At CBS Television City, Tube-Watching Is a Science

Las Vegas Facility Is Being Used to Examine How Viewers Experience and React to Programming

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LAS VEGAS ( -- How do you get to Television City? Yes, there really is such a place. But carving a path there has nothing to do with your ability to write a script, or the number of lines from "Mannix" or "One Day at a Time" you can quote from memory.

WELCOME TO TELEVISION CITY: After your focus group, hit up the souvenir stand.
WELCOME TO TELEVISION CITY: After your focus group, hit up the souvenir stand.
All you need to do is walk through the casinos and alongside the shops of Las Vegas' MGM Grand Hotel, past a high-end margarita stand and a luxury eyeglass store, and stroll along a corridor that's lit by colorful logos for MTV, Nickelodeon and the CW. If you're there at the right moment, you might take part in a focus group or survey that lets CBS -- or a marketer, ad agency, content player or technology concern -- learn how you react to content and advertising.

The network's Television City is a series of meeting rooms and test centers housed in the hotel that is mainly used to suss out how average viewers feel about programs slated to air on CBS. And it seems fun -- in Vegas, the place is touted as a tourist attraction, and travelers are told they can stop by and take part in screenings, and even sign up as longer-term respondents or win the occasional prize.

But increasingly, Television City is also being utilized to examine, among other things, how entertainment-seekers might move their eyes along a website; how different combinations of commercials in ad breaks spur memory and recall among viewers; and how consumers experience programming when they use technology to enjoy video entertainment. NBC Universal and Walt Disney maintain similar facilities.

"This is a place to test your content," said David Poltrack, CBS Corp.'s chief research officer and Television City's ultimate overseer. With such contraptions as 3-D TV sets commanding a lot of attention, for example, he suggested, marketers may want to test out whether they can devise effective 3-D ads that accompany them. "This is going to be the place to do it," he said.

3-D research
Indeed, CBS has entered into an agreement with Sony Corp. to create a consumer-research area within Television City where people can examine and interact with Sony 3-D technology. Sony recently unveiled its intention to debut 3-D TV sets later this year.

"Virtually every manufacturer will want to have access to the data that we create" at the facility, said Randy Waynick, senior VP–strategy and alliance, Sony Electronics. "We think it's our responsibility" to understand how consumers will use and react to devices with 3-D elements.

While giving a tour of the facility, Mr. Poltrack enters a seemingly bare-bones suite with a large multipaned window that looks out on the MGM Grand mall. He pulls back a large banner that hangs against one far wall to reveal a hidden apartment set-up. The plan is, he said, to replicate an in-home experience with various Sony products so that the companies can watch consumers and analyze the way they use and react to devices in a real-life setting. And he hopes CBS can make the facility available to other media concerns so they can do testing. Allowing other parties in to do research allows CBS to offset some of the costs of operating the place.

"We're open to doing research for anybody,"Mr. Poltrack said. Already, Omnicom Group's OMD has established a partnership with the facility that will allow clients including PepsiCo, Hershey and McDonald's to test campaigns that roll across various media venues. Nielsen also makes use of the place.

Yet beneath Mr. Poltrack's eager-for-business pitch lies something more serious. As TV transforms from being an experience solely enjoyed while sitting in front of the living-room screen to one that can take place on any number of portable devices, learning the new habits consumers are developing has become crucial to the medium's future. One way marketers and media outlets are trying to figure this stuff out is by, well, watching people watch TV.

House of mouse
Walt Disney is among the entities getting more deeply involved with such stuff. In the spring of 2008, the company established an Austin, Texas-based facility aimed at monitoring how consumers react to any number of content pieces and advertising entreaties.

In one study completed last year at the facility, executives wanted to find out whether the "ticker" that ran at the bottom of ESPN's screen distracted viewers from the ads that appeared during commercial breaks. Fans liked the ticker, of course, but the scrolling news could potentially interrupt their viewing of the ads that help support ESPN's business.

So Disney used a technique known as "eye tracking," or monitoring how viewers focused their eyes on the screen in front of them, as study participants watched an episode of "SportsCenter." Some people were exposed to ad breaks that contained a ticker, while others just watched ad breaks without it. Disney's study revealed that only about 12.6% of "eye time" was spent looking at the ticker -- not enough to disrupt viewers' ability to recall commercials or change an attitude toward a particular sponsor.

Similar tests take place at CBS's Television City, where Mr. Poltrack runs any number of focus groups (and sometimes listens in or watches from remote locations, and even changes questions on the fly). Different companies might test how one viewer reacts to watching a set of ads in one order vs. how another participant reacts to a different order of commercials. One room in the complex is set up -- with a chair that has a medical skullcap to which many sensors are attached -- that can monitor a viewer's physical reactions to what plays onscreen.

"Eye tracking" is one of the newer techniques being put into play. A viewer sits at an individual screen which has several small lights flashing below it. In another room, administrators can watch how the light reflects off the eye and onto the screen, thus determining where a viewer's attention might be at any moment of a video-watching experience. "The larger the dot" on the screen recording eye gaze, Mr. Poltrack said, "the longer they looked."

Media outlets can glean several pieces of useful information from such scrutiny. They can understand which element in a particular scene of a show, on a website or in an ad gets the most attention from a viewer. By using "cluster analysis," or looking at where the eye gazed the longest, they can determine which parts of a screen are the most popular areas at any given moment of a video. Mr. Poltrack also said magazine researchers can make use of the technology, putting magazine content on screen and then watching how viewers react.

To the media world, such stuff is serious business. But for most visitors these tests are just something fun to do. No wonder Television City stands next to a $30-a-head attraction based on "CSI" that lets visitors test their own skills at solving crime scenes. And there's a souvenir stand, too.

Why Vegas?

You might think a big TV network like CBS would want to keep a research operation close to its New York- or Los Angeles-based facilities. But the fact of the matter is the network can access a much-broader crowd of consumers by placing its Television City in a big Las Vegas hotel.

At the MGM Grand, Television City is close to one of the stops on Las Vegas' monorail, and it's set next to a theater that plays host to musical acts and boxing matches. That means the crowds who pass by Television City will include visitors from hotels other than the MGM Grand. According to Mr. Poltrack, the MGM Grand usually operates at a 90% sell-out rate. All told, he ought to be guaranteed big crowds wandering past his brightly-lit signs. Average foot traffic around the facility is about 14,300 people a day, he said.

The hotel setting also gives CBS a diverse group in terms of income, origin state, lifestyle and even religious belief. Moreover, the Las Vegas setting also means that people passing by are less likely to be "professional" respondents, Mr. Poltrack said, or people who regularly take surveys or get involved with focus groups.

Television City is open seven days a week and often hosts testing days that are in excess of 12 hours long, Mr. Poltrack said. The facility has processed over 500,000 respondents between June 2001 and February 2009.

You want to watch my what?!?

Here are some new methods media companies and advertisers are using to see how we react to ads and TV shows:

  • EYE-TRACKING: By bouncing light off of our eyes as we watch an ad or piece of content, test monitors can determine exactly what part of a screen we're looking at when we watch. Imagine knowing exactly what spot on the screen audiences were fixating on when they watched your ad! Perhaps you'd make sure to put your product in just that spot.
  • PHYSICAL REACTIONS: Some companies specialize in monitoring a viewer's heart rate, sweat and breathing to determine if what they see on screen excites them or moves them emotionally. One Boston concern, Innerscope, has partnered with NBC to see if viewers can get engaged by any of the ads they see while fast-forwarding with a digital video recorder. It's also partnered with Fox to see if viewers of "Fringe" were more interested when watching commercials in the show last season, which ran with fewer ads than normal.
  • RECALL AND ATTITUDE: Sometimes it's not enough to understand whether ads are memorable. In these days of "busy" TV screens, filled with scrolls, tickers and info modules, advertisers want to know if any of the graphics keep viewers from understanding the commercials that run alongside all this stuff.
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