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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."