BROOKE GLADSTONE: When test marketing TV shows, networks can't simply ask will it play in Peoria, because even if it does, it may not play in New York or L.A. Wouldn't it be nice, those researchers may have thought, if there were a true cultural crossroads in this country where middle American and coastal sensibilities mingled. Guess where that is? [SONG PLAYS] VIVA LAS VEGAS! VIVA LAS VEGAS! Mike Pesca, On the Media's producer at large reports.
MIKE PESCA: The MGM Hotel and Casino has 5,000 rooms, 3600 slot machines and one actual living, breathing lion. [LION ROARS] The roar, however, is pre-recorded. Wolfgang Puck has a restaurant inside the MGM. Studio 54's Las Vegas branch is there. This is why it's remarkable that an increasingly popular pastime inside the MGM is watching television.
DAVID LETTERMAN: All right let's take a look at the-- whatever that was before the county shuts us down-- [LAUGHTER]
MIKE PESCA: The first thing you see are the words Television City spelled out in big neon letters, the default font for this town. There are a few big-screen TVs playing CBS shows. Inside a small store CBS merchandise is for sale. Young and the Restless boxer shorts retail for 24 dollars. By Vegas standards Television City is a little underwhelming. No buffet; no showgirls; no Siegfried; no Roy. Just as you're about to turn on your heel and head back towards the lip-syncing lion-- [LION ROARS] you're accosted.
MAN: Hi! We're at Television City. Would you like to see one of our new television programs?
MIKE PESCA: I'd-- well what is it? What do I have to do?
MAN: Yeah. Well what we're doing is we're testing the new fall lineup for CBS--; what you do is you watch a new television program, and you tell us what you think about it; you get a, a 10 percent discount in our gift shop here.
MIKE PESCA: Oh, really? Ten percent?
MIKE PESCA: You got any-- Young and the Restless stuff? Television City, it turns out, is CBS's new state of the art audience testing center. Las Vegas has become the demographically representative crossroads of America.
DAVID POLTRACK: We do a test with 250 people -- without trying we get 40 different states represented. So that's - that, that's extraordinary.
MIKE PESCA: David Poltrack is CBS Television's executive vice president of research and planning.
DAVID POLTRACK: Las Vegas is a town where the, the action's at night. People are looking for things to do during the day.
MIKE PESCA: Like watch TV. Poltrack is based in New York, but that doesn't really matter because CBS executives on both coasts can utilize live video links between their offices and Las Vegas. That way they can watch America watch CBS. Upon entering the screening room, participants are given two push buttons -- one red; one green. Then an instructional recording is played.
ANNOUNCER: This is what we'd like for you to do: when you come to a part of the program that you think is good, that you'd want to see and hear, please press the green button in your right hand and keep it pressed down as long as you continue to think that part is good. When you come to a part of the program that is poor, that you don't want to see or hear, press the red button in your left hand and keep it pressed down as long as that part continues.
MIKE PESCA: This turned the experience of watching Touched By an Angel into one of the most judgmental 45 minutes of my life.
SMALL CHILD: What's gonna happen to me?
ANGEL: Well there's an angel named Andrew...
MIKE PESCA: Good!
ANGEL: ...and he took your mommy to heaven...
MIKE PESCA: Gooood.
ANGEL: ...and he's going to come in here very soon...
MIKE PESCA: Bad!
ANGEL: ...and take you to meet your mommy.
MIKE PESCA: Baaaaad. I found the directions on button-pushing vague. What about when bad things happen to good people? Do I press good because it's entertaining or bad because I feel bad for the person? And what about a villain? If I press green for good, am I telling the people who read the results that they've miscast the role? These were no mere idle musings, because this episode of Touched By an Angel forced me to pass judgment on the greatest villain of all, Satan himself -- as played by Mandy Patinkin.
MANDY PANTINKIN AS SATAN: [SINGING] NO ONE HERE TO GUIDE YOU
MIKE PESCA: Bad--
MANDY PANTINKIN AS SATAN: NOW YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN
MIKE PESCA: Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.... I was risking a repetitive stress injury for the opportunity to buy boxer shorts for just 21 dollars and 60 cents.
MANDY PANTINKIN AS SATAN: NO ONE IS ALONE
MIKE PESCA: It wasn't discount drawers that convinced Anita and Roseanne to participate; they're Touched By an Angel viewers who were happy to have a chance to influence the show. But they were divided as to the philosophy of good and bad button-pushing. [BIG CROWD OF PEOPLE CHEERING] Let's take that scene where the, the building explodes. I mean did you press the red button there?
MIKE PESCA: Why not?
WOMAN: Cause I know the show-- and I-- I just figured something good was going to come of bad things.
MIKE PESCA: Did you ever press the red button?
MIKE PESCA: Did you ever press the red button?
WOMAN: Yeah, I did.
MIKE PESCA: And well what parts did you press the red button on?
WOMAN: When the little girl was going-- died and the mother died in the bombing - all the sad stuff - I did.
MIKE PESCA: Now this is interesting -- I -- this is what I'm hearing. I think you were using the buttons - you pressed the red button not to say how I feel but what -- how it's working as a TV show. And I think you used the buttons to say this is how it makes me feel -- that's a sad thing.
MIKE PESCA: Right?
WOMAN: Right. I wanted it all to be happy.
MIKE PESCA: Whether they're happy with the program or the program makes them happy doesn't really matter to CBS. Either one will satisfy advertisers who believe that a happy, conflict-free environment moves product. And what better place to determine television's effectiveness than Las Vegas, a city whose sole purpose is separating its visitors from their money as happily as possible. For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca.