Customer surveys are for suckers. Some marketing company makes $30 off my time and all I get is a chance to vent about how the hotel pillows were too flat or how the desserts were too small or how my mom loves my sister more than me. So when I called CBS and asked about the marketing center in Las Vegas where the network tests new shows, I had little interest in participating. But then CBS spokeswoman Nancy Carr told me that they don't allow press to write about it. Nothing gets my reporter instinct up like being told I can't do something. Except for a free trip to Vegas.
The testing center is at Television City, a mini-amusement park in the MGM Grand that consists of nothing but a store selling Viacom junk and a testing center. It's the only amusement park in the world that Disney is jealous of. There are screenings nearly every half hour, and participants are given $10 gift certificates to the store, which will get you half a CSI T-shirt. But despite how good a CSI T-shirt can look with a Members Only jacket and Dacron pants, that's not why people do it. They do it to serve their country.
My testing group consisted of me and the Shore family of Madisonville, Ky.: Debbie, her 13-year-old twin sons, their grandmother, and their great- aunt. As we stood in line, they told me they had been to the center the day before and it was the best thing they'd done in Vegas. ''This is an opportunity we'd never have if we weren't here. I've never felt so powerful,'' Debbie said. When I asked her how the rush of power in shaping the end of a medical drama compared to voting for the leader of the free world, Debbie scoffed at the comparison. ''We could affect what goes on CBS,'' she explained. Then Debbie started telling me about how the family doesn't bring her husband on trips because he's no fun. Luckily, we were sent into the screening room right about then.
The testing room consisted of a large conference table and a series of desks with computers. We were given a dial we could move from 1 to 100 as often as we wanted while watching the show. The whole thing felt more like a psych experiment about Nazis than a way to put together a fall schedule. The woman in charge informed us that our dials were hooked up to printers that would print out second-by-second graphs of our reactions. I tried to figure out if I could make a graph write in cursive ''Fire Andy Rooney.''
We were shown Rex the Runt, which may or may not have been a children's show. It involved some kind of Claymation characters with strong British accents and a penchant for getting into situations that don't make any sense whatsoever. I sat next to Jake, one of the twins, who found Rex to be horribly boring; his dial hovered around zero for most of the show. When, however, Rex and one of his Play-Doh buddies unleashed a string of farts, Jake tried to force the dial past 100. We are about a year away from Bob Saget hosting a show of clips of people farting. I don't want to even imagine what that leaves Tom Bergeron to do.
Afterward, the proctor asked us to type in answers to questions such as ''What would make the show better?'' This is why I was here. ''Funnier jokes,'' I wrote. ''The kind, for example, that Joel Stein writes in his column in entertainment weekly. In fact, you should hire him to create a show.''
My job done, I gave my gift certificate to the Shores, hoping to God they used it to buy their dad a Becker mug. Then I called Richard Goleszowski, who works for the English company that made Chicken Run and created Rex the Runt, to tell him just who was determining the fate of his show. ''It sounds pretty fair to me,'' he said. Remembering that this is a man who spends a good deal of his day playing with clay animals, I carefully impressed on him just how capricious the results seemed. ''More fart jokes. I'll make a note of that,'' he said. I ended the conversation, frustrated that Goleszowski wasn't getting the fact that CBS was reducing the creative process to product marketing, treating a very human (if runtlike and plasticine) creature like some bar of soap. I guess only Americans act appalled that TV execs keep trying to make shows that people like.