The most gut-wrenching part of getting most television series on the air is the deeply ingrained screen test process.
Companies, like widely-utilized market research firm Screen Engine / ASI, have been arranging viewings of pilots with test audiences for the television and film industry for more than 50 years. Throughout those five decades, these randomly selected groups have been telling large budget producers what parts of their projects appeal to wider audiences.
Diminishing Value of Screen Testing
Although screen testing is still a large part of the television and screen production process, as cable TV and streaming services break away from traditional roles and begin to create their own original content, it’s becoming less valuable to producers and writers alike.
The changing face of TV has quickly evolved programming as we knew it, for example, turning weekly shows into shows that had the potential to be bingeable, necessitating a change in how that television is deemed fit for market.
So, while the pressure to find new and better shows is intensifying in an increasingly fragmented market, the need for test audiences that represent a wider demographic is dwindling. Instead of attracting everyone, cable and streaming services, especially, are hoping to attract the right someones. Their niche markets can hardly be measured with audience testing, argues Mike Lombardo, HBO’s President of Programming. “Our bet is on the creative vision, and you can never measure that by just looking at a pilot without any context,” he argued in the Wall Street Journal.
Although test audiences did give the green light to popular shows like NBC’s “ER,” ABC’s “Modern Family,” Showtime’s “Homeland” and FX’s “American Horror Story,” the test audiences for NBC’s “Seinfeld” deemed the characters to be unlikeable and the show without merit. It would seem that shows outside of the mainstream are harder for test audiences to gauge, which is why companies like HBO and Netflix have decided to forego testing altogether. Instead, they’re relying on niche programming to draw in small, but fiercely loyal, fan bases.
As niche programming becomes an increasingly large part of the TV landscape, screen testing may shift focus from wide audience to niche audiences, or could disappear entirely. Instead of seeking out audiences to love or hate what they’re seeing based on one program, some firms are already showing multiple programs over a few days to test the binge-worthiness of new shows. This might prove to be a much more valuable tool for predicting the value of a program in a world where streaming TV reigns.