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Do me a favor: as you read this, pretend you have a small computer-mouse shaped thing in your hand, and pretend there’s a dial attached to the thing. When you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, pretend to turn the dial up, that’s clockwise. And when you’re not, turn it down, counter-clockwise.
This is what we do in Hollywood, when we’ve got a television show or a film that’s ready to be released: we send it to a facility – sometimes in the hot, dusty San Fernando Valley; sometimes in the glitzy, dissipated Las Vegas – and we show the picture to a bunch of demographically precise Americans.
I’m serious: as people mill around the lobbies of garish casino-hotels in Las Vegas, or as they wait in snaking, switchback lines at the various tourist traps in Los Angeles, they’re approached by friendly, outgoing recruiters from the market research testing facilities and offered $50, plus pizza, to sit in a dark room with a dial apparatus and watch what has taken millions of dollars and months to produce.
Again: I’m serious.
So let’s try this ourselves.
Ready? Dials to the center. Go.
Before everyone in the entertainment business figured out exactly what America wants to watch and began efficiently delivering perfectly honed, risk-free, market-tested and accurately focus-grouped entertainment product to a grateful nation – that is, before everything that Hollywood turned out was a crowd-pleasing hit, we just had to guess what America might like.
(Too sarcastic, right? Dials down? I’ll adjust the tone.)
We had to watch a rough cut or a TV pilot and ask ourselves, “Do I find this funny, or interesting, or scary? Would I watch this?” And if the answer was yes, a guy would call another guy – and it was always a guy, and always only one – this was before the dozens and dozens of vice president guys and manager of current programming guys and head of research guys had figured out that if you just got a bigger room, you could hire more people…
(Too negative, right? Am I dials up or dials down?)
You see, the dials are what a statistically representative audience – or, at least, as statistically representative as they can gather up on short notice in North Hollywood in the middle of a weekday – hold in their hands as they watch your TV show or movie.
Dials down, in fact, is a great shorthand for “I’m not liking this.” I know a couple who use the “dials down” hand gesture – left hand palm open, right hand fingers bunched up against it, wrist twisting in a counter-clockwise gesture – to signal to each other that it’s time to leave a party.
Dials up, heading clockwise: let’s stay for another hour. The hostess is getting tipsy and something fun might happen.
(My dials just went up, right? It might be funny if the hostess drank a little too much wine and started talking about where her money really came from.)
We all hate this, of course – hate the dials and the focus groups and the market research in general, and of course there are volumes written about shows and movies that tested terribly – dials down all the way – but that nevertheless went on to superhit status, to billions, to vast personal fortunes.
But the way media companies are organized and financed these days, it’s impossible to go back to the days of the gut-check mogul, the one guy calling the one other guy and saying, “I like this.” These days, it’s impossible to make a decision without a data point – even a flawed one – to cling to. And because we all live in Los Angeles -- this odd, sunny, indulgent village of complicated marriages and almond milk chai lattes and fifty-thousand dollar pre-schools -- maybe we shouldn’t be relying too heavily on our own intuition.
And also: the dials tell you something interesting. They tell you when your audience is bored. The most important metric isn’t whether the dials are up or the dials are down – that shows activity, engagement, reaction. But when the dials are flat, just…flat, nothing, not liking it, not hating it, not caring at all – that’s when you’re in trouble.
Put it this way: as counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s a lot easier to turn hate into love than it is to turn indifference into interest. Anyone who’s married knows this already.
Quick: how am I doing? Am I dials up or dials down?
Probably dials down. I just reminded everyone about hate, love, and marriage, which is always a bad idea. What I need to do right now, if it’s possible, is create a fun, likable, enjoyable image, something for the reader to think about instead of the trials of marriage. How about this:
Imagine that I’m holding a box of newborn puppies, and they’re cute and fuzzy and irresistible.
Now how am I doing?
The secret to success, in Hollywood and everywhere else, is getting those dials up.