You have been selected to participate in a survey whose findings will directly influence what you see on television in the future.
You have been selected to evaluate not-yet-released television material that is being considered for nationwide broadcast.
You have been selected to help represent the television viewing preferences of the entire country.
So begins the letter that has lured as many as 200 people a week to the Embassy Suites hotel near the Plaza since last October. The invitation comes with four tickets to a screening that draws its audience from a blue-hair-heavy cross-section of Kansas City's demographic groups. Viewers expect nothing more than the chance to see the next Sopranos or Seinfeld before everyone else. A bonus shot at "approximately $250 in attendance prizes" ain't too shabby, either.
Finally, somebody cares what Kansas City thinks about TV. Maybe we'll be asked whether we like shows such as Who Wants to Marry My Dad. Maybe we'll be asked if we're disgusted with the vulgarity on the boob tube today. Maybe we're the test audience for something revolutionary. As it turns out, the answers are: no, no, no, and, boy, is Valerie Harper going to be pissed.
Around 6:45 p.m., people begin filing into a conference room at the Embassy Suites. They're cautioned to grab a glass of water from a table beforehand, because they won't get a chance to leave once they commit to the survey, which might take until 10 p.m.
The host, Mike Forsyth, is a middle-aged guy with a big smile and a cheap blazer. He and his fiancée both work for Television Preview (a division of a market-research firm called RSC), as do three or four helpers who pass out black folders. Forsyth stands in front of three modestly sized TVs and explains that, before the night of TV begins, he'd like everyone to complete a survey about household products, because three people are going to win prize packs made up of the items that they specify. This survey requires audience members to give their names, addresses and phone numbers.
Most attendees have figured out by now that there's a catch, and if this is it, they can live with it. Dutifully, everyone circles their favorite dish soaps and pain relievers. One booklet is chosen from the stack, and that lucky person is informed that a prize will come in the mail. Then Forsyth cheerfully explains that he's going to start the preview.
The first show is tentatively titled Soulmates and stars Kim Raver, an actress from Third Watch. Raver plays a hypnotherapist who begins a love affair with her newest patient while having flashbacks to the 1940s that recast the patient as a soldier and Raver as a woman engaged to a military officer. Snorts are heard throughout the conference room.
Besides the plot, a few other things mar viewers' enjoyment. For one, the VHS tape of Soulmates must also hail from World War II (or maybe just 1996). It's scratched and worn, causing white bars to flash across the screen. Two, the show is repeatedly interrupted by commercials for Force Flex Glad bags, Doritos and Hydrience hair coloring. There's also an alarming number of commercials for prescription drugs; these ads look older than the commercials for the same products that air today.
When the lights come back up, viewers get to answer multiple-choice questions about each central actor's performance and whether the chemistry between characters "sizzled." The survey asks for some freestyle commentary on Soulmates as well as a final thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
The second preview looks older than the first. It stars Valerie Harper (costar of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and star of its spinoff, Rhoda) as a city manager whose office is staffed with a kooky array of folks. In this episode, Harper and company hold auditions for citizens to come up with a city anthem. They also battle a zoning disaster in which coffins are sliding out of a cemetery and across jurisdictional lines. Plus, Harper's a single mom whose daughter wants to see older men. The show is called City, and its dated jokes are split up by more pharmaceutical ads.
The questionnaire that follows asks only 8 questions about City, followed by 43 questions about dandruff, heartburn, weight, asthma, anxiety, depression, migraines and diabetes.
Forsyth ends the evening by proclaiming, "You're done 20 minutes early tonight," as people wobble out the doors.
Some feel a little gypped.
Jill Burdick, 33, went to a Television Preview session on a Friday in March with two friends.
"I had a feeling that ... they wanted to do market research under the guise of reviewing TV shows," Burdick says. "And not that I'm against doing market research, but I just didn't think it was done appropriately. One show was from, gosh, 1986 maybe, because the characters had big mall hair."
"It's market research," Forsyth admits after a recent Friday-night preview. Television Preview conducts similar surveys in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta and Portland, Oregon. The company gathers viewers' opinions on commercials and programs (a Television Preview employee says, "My favorite answer was the person who wrote that Soulmates should be shown to the prison population as a form of punishment") and e-mails the results the same night to the people paying for the research -- "mostly advertisers," Forsyth says.
"I felt like a lowlife going to that thing," says Burdick's friend Suzanne Niemeyer. "It was really embarrassing, kind of like if you buy something off an infomercial and think it's going to be cool, and then you get it and it's a piece of crap. It seemed like a big hoax."
In fact, some viewers might have remembered City from 1990, when the show's 13 episodes were broadcast.
Andrew Luke is the field operations manager for Research Systems Corporation, also known as Television Preview. Though the company is based in Indiana, the letter sent to recruit previewers has a Beverly Hills return address.
Luke insists that the company shows more previews than just Soulmates and City. "It just depends on what year it was," he says. The programs, he says, are "owned by certain people, and they've already sunk money into producing these, and they have a finished product that they'd like to see a return on." For a while, Luke says, those certain people "were looking at Valerie Harper and wondering if there was another vehicle they could develop for her."
But Tony Cacciotti, Valerie Harper's husband and business partner and an executive producer of City, is apparently not one of those certain people.
"Wow, that's amazing," Cacciotti says when the Pitch informs him of Television Preview's use of City. The Beverly Hills-based Cacciotti says he, Harper and City producer Paul Haggis split ownership of the show with CBS, the network that broadcast it.
"My god, we're duped," says Cacciotti, who says he had heard rumors that a company like Television Preview was showing City. "This is the first time I've gotten real clear information on this. Maybe I didn't want to believe it before, that they're doing this so often. They can't do this. This is sort of ripping off all of us."
How would Harper feel about it? "Not good at all," her husband says. "Anytime anyone uses her likeness, they have to call and get a release ... and this is way beyond that. No one ever approached us about this. It's an abuse that they're getting away with financially, so we've got to get to the bottom of it. They really should be paying us.
"I've gotta make some calls," Cacciotti says abruptly before hanging up his cell phone. But surely Harper would be glad to know that, according to the most recent polling results on Television Preview's Web site, 78 percent of audiences liked City.
Maybe she's gonna make it after all.