How Market Research Almost Destroyed the Most Popular Shows in TV History
I'm late to the Maclolm Gladwell parade. I read his stuff in the New Yorker but didn't check out any of his books until I had to read “Outliers” for work—I interviewed M&A lawyer Joseph Flom, who is the subject of that book's fifth chapter, “The Three Lessons of Joe Flom”—and was particularly impressed, not only with the Flom chapter, but with the first chapter, in which Gladwell dissects the success of youth hockey players in Canada and the puzzle over the preponderence of early-month birthdates among them. Lots of January, February and March babies playing in the NHL. Why? January 1 is the cut-off date for youth hockey, so at an early age a January 1st kid will be competing against a December 31st kid and have a year advantage in growth and coordination. That January kid will play in more tournaments, and get more coaching and practice, and what began as an accident of birth will become a self-fulfilling prophecy: He'll be better. We're never the meritocracies we think we are.
“Blink” isn't quite as good but I did enjoy the chapter, “Kenna's Dilemma,” for its confirmation of my own thoughts on audience test scores. Two years ago, when this blog was a baby, I wrote how “The Office” (both versions) got some of the lowest audience test scores in their respective networks' histories, as did “Seinfeld.” I asked:
If you don’t recognize Seinfeld and The Office and The Office for what they are, or what they might be, what good are you? How many other Seinfelds are you turning into something ordinary and short-lived? How many millions are the money-people blowing?
Thanks to Gladwell, here are a few more names to add to the list:
In the late 1960s, the screenwriter Norman Ler produced a television sitcom pilot for a show called All in the Family. ... All in the Family scored in the low 40s [out of 100, in market research]. ABC said no. Lear took the show to CBS. They ran it through their own market research program... The results were unimpressive. The recommendation of the research department was that Archie Bunker be rewritten as a soft-spoken and nurturing father. CBS didn't even bother promoting All in the Family before its first season. What was the point? The only reason it made it to the air at all was that the president of the company, Robert Wood, and the head of programming, Fred Silverman, happened to like it...
That same year, CBS was also considering a new comedy show starring Mary Tyler Moore. ... The [market research] results were devastating. Mary was a “loser.” Her neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern was “too abrasive”...
“Archie Bunker [should] be rewritten as a soft-spoken and nurturing father.” That's one of my new favorites.
In case the lesson isn't obvious, Gladwell drives it home:
The problem with market research is that often it is simply too blunt an instrument to pick up this distinction between the bad and the merely different.
I wrote much the same a year ago January, regarding a Tad Friend New Yorker piece about audience testing, in which it was mentioned that “Pulp Fiction” received some of the lowest test scores in its studio's history and “Akeelah and the Bee” received some of the highest.
“Pulp Fiction,” “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Seinfeld,” “The Office,” “The Office.”