POWER TO THE (LITTLE) PEOPLE
Nine-year-old Mia Savagian of Redondo Beach stuck out her tongue at a two-way mirror in Nickelodeon’s Santa Monica test-viewer lab one recent evening, then beamed when she was handed a $50 check for what amounts to jury duty in a court of popular culture, where verdicts hold sway over what kind of shows America’s kids will eventually get to watch on television.
Here kids’ reactions to everything from plot lines to casting are gauged on what is known as the “Nick scale of success,” according to Albie Hecht, Nickelodeon president of film and TV entertainment.
On the bottom of the scale is boring.
“If they say your show is boring, then you get zero points, you’re out, you’re dead,” said Hecht, a former producer who bounces around his suite of offices at Paramount Studios with the enthusiasm of a college yell leader.
“On the other end of the scale, if they say it’s funny, then that’s 100 points,” he continued. “Because funny is money for us, it’s the sweet spot.”
Searching for that sweet spot by using children’s focus groups is a ritual repeated thousands of times every year across the country, with TV executives finding out what average youngsters think about their products. It’s usually fun for the kids and often excruciating for the producers wincing behind the looking glass.
The fate of a show can rest on a single word. By Nickelodeon’s calculations, if it’s a middling show, kids will say it’s “stupid.” But there is a “good-stupid” (just over 50 points) and “bad-stupid” (just under 50). Far worse--only 25 points--is “interesting.” Far better--75 points--is “weird,” although this, too, has its positive and negative poles. Anything that kids consider “bad weird” probably won’t see much air time.
In fact children’s shows stand little chance of getting on the air at all unless they pass these tests. Few programming executives for the major kid-themed cable channels would think of ordering a 13-part children’s animated series costing upward of $500,000 per episode without learning what real children think about it.
Of course, network brass and producers vary widely in how much they rely on moppets versus creative instinct to guide their work. Ongoing squabbles in studios and executive suites are waged along the lines of Cartoon Network chief Rob Sorcher’s assessment: “Testing is great, but it can’t replace gut.”
Back at the lab, Nick’s researchers focus not only on proposed shows, but also on the big picture, grilling youngsters in general about what’s cool--or boring--to guide nascent creative direction. This was the agenda of Mia’s “Kids Kulture” session in the formal testing venue that the network has dubbed its Zoom Room.
Brown-eyed fourth-grader Mia and seven other mostly pink-clad, ponytailed 9- and 10-year-olds first chowed down on a high-carbohydrate pizza dinner and soon had moderator Allyssa Brandt hanging on every word, revealing impressions about popular culture.
They settled down for a round-table discussion, then Brandt had them dashing around the room in a game of “four corners"--a simple group-dynamics exercise to measure how importantly they ranked everyday activities and relationships. They finished by poring over a stack of supermarket checkout-line magazines as a camera recorded what they oohed and aahed over.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Mia allowed afterward, sniffing the check and pushing a pink headband back over her brown hair as her fellow panelists skipped off to meet waiting parents. “We got to talk about music, movies, TV and shopping and sports.”
Researchers always expect the unexpected, and this time eyebrows went up behind the glass as the panelists gushed over trendy fashions--for their dolls, too--and when they squealed approval over that staple of ‘60s decor, the lava lamp.
“The girls this young talking about clothes was a little surprising,” said MTV Networks senior vice president of research Bruce B. Friend, among those looking on. “I’m not so used to hearing that as with older girls.”
But dismay was palpable when mention of the then-unreleased MTV feature film “Varsity Blues” drew blank stares. Though the group wasn’t the target audience for the widely promoted R-rated film, the fact that the movie didn’t even register with the kids didn’t bode well for a strong opening.
Those on the receiving end of test kids’ unabashed responses gamely take the good with the bad.
“For anyone who goes into a focus group where their stuff is on the line, it can be brutal,” said Eleo Hensleigh, head of marketing for the Disney Channel. “But if you listen, you can get very good information.”
Test kids have shown recently, for example, that they won’t learn coming-of-age lessons from a girl who looks too weird, but they want even monsters to have a little love. They’ve said a creature that’s half-feline and half-canine is OK, but sitcom parents bickering about weighty family problems is not. And, more and more, it’s OK to show a young girl taking charge of her world--despite the long-standing notion in TV and film that both boys and girls will watch a show about a boy, but boys won’t watch a show about a girl.
More and more, audiences favor the multidimensional possibilities bundled into young female characters, said TV producer Thomas W. Lynch, who created “The Secret World of Alex Mack,” a Nickelodeon series that premiered in 1994 about an adolescent girl who transforms into a cognitive blob. Lynch is creating a children’s dramatic series about an abandoned girl.
“You get a much greater emotional range in a 13-year-old girl than in a 13-year-old boy,” said Lynch.
Focus groups played a role in signaling high interest in “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” which became a hit series about a mixed-gender teenage group battling fantastic space monsters.
“People weren’t used to seeing girls as superheroes, but that show tested off the charts,” said Fox Kids Network General Manager Maureen Smith.
Of course, focus groups aren’t fool-proof. Cartoon Network’s current top-rated series, “The Powerpuff Girls,” about a superheroic trio of female kindergartners, drew sharply mixed responses in testing. There were some strong negatives but, more important, strong positives, so network executives relied on their instincts in deciding to buy, and it turns out the show has worked. But typically a show that fails to win some strong response in focus testing isn’t given a chance.
Often rejection comes with insight for show producers. “Powerpuff” creator Craig McCracken happened to watch a test group that turned thumbs down.
“It was a group of 11-year-old boys, and they didn’t like the idea of little girl superheroes,” McCracken said. “They were saying, ‘This is stupid, little girls can’t be heroes.’ ”
But he believed in the show and got a green light to proceed with test shows that were aired among a number of potential series in a format in which viewers were asked to vote for their favorites. In that setting, the show drew a strong favorable response, so the network ordered 52 half-hour episodes.
But the first test group was a bitter pill, McCracken said.
“You don’t feel great about it because you poured your heart and soul into this work, and they’re ripping it apart,” added McCracken, who as an animation student first used the concept as a wry twist on the familiar testosterone-rich superhero.
Now, with female heroes commonplace, audience preferences for them have shown up in unexpected ways.
“When we tested ‘Godzilla,’ we found that girls wanted him to have a girlfriend and a romantic relationship” said Fox Kids research director Jamie Chasalow. “But obviously that wasn’t incorporated in the show.”
Romance is part of any coming-of-age show, and it’s a big part of “Pepper Ann,” an animated series about a 12-year-old girl and part of ABC’s “One Saturday Morning” block. But show creator Sue Rose said her gangly lead character had to be redrawn after test groups found her long-limbed geekiness, as Rose put it, “too weird-looking.”
The prettied-up Pepper Ann is viewed by youngsters as a sympathetic figure as she experiences crushes on an older boy, buys her first bra and even sneaks out at night.
“We softened her up, made her cuter, and now we can get away with more,” Rose said.
Just as test kids can send animators back to the drawing board, they can send live-action producers back to the screenwriting software--or to set up another session with the casting director, as was the case with Nickelodeon’s prime-time series “Cousin Skeeter,” about a normal teenager and his cousin, an over-the-top hipster puppet whose nonhuman status is never referred to by the other characters.
Nickelodeon’s production chief Kevin Kay said he was confident from the start that the show would work, but it took a lot of fine-tuning. Several versions of the puppet were tested before a pilot was shot--and again, focus groups reacted unexpectedly. Kids perceived the teenager’s parents as too cold and were also uncomfortable about a scene in which the adults were discussing having another baby, which came across as a serious quarrel.
So the producers scrapped the pilot and shot another after casting a pair of veteran stand-up comics as the parents and changing the baby discussion to a difference over whether they would buy a puppy. The focus groups’ reactions became overwhelmingly positive, and the show had a successful first season and has been scheduled for a second.
Hecht said the creation process of “Cousin Skeeter” is typical for Nickelodeon, which obtains audience input in a variety of forums. In addition to focus groups, Nick researchers constantly interview people waiting in line to watch shows at the Nickelodeon Studios in Florida, and they also convene regular discussions via computer with a standing panel of kids across the country.
The rigorous testing of concepts from inception means the network nurtures and refines ideas that may result in only one or two new series per season. By the same token, show creators can feel that they can try anything--and test groups reward some odd ideas.
Take “CatDog,” for example. The star of that new afternoon series is indeed dog on one end and cat on the other, a creation of cartoonist and children’s book illustrator Peter Hannan.
When kids were shown a pilot, they rated it weird-funny on the network’s scale. Adults and older teenagers may have been bothered by the creature’s obvious incapacity for essential body functions, but those in the 2-to-11 demographic instantly overlooked that problem and focused on CatDog’s dual-character issues. Just the feline fastidiousness in tension with the canine sloppiness tickled kids, said network production chief Kay.
At one session, test kids asked right out what would happen when CatDog went to the beach, with half of him wanting to go bounding into the surf while the other half would panic about getting wet. The query was forwarded to writers, who based an episode on just such a scenario. “CatDog” is a hit afternoon strip series, and was given a prime-time 8:30 p.m. trial run Feb. 15 through last Monday to introduce new episodes.
At Disney Channel, programming and production chief Rich Ross is openly skeptical about focus groups.
“The ultimate research you have is the research of your life,” he said, nodding toward a circle of executives who are parents. “Creative people come in with great ideas, you mix it up with the executives and people inside the network, and then you make a great show.”
Still, Disney uses focus groups, but as just a part of a show’s recipe, as was the case in the two-year development of its new prime-time live-action series “So Weird.”
Series creator Tom Astle, primarily a comedy writer with children’s and prime-time writing credits, said the project took form in a development deal between Disney and executive producer Henry Winkler that was churned out not among focus groups but producers and writers.
Astle shaped the lead character as Fiona, a 14-year-old girl (Cara DeLizia) who is consumed with studying paranormal activity, UFOs, ghosts and the like. She and her older brother travel in a motor home with their mother, a washed-up rock star (Mackenzie Phillips) on a comeback tour.
Focus groups entered the process after Winkler produced the pilot, which told of how Fiona confronts ghosts haunting the scene of a long-ago boating accident in Chicago. The test groups ratified the production team’s efforts, so Disney ordered 13 episodes. Production is on hiatus awaiting ratings results.
“In testing, one thing we heard was that kids liked the idea that there was a real event the story was based on, that the boating disaster was a historical event,” Astle said.
The focus groups also were asked whether they liked Fiona (they did), whether the ghosts were too scary for younger kids (they are for 2- to 5-year-olds, but older kids like to be scared) and how they liked the relationship of Fiona and her brother (not always when they were squabbling).
The feedback guided certain scripting decisions, such as making sure that the weird incidents were rooted in some reality, and that, when the girl and her brother were fighting, to make sure that they took some time to make up, Astle said. “Now, in good storytelling you do that anyway, but it gives you a heads-up to hear them say we like watching these two when they get along with each other,” Astle said.
While producers decided that “So Weird” wouldn’t be aimed at 5-year-olds, it would be easy for focus groups to find that out too. Toddlers are tested by observation, researchers said. They often screen a show for them in a roomful of toys. The longer it takes the tots to begin exploring the toys, the better the show for that demographic.
Younger test kids, for instance, informed Disney executives not to show young actors in the daytime educational series “Out of the Box” playing on their own too long, but to show more shots of caregivers. The finding that kids need reassurance from adults was borne out when older test kids grew uncomfortable watching long scenes of adolescents off in the woods by themselves in the Disney summer camp reality series “Bug Juice,” Hensleigh said. Scenes were reedited to give camp counselors a greater presence after producers heard from focus groups.
Even while many TV careers seem to ride on the whims of focus groups, most producers rest bottom-line decisions on the vaunted gut check.
Thus, the Disney Channel’s Ross was amused to hear that another network only recently picked up enthusiasm in focus groups for the boy band ‘N Sync.
“If you wait to hear from a focus group about ‘N Sync, you’re a little late,” Ross said with a laugh. “We put on an ‘N Sync concert nine months ago. Nobody said, ‘Here is research and here are kids jumping up and down watching it. . . .’ You have to feel confident in your tastes, and then you create the thunder.”