How CBS plays in Vegas

Network and Viacom parent opens audience research center that's fun for tourists
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CBS may be reducing its presence at the NAB convention in Las Vegas this year, but parent company Viacom still loves Sin City.

Take a quick cab ride from the convention center over to the strip and you'll see where Viacom and partners Sony and A. C. Nielsen are betting a whole pile of chips on a new research center-cum-tourist attraction at the MGM Grand.

Viacom networks will test most of their new shows there. And CBS and A. C. Nielsen (co-owned but not to be confused with Nielsen Media Research) are creating a new data base to track the entertainment habits, tastes and desires of viewers nationwide.

The thought of Las Vegas conjures lots of images—showgirls, comedians, Wayne Newton.

But for researchers, it's the millions of tourists that pass through the city each year, young and old, rich and poor, male and female who provide the greatest appeal.

Just ask David Poltrack, head of research and planning at CBS who oversaw the development of Viacom's new Las Vegas facility, known formally as the Television City Research Center. He's been conducting most of the testing for CBS pilots and series in Las Vegas for several years now. And Poltrack sees Vegas as a revealing cross-section of America.

"We'll do a test there with 250 people and we'll get 40 states represented," he says. "It's representative of every lifestyle."

CBS started doing Vegas-based program research in the mid-'90s after years of testing on cable systems around the country. But that became increasingly expensive as rates for the time increased. Previously CBS set up shop at a different hotel every year. Poltrack is sure this will be cheaper.

Now, after a mandate from top execs to make future research costs across the company as efficient as possible, those testing facilities have a permanent home within the 5,000-square-foot Research Center at the MGM Grand. All the company's media subsidiaries will use it.

But it's not just a testing site. Sony joined in and built a permanent exhibition called "The Living Room of the Future," to showcase the latest in Sony's consumer electronic gadgets from HDTV sets to Sony Playstation.

"It's a small project for us, but very exciting," said Ed Grebow, Sony Broadcast president. "We'll be showing products that people will be able to buy in the next six to nine months."

The research center will be managed by Viacom's Paramount Parks unit (with the Robert Brilliant Research Co. of Los Angeles managing the testing facilities).

You can't miss the place, even in Vegas: It's festooned with 50 TV monitors that display Viacom's big brands like CBS, MTV and Nickelodeon. Another screen rotates among the other Viacom brands, like Showtime, BET and TNN.

In addition, a Viacom retail store is on site to sell the latest MTV jackets and CBS hats. (The first Viacom store was shuttered in Chicago in the late '90s.)

The guts of the research facilities include two screening rooms, each fitting 250 viewers, and two focus-group rooms. A. C. Nielsen has agreed to co-develop and manage a new entertainment database that will be created from surveys of test participants who agree to answer follow-up surveys once they get back home. Those surveys will ask viewers what they think of shows they screened in Vegas after they get to air, and also more general questions about what they think of different program genres, what they'd like to see on the air and even questions about technology. Like, at what price point would they buy an HDTV set.

"This will be an ongoing, constantly updated database," says Poltrack. "It's the first time we've done anything of this magnitude."

Much of the data collected in Vegas will be proprietary to the Viacom network that commissions it. But Nielsen will be able to use a portion of it in work with other clients and projects.