The Focus Group

The third episode of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was entitled The Focus Group and opens with a test audience watching the end of last week’s episode of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Oh, but there are actually two different shows that share the same name – the show we are watching and the show being created in the show we are watching. See how I’ve managed to make it more confusing?

Anyway, a facilitator appears at the front of the auditorium and asks the audience to put back their dials in the seat pocket – I’m not sure we actually see their dials, but we’re meant to assume they have been using them – interest meters that they can indicate interest or engagement up or down in real time as they watched the show. The facilitator begins to ask what things they did not like about the show. But positive comments start coming from the group, so he pushes them to suggest what they did not like.

At this point, we move back behind the mirror where the executives are critiquing the technique of the focus group (though technically, is this really a focus group?) and the accuracy of the responses being given. And that’s the key to the whole show. The executives (later described as “them”) need the numbers to presumably drive the content of the show to what audiences are responding to (although there is some official hands-off policy between the management and the creatives, there is influence and manipulation that happens, hence the drama). The creatives need to be free from the constraints of the numbers so that they can perform and express themselves, and of course, no matter who intercedes to protect these creatives from this harmful data, other forces conspire to leak the data, and semi-chaos and semi-power-struggles ensue (sure, chaos and power struggles are happening anyway, but the interpretations of this date feed them).

In one pathos-filled scene, an actor/writer expresses grave concern that a sketch she championed (and acted in) “flatlined.” Others point that one guy in St. Louis and one guy in another city liked it. There’s a rant about all the shows that focus groups were negative about, including Seinfeld, and this sketch is compared to those shows that don’t work the same way, that take time to be appreciated and build an audience and that ultimately don’t ever appeal to everyone.

The show concludes with some big wins – the audience overall increased in this week’s broadcast – and some small wins – the focus group participants who liked this obscure sketch increased from 2 to 4, as one character confidently predicted.

It’s a great show about the creative process in a highly constrained corporate business. The abuse and misuse of research was entertaining and somewhat familiar. Indeed one character added a controversial question that produced controversial results specifically to goad another creative character to find within himself what he was about, and to have the fortitude to ignore that feedback. The whole episode serves as a reminder that what is truly innovative will often fail when looked at through a traditional lens.


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