Here's a study in contrasts. First, TV comedy writer Ken Levine, who has written with partner David Isaacs for The Simpsons, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond and M*A*S*H, talks about his experience with focus groups.
Then we've got Scott Kirsner writing about OurStage.com. It's a website similar to American Idol, where thousands of people vote for their favorite bands and web videos and the winners are awarded prizes. (You can check out the animation winner for March here.)
Each one of these is a filter, a way of trying to pick winners out of a crowd. In the first case, the crowd consists of commissioned TV pilots and in the second, user-generated music and video. But both are attempting to use the audience to determine what's going to be successful. The focus group is small and supposed to be representative of the larger audience, but we know from watching TV that it has a high failure rate. The second case uses the entire audience as the focal group but it only gets to judge user-financed content.
The logical question is why aren't these two procedures merged? TV networks are hampered by the small sample sizes they use for testing. OurStage is hampered by the budgets and talents of self-selecting contributors. If TV networks put all their pilots online and asked viewers to vote on which ones should go into production, we couldn't do any worse than we're doing now.
OurStage is promising recording studio time and film festival entry to its winners, which means that eventually the prize money will allow popular contributors to work with larger budgets. Once OurStage can finance work based on proven popularity, the contributors will have the wherewithal to do better work.
Whoever is first to finance work based on audience popularity without the bottleneck of gatekeepers is going to leave everyone in the dust. Let the audience decide and direct the money to audience favourites.