“Oh, we’ve spent a lot of time using focus groups to fully develop this show.”, he said.
“We’ve really made sure that what we’re doing fully engages the target audience.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
“We asked the kids exactly what they wanted from a TV show, and so we carefully adapted the show to help meet their expectations.”
I tried to mask a huge sigh, but probably failed.
Believe it or not I recently heard all of these statements in a single meeting, and I felt nothing but sadness (and a little splash of anger and frustration too). It got me thinking… Why are we so obsessed with using focus groups? Can focus groups really be the solution to making the best entertainment possible?
The more I think about it (and I’ve thought about it a lot over the last year) the more I realise… Focus groups are used not to improve the quality of the series or film they are producing, but to cover the arses of the executives involved with them.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting for a minute that collaboration and creative input from multiple parties isn’t important feature of the creative process. Far from it in fact – I’d say it’s essential. If you’re a creative and you don’t have anyone around you to call you out on your bullshit, then you are in trouble. But there’s a huge difference between creative collaboration and the creatively sterilising effect of trying to please everyone who might see your creation.
Using a focus group to help plan a creative project is disastrous. And when it comes to using children’s focus groups to develop new television and film projects – I begin to get particularly angry and frustrated.
When you say to a kid: “Do you like this?” you are asking the child for their subjective experience of whether or not they enjoyed something. And that’s interesting and potentially useful. But as soon as you start to ask kids what they would like to see, and what their ideal show would be then you’re staying a dangerous descent down a slippery slope.
The answers you are likely to receive will likely revolve around another show they have already seen. You may not think that’s a problem, but I’m here to tell you that it is a major problem.
If all information derived from focus groups is based on recommendations from members of the public that allow producers to gradually close-in on an average crowd-sourced likeability then what is going to happen? Shows relying on focus groups begin an inevitable decline into mediocrity. With each successive cycle of focus-group-based development we see increasingly mediocre shows, and so on. What a depressing picture this paints.
Let’s step back for a minute and look at some creative masters in a wider context. How about we start with music?
Endless efforts have been made to scientifically study the music of Mozart and Beethoven to quantify and objectively measure what makes their symphonies and concertos such masterpieces. The hope of these exercises is to distill these masterpieces down to their most basic elements. That would allow composers (or even machines, perhaps) to compose new masterpieces using some sort of formula. So have these efforts worked? Of course not – it’s not possible to formulaically create a masterpiece!
The thing that made their masterworks so unique and timeless was the singular creative genius of these men.
Even if it were possible to formulate a way of writing music to challenge the mastery of these men, it would soon be home defunct as the things that truly make them special is the way their compositions stand out in the context of everything else. The colour black seems most black against a white background and vice versa. By making everything special you inadvertently make everything average.
So focus group use in creativity not only stifles creativity, even if it were to achieve its goal of improving a series towards this “best fit” that executives are aiming for, it would inadvertently make the show average. But this part of my argument is pointless… Focus groups don’t help make a winning product.
So what is the real purpose of these groups? In my view, whatever the executives say – the primary use is so that if the show bombs the exec can say- “but the focus groups said…”. It gives them a get out of jail free card. It’s seems as though these focus groups have become a sorry of equivalent to due diligence in finance. As long as you can cover your arse with a paper trail then everything will be fine, and maybe you won’t get fired. Maybe.
We have to wonder about how many shows never made it because of failings at the stage of development involving focus groups. Their lack of effectiveness is so easily hidden. If a show succeeds having had a positive review from focus groups – thank goodness for the focus group. Of it fails then the focus group get out of jail free card is used and the exec makes sure he uses them next time… After all, it gave him an excuse watertight enough that he was able to keep his job despite the failure of his project.
Doctor Who failed miserably at the focus group stage during its 2005 rebirth, and that could have spelled disaster for producer Russell T Davies if he hadn’t managed to conceal the result from BBC executives. I’m fairly sure that all the BBC bosses since then are glad that the focus group results were kept from them.
But there is a more serious reason why focus groups can only be damaging to a creative driven industry like film and television production.
It takes time for new products to be adopted by the public. It generally takes a small passionate group of “sneezers” (people who get excited about something new and start telling everyone they possibly can) to get behind a new product and make it a success. This is down to familiarity and status quo bias amongst the general public – we don’t tend to like “new” and “different” things when they first appear – but once people begin getting excited this initial resistance can soon be broken down. The problem is that a focus group will only enforce these biases. How can genuinely new and exciting products ever reach the market when faced with these hurdles?
And yet despite all the patently obvious failings of using focus groups in developing new film and television – it seems that every creative industry is still obsessed with using these focus groups to drive and steer development of their output.
On a personal note – can you imagine what would have happened if my late father’s ideas had been presented to focus groups? He would have forever been making Andy Pandy and Muffin the Mule type productions. The focus groups would have shown that kids “enjoyed” and “wanted” more of the same – because that’s what they had been exposed to. If focus groups had existed in the late 50s and early 60s then we wouldn’t have shows like Thunderbirds to enjoy now. To produce something truly extraordinary and successful we need someone who is willing to take a risk and produce because they passionately believe in their idea.
Throughout history the best partnerships between creativity and business had been where a person with money gets behind a passionate creative. Dad was very lucky as he had Lew Grade as his patron for many years. But think of composers, artists, and producers who, throughout history, have been able to excel in their fields with the funding they need, given to them by wealthy patrons. Artists as diverse and important as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all sought and enjoyed the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons.
These systems have produced some of the greatest music, art, theatre, television and film in human history. And none of these artists were told by their patrons: “Hang on, before you start your next work – I think we should ask a group of people what they’d like to see from you”.
Can you imagine if their patrons had said:
“Sorry Leo, she’s just not smiling enough. The focus group want to see a big grin on her face.”
“Really, Bill? ‘Romeo and Juliet’? The focus group said they didn’t like the name Romeo. They thought ‘Conan’ sounded more heroic.”
But as long as the corporate obsession with using focus groups to give creativity continues, those corporations will drive themselves creatively and financially bankrupt, and real genuine examples of genius-driven creativity will be harder and harder to find.