic and providing us with the broadest geographic and demographic range," he says. "It’s the highest foot-volume location we could find. And they have an essentially middle-class, broad-based visitor distribution."

That has to warm the heart of President and COO William Hornbuckle - that Viacom thinks of his joint as something like the great stove beneath the great bubbling national soup. He wasn’t available for comment last week, according to the public relations office at MGM Grand. But Poltrack affirms that the resort, not surprisingly, has been "very supportive all the way along."

"They saw its value as an attraction for their hotel. Plus, it plays well with the hotel’s theme as the City of Entertainment. It’s been a great partnership from the beginning."