Hollywood via Indiana

I sat through an evening of fake television pilots, and all I could steal was this lousy pen

It’s a tale of deception, a murky conspiracy with ulterior motives and puppet organizations. It’s not another Alias knockoff, but it has something to do with TV and everything to do with dastardly market-research tactics.

Television Preview is a company that invites randomly selected TV viewers to screenings of television pilots, ostensibly to gather opinions on the popular viability of the shows. Its real business lies underneath enough hazy verbiage to make Karl Rove take notes. The shows aren’t pilots anyone intends to air, but outdated programs from the trash can of TV Land, stuffed full of new commercials “to best simulate the home viewing experience.”

A market-research firm on the payroll of some of America’s largest corporations, Television Preview gathers feedback from Joe Public about the advertisers’ newest commercials by appealing to vanity. “You have been selected to help represent the television viewing preferences of the ENTIRE COUNTRY,” reads the melodramatic bold print on the screening invitation. “We need your help!”

I experienced this shtick several years ago, albeit a slight variation with a self-erasing videotape and lengthy surveys mailed to my home. So, when I recently received an unsolicited invitation to a pilot screening, I knew what was happening. (The envelope boasted a Hollywood return address and an Evansville, Ind., postmark.)

When I arrived at the Red Lion Hotel at 7 p.m. on the night of the screening, 30 minutes before the scheduled start time, I was shocked to see a long line. Around 8:15 p.m., Dave Diamond, the emcee of our festivities, took center stage looking like a rejected game-show host in a cheap suit. Perpetually grinning, Diamond warned us not to open any of our handbooks before we were asked.

These books were part of a raffle. From pages filled with every type of merchandise under the sun, we were instructed to circle the one product in each category we wanted most if we won the drawing. Circling more than one option would invalidate our entry forms.

At first, the stuff seemed vaguely prize-like, but by the last page we were selecting our favorite brand of furnace filter. After three winners were chosen and promised their “prizes” by mail (which disgruntled bloggers have exposed as a $42 cash voucher), it was finally time for the screenings.

First was Soulmates, a trite tale of reincarnation broadcast from three slightly junky TVs hastily assembled at the front of the room. The second was a program so full of bad laugh tracks and big ’80s hair that our slick host couldn’t convince us it was from this decade. City, starring Valerie Harper, is actually a 16-year-old sitcom. Diamond clued us in to the outdated era (failing to mention that the program actually aired for half a season in 1990) but quickly assured us that unnamed producers looking to cast the former Rhoda wanted to know if she’s still a popular personality.

After the shows, we filled out another identical handbook for a second raffle. By now the strategy was clear: Ask everyone what their favorite brands are before seeing the commercials and then again after. If their choices change, chances are the commercials-to-be are effective. Only a few folks seemed to be catching on—and promptly leaving the room.

The final torture of the evening was a thick survey with a few vague questions regarding each program and 33 about the products from the commercials. In a silent act of defiance, I stole the official Television Preview pen I was loaned to fill out the surveys. (Dave Diamond and crew aren’t the only people who can pull a fast one.)

Later, I conducted a brief phone interview with Jamie Belcher, the operations manager at Television Preview. Belcher was vague and cryptic as he danced around my questions. When I asked who provided the two pilots shown in Sacramento—which, according to blog reports, have been regularly screened by the company since at least 2001—Belcher said, “The pilots are provided by secondhand parties, sometimes the producers of the show and sometimes someone else. Soulmates, for example, was obtained from one of the advertisers whose products were featured in the commercials.”

Although Belcher acknowledged that the company receives a fair amount of complaints, he emphasized that the gripes were rarely from anyone who felt misled. “Most of the complaints from people are about why weren’t they paid or weren’t offered refreshments,” he said.

Successful for almost 30 years, Television Preview currently screens in six markets in the United States and some territories in Canada, Mexico and Europe. Why has this tomfoolery been allowed for so long? With Television Preview’s promise of unseen content and the opportunity (however small) to be involved in the inner workings of Tinseltown, it’s not hard to see how a pop-culture-obsessed nation could easily buy into being part of the biz for one night.

But perhaps even more disheartening than the continued triumph of Television Preview were the faces I saw leaving the Red Lion Hotel that rainy night. Far too many seemed proud of having been defrauded of their valuable opinions.