Recently I received a letter from a company called Television Preview. In big block caps, it said the following:
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 TELEVISION VIEWING PREFERENCES OF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.
The letter went on to say that they were not trying to sell anything (which addressed my first fear, that this was a ruse in which I would be stuck in a room and asked to buy a timeshare in some resort condo) but that the enclosed printed tickets to a private screening at a local hotel would be to view pilot episodes of TV shows to help determine which ones should be given a full run. The audience would watch them and then rate the shows.
This is not the first time my family have been asked to help set the nation’s TV viewing agenda but the previous two occasions were from the well-known Nielsen ratings company that asks people to keep diaries at home to be used to calculate ratings for shows already on TV. The first time was when my children were very young and so the diary entries were mainly for PBS children’s shows such as Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’, Reading Rainbow, and Square One. The second time was very recently and now that our children are away, the diary was pretty much blank.
This new offer I received, though, was going to decide what was going to be put on in the future, an awesome power and responsibility As the letter said, I was going to help determine what the ENTIRE COUNTRY would watch.
Of course, I was flattered to have been chosen. At last, word had got around that I was a man of taste and polish, who should be listened to when it came to the arts. Even though I rarely watch TV, I like to think of myself (who doesn’t?) as a discerning viewer, and the chance to have a positive effect on TV programming was tempting.
Even though I could not see any obvious catch, doing this still involved a few hours of my time and I am always skeptical of offers that come unsolicited, especially from outfits that I had never heard of before. So I decided to Google the text of the letter and the name of the company to see what I could find. And sure enough it was a scam, aimed at people like me who are gullible enough to fall for appeals to our vanity.
The point of the whole exercise turns out to be not that TV executives are anxious to hear my considered opinions on the supposed pilots (some of which were of shows that had already appeared on TV over 10 years ago) but to get my views on the advertisements for the products that were shown during the commercial breaks in the shows. In other words, the audience was really a focus group to get responses to the products and the advertisements in an atmosphere that simulates real TV viewing at home.
Zach Dubinsky describes in detail what happens at such screenings. He says the bait and switch is done so well (“To better simulate a “natural environment,” the host tells us how the kindly folks at Television Preview have inserted commercials into the screenings — but only to make everyone feel more at home”) that none of the half dozen people he interviewed after the program caught on to the fact that they had been lured to test the ads and products, not the shows. This report describes who and what is behind the project. This is another amusing report from someone who attended a screening.
So there you are. If you get such a letter in the mail, you now know what to expect if you go. Unless you want to experience the surreal as some did, throw the invitation in the trash, along with the pre-approved credit card offers.
POST SCRIPT: Radio show podcast
The podcast of the radio interview/call in show on atheism that I did on Wednesday is available for listening via audiostream or you can have a downloadable podcast. (Click on the iTunes icon in the The Sound of Ideas.) The program is about 50 minutes long.