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Viewer Discretion Advised

Beware of envelopes containing four free tickets to test new shows.


Dear Televiewer:

You have been selected to participate in a survey whose findings will directly influence what you see on television in the future.

You have been selected to evaluate not-yet-released television material that is being considered for nationwide broadcast.

You have been selected to help represent the television viewing preferences of the entire country.

So begins the letter that has lured as many as 200 people a week to the Embassy Suites hotel near the Plaza since last October. The invitation comes with four tickets to a screening that draws its audience from a blue-hair-heavy cross-section of Kansas City's demographic groups. Viewers expect nothing more than the chance to see the next Sopranos or Seinfeld before everyone else. A bonus shot at "approximately $250 in attendance prizes" ain't too shabby, either.

Finally, somebody cares what Kansas City thinks about TV. Maybe we'll be asked whether we like shows such as Who Wants to Marry My Dad. Maybe we'll be asked if we're disgusted with the vulgarity on the boob tube today. Maybe we're the test audience for something revolutionary. As it turns out, the answers are: no, no, no, and, boy, is Valerie Harper going to be pissed.

Around 6:45 p.m., people begin filing into a conference room at the Embassy Suites. They're cautioned to grab a glass of water from a table beforehand, because they won't get a chance to leave once they commit to the survey, which might take until 10 p.m.

The host, Mike Forsyth, is a middle-aged guy with a big smile and a cheap blazer. He and his fiancée both work for Television Preview (a division of a market-research firm called RSC), as do three or four helpers who pass out black folders. Forsyth stands in front of three modestly sized TVs and explains that, before the night of TV begins, he'd like everyone to complete a survey about household products, because three people are going to win prize packs made up of the items that they specify. This survey requires audience members to give their names, addresses and phone numbers.

Most attendees have figured out by now that there's a catch, and if this is it, they can live with it. Dutifully, everyone circles their favorite dish soaps and pain relievers. One booklet is chosen from the stack, and that lucky person is informed that a prize will come in the mail. Then Forsyth cheerfully explains that he's going to start the preview.

The first show is tentatively titled Soulmates and stars Kim Raver, an actress from Third Watch. Raver plays a hypnotherapist who begins a love affair with her newest patient while having flashbacks to the 1940s that recast the patient as a soldier and Raver as a woman engaged to a military officer. Snorts are heard throughout the conference room.

Besides the plot, a few other things mar viewers' enjoyment. For one, the VHS tape of Soulmates must also hail from World War II (or maybe just 1996). It's scratched and worn, causing white bars to flash across the screen. Two, the show is repeatedly interrupted by commercials for Force Flex Glad bags, Doritos and Hydrience hair coloring. There's also an alarming number of commercials for prescription drugs; these ads look older than the commercials for the same products that air today.

When the lights come back up, viewers get to answer multiple-choice questions about each central actor's performance and whether the chemistry between characters "sizzled." The survey asks for some freestyle commentary on Soulmates as well as a final thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

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