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Seeing The Pilot Light

I have met the enemy when it comes to developing new shows for television. And they is us.

Want to someone to blame for the substandard crap and warmed-over tripe that finds its way to your TV each fall? Look in the mirror, Slim. Think the people responsible for the cliched family sitcoms, the by-the-numbers cop shows and Dick Clark's TV Bloopers need to pay and pay dearly? Best break out the wallet, Billy, because that'd be you and me. Convinced that the folks who allow Bronson Pinchot and Tony Danza to keep finding work have earned themselves a place in the deepest pits of Hell? Me, too. So I hope you'll join me in breaking out the rosary beads and making with the Hail Marys because to Hell is where you and I are a-going.

Harsh words? Perhaps. But you see, I've just participated in a focus group that screened a prospective TV series that may well debut on a major TV network -- or quite possibly even UPN -- come this September. So I now realize that no program -- no matter how banal or pandering or stomach-churning -- ever makes it to broadcast without receiving the benediction of a random yet carefully screened cross-section of average Americans like you and me.

I know, I know. The thought makes me sick with sadness, too.

And what qualifies someone for a seat on the network TV star chamber? What bona fides must one boast to decide which shows live, which ones die and which ones are relegated to first-run syndication?

In my case, all I had to do was walk down the street. That, and spin a web of vile lies.

A few months back, my good friend Boychuk and I were strolling down the mean streets of Burbank, on our way to see a movie, when we were accosted by a plump, blonde woman. And when you owe as much money to debt collectors as we do, you quickly learn how to react when total strangers walk up to you on to the street.

"Excuse me..." the woman began.

"Get away from us, lady!" Boychuk snarled. "We don't want to join your cult!"

"But..." she said.

"No habla Ingles," I replied, as Boychuk tried to stiff-arm her.

"But I just want to know if you two want to watch new TV shows for $50."

Well. That was something else entirely. The plump, blonde woman had our full and undivided attention.

Here's the deal: Boychuk and I would give our names and phone numbers to the plump, blonde woman and the TV research firm for which she toiled with the understanding that we could be called at a moment's notice to scurry off to Pasadena, North Hollywood and other far flung locations in the greater Los Angeles area to view pilots -- single episodes of shows filmed for the sole purpose of determining whether network executives want to throw good money after bad to bring these programs to life. In exchange for three hours of our time and our brutal and frank opinions, we would receive fifty smackers and the warm feeling one gets knowing that one has helped determine the viewing choices for an entire nation.

There was only one catch -- the TV research firm did not want test subjects who had anything to do with the television industry. That includes impertinent reporters, would-be media moguls and, presumably, a couple of schmoes who write snide, awful things about television for their rinky-dink little Web site.

Which left me in a moral quandary. I could lie, yes. But then, I would be turning my back on the very principles of honesty and fortitude that my parents instilled in me through long hours of careful nurturing as well as through many bloody, savage beatings meted out on those lazy summer afternoons behind the woodshed. But if I told the truth, then the plump, blonde woman and her overlords at the research firm would blackball me. And then, I'd never have the chance to give you -- TeeVee's esteemed and valued readers -- a deeper insight into the oft cruel but always fascinating machinations of the Hollywood Dream Factory. Because that would just about kill me.

Oh, the ethical dilemma! Oh, the wind and the rain!

But in the end, I decided to lie. Because fifty bucks is fifty bucks, highfalutin principles or no.

I attended my one and only TV pilot screening, posing as a 26-year-old white male named "Phil." Occupation? The "health-care industry." Hobbies? Reading. Basketball. Golf. Fishing.

This is, of course, a dirty fib. I haven't fished in years.

Nevertheless, my elaborate ruse worked. I was ushered into the main viewing room, along with about 100 other people of assorted races, genders, ages and median household incomes. There were two big-screen TVs on the far wall, surrounded by a bevy of one-way mirrors. Presumably, these hid the many network executives, program producers and creative consultants hanging on the screening audience's every twitch and facial tic to divine whether the show would be a hit or a disaster of Scott Baio-like proportions.

Each seat in the viewing room came equipped with a hand-held device with a knob in the middle. If we saw something in the program we liked, the master of ceremonies explained, we were to turn the knob to the right. And if we saw something we didn't like, we should turn the knob over to the left.

The show we screened was called Better Days. It starred Jim Belushi as a laid off automobile worker. Three guesses as to which direction I turned the knob for most of the show.

Actually, Better Days wasn't much worse than most of what you find on network TV nowadays -- and that should in no way be misconstrued as a compliment to the show's originality or clever writing. Most of the jokes were telegraphed, the pacing of the program was spotty and the entire premise was dull and uninspiring. Belushi and his buddy, played by nacho chip pitchman Chris Elliott, are both downsized when the Wisconsin-based carmaker they work for closes up shop to move to Mexico. When these two chums lock horns with the unfeeling vagaries of Corporate America's free enterprise system, gird your loins for the ensuing wackiness!

Only one problem with the entire idea behind Better Days, other than the fact that the pilot came across a third-rate Xerox of The Honeymooners. The show's whole "Workers of the world, unite!" cant probably seemed hip and cutting edge during the pitch meetings. But with the economy humming along and unemployment at record lows, the program seemed about as topical as an Ayatollah Khomenei joke and as stinging as a satire of the Panama Canal treaty.

(The rest of humanity will be spared the anti-bourgeois sensibilities of Better Days. Hours of intensive research -- OK, I looked it up on www.UltimateTV.com) -- indicate that CBS did not pick up Better Days for the fall season. Mouthy documentary maker Michael Moore -- who is apparently calling attention to the unfairness and disparities of the capitalist system by eating more than his fair share of pie -- produced Better Days. Which explains a lot, actually.)

After I nearly snapped the knob off my device by spinning hard to the left, I was ushered into a smaller room with nine other males where we described our innermost feelings about the show and its characters while being observed by more fretful TV executives cowering behind more one-way mirrors. Did we like the show? Did we find it funny? How about the Jim Belushi character? Was he likable? Believable? Sexy? And how about the ramifications of that whole North American Free Trade Agreement?

No need really to go into much depth about what was said in that room. While I'm not above lying about my occupation and hobbies just to get my hands on $50, I'm not such a swine that I can't respect the sanctity of the focus group-TV producer relationship.

No, I will carry whatever the 10 of us in that room thought about Better Days to my grave... with one exception: Until I took part in that focus group, I had no idea of the intensity of America's hatred for Chris Elliott. Apparently, more people were deeply scarred by "Cabin Boy" than medical science had first feared. All I can say, is that I hope Mr. Elliott -- who I have no real problem with -- wasn't among the people behind those one-way mirrors. Because he's probably trying to hang himself with his own shoelaces right now, if he was.

Our mission of irrevocably altering the careers of Jim Belushi and Chris Elliott now complete, my focus group was dismissed from our North Hollywood testing facility, with a cashier's check for $50 pressed into our palm. And as I cashed the check, I couldn't help but muse on the folly of focus groups in determining what programs make it to the fall schedule and which are cast aside like a used up tube of toothpaste.

After all, look at me -- my kind wasn't even welcomed at the focus group screening. Yet there I was, turning the knob on my hand-held device and -- in my own little way -- depriving Michael Moore the chance to employ a hackneyed sitcom to further fan the flames of class warfare. And at what price? At what price?

A $50 cashier's check, actually. I thought I had been explicitly clear on this point.

The point is, to get my hands on that $50, I had to lie about who I was, what I did, and what my intentions were. How many others among the 100 or so in that room were there under similar false pretenses? How many fibbed on the questionnaire? How many flipped the knob to the right when, in their heart of hearts, they really wanted to flip it to the left? How many were there just for an easy $50 that they could then turn around and blow on cheap booze?

Again, besides me?

And that raises another question about the wisdom of relying on focus groups to divine whether the American public will find preachy smarm about laid-off auto workers to be a can't-miss laugh riot. The 100 folks in that room were about as diverse a gathering you can get outside of a Calvin Klein commercial. Would a 65-year-old black woman be amused at the same hijinks that I found so clever? And even if we did agree, what about the 23-year-old hippie chick with open sores on her arms, or the 46-year-old balding electrician whose shirt smelled of rum? What program in God's name was going to appeal to all of these different people?

The answer is none, of course, unless that show is so watered down and rounded off that any spark of originality or hint of an edge has long since disappeared once it's deemed fit for the general public. As anyone who's ever sat in a room full of teenagers trying to order a pizza can testify, you can start out with grandiose dreams of bell peppers and onions and mushrooms and Canadian bacon, but after all the votes are cast and all the compromises are made, more likely than not, you're going to wind up ordering pepperoni and cheese. And even the pepperoni ain't a given.

That, in a nutshell, is why television has become so tedious and awful in recent years. Everyone's so obsessed about finding the next Seinfeld or the latest Friends instead of being the first something else. And focus groups give craven network executives and unimaginative producers all the reassurance they need to stroll in and squeeze out that last ounce of uniqueness before it can confuse and mystify the poor, dumb masses.

The end result? I don't care how good the beef is: Once it's run through the meat grinder, it still winds up as hamburger.

And folks -- you and I are the ones holding the butcher's knife.


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