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Marketers hunt for guinea pigs in Las Vegas

Special to The Los Angeles Times

Eric Sanders is a couch potato's dream. "Get paid to watch TV," Sanders tells visitors outside the Test America Preview Studios at the Miracle Mile Shops. "Ten dollars or free wax-museum tickets!" he continues. All Sanders and his fellow recruiters ask in return is about an hour of a visitor's time and his or her opinions.

Las Vegas is not only the nation's premier gaming destination, but it's also a growing center for consumer testing -- for TV programs and a variety of products -- thanks to the city's appeal to people of all ages and demographics.

"It's very important to determining what shows get on the air," says David Poltrack, president of CBS Vision, the network's research arm, which also uses Vegas as a test site.

At the CBS Television City research center inside the MGM Grand, people watch and comment on programs being tested for CBS and several cable networks.

Poltrack says 225 visitors view each show, a sampling that's likely to include viewers from 35 to 40 states. That's the primary reason the network has shifted its consumer testing to Las Vegas from Los Angeles and New York.

"This is a really great place to put this kind of a concept," says Benita Rumold, a tourist from Greeley, Colo. "You get a much broader variety of the American population than you're going to get in any other city."

Rumold and her daughter, Renata, stumbled across the Test America site at the Miracle Mile Shops during a five-day vacation to Las Vegas. Sanders recruited them to watch a TV pilot.

"It was called 'The Bone Detective,' " Renata says. "It was a Discovery Channel-type show where they examine the skeletons of the Mayan culture in a cave."

The Rumolds were then asked for their opinions. Did they like the show? How was the narrator? Was it too staged?

"Parts of it were staged," says Benita, a pharmacist. "But it's hard not to stage it. You have to have some forward movement."

"I think they dumbed it down a little too much for their audience," Renata adds.

"We're inviting them in all day long," says Paul Cunningham, chief executive of CRG Global, the research firm that operates Test America centers in three malls on the Las Vegas Strip. "People have a lot of disposable time in malls in Vegas."

"They're going to get a voice," adds CBS' Poltrack. "This is their chance to influence what's on television. They like that."

Poltrack says the feedback of average viewers is vital to a program's future. He points to one of his network's hit shows -- "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" -- as the classic example.

" 'CSI' was first made by ABC, which then rejected it," Poltrack recalls. The show's creators then took the pilot episode to executives at CBS, who screened it before audiences in Las Vegas. At first, they weren't that keen about it.

"We made some suggestions [to the producers]," Poltrack says. "They re-edited it and then it tested much higher." Since its premiere in 2000, the show and its spinoffs have been a huge success for CBS.

In growing numbers, visitors are being invited to test actual products as well as programs. CBS uses its facility to test several high-tech products -- video games, slot machines, even new websites -- for a variety of companies that pay them to conduct their market research. Eye-tracking cameras and software are used to determine how the eye is drawn to particular elements of a Web page.

CRG Global has been taking the pulse of consumers since 1989 but is a relative newcomer to Nevada. The Ormond Beach, Fla.-based company opened its first Test America site along the Strip in 2005, after discovering how well visitors to Las Vegas mirror America.

The firm's number crunchers say the only inconsistency they have to take into account is the disproportionately large number of Californians among the roughly 60,000 people who visit their Las Vegas testing centers each year.

Tourists to Test America's centers may be in for a tasty treat. "We do menu development work with various restaurant groups," says Paul Cunningham, whose Miracle Mile Shops location includes a commercial-size kitchen. "They bring in their executive chef and their team to cook."

A chain recently employed Cunningham's company to determine the popularity of a new steak sauce. Guests were treated to full steak dinners simply to determine whether they liked the sauce. On other occasions, visitors have been paid to taste-test sandwiches and other new food creations. The over-21 crowd is sometimes asked to try new wines and beers.

"If you do good consumer research, the companies have a pretty good idea what's going to happen when a product goes into the market," Cunningham says. He adds that the steak sauce was a big hit among those who sampled it.

CBS moved its consumer research to Las Vegas from Los Angeles in 1992 after the riots because executives worried that tourists might avoid Los Angeles.

"People like doing it," Poltrack says. "Almost all of them would recommend this to a friend."

"I would normally never do anything like this," Benita Rumold says. "But it was fun."

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