Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz

Melva Benoit (Veteran Entertainment Researcher/Strategist) on the Intersection of Television, Audience Research, and Marketing

April 04, 2024 Kevin Goetz / Melva Benoit Season 2024 Episode 40
Melva Benoit (Veteran Entertainment Researcher/Strategist) on the Intersection of Television, Audience Research, and Marketing
Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
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Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
Melva Benoit (Veteran Entertainment Researcher/Strategist) on the Intersection of Television, Audience Research, and Marketing
Apr 04, 2024 Season 2024 Episode 40
Kevin Goetz / Melva Benoit

Send Kevin a Text Message

In this episode of "Don't Kill the Messenger," host Kevin Goetz sits down with Melva Benoit, founder and president of the Marian Dupree Group. A trailblazer in research and consumer insights, Benoit has held senior executive positions in major media companies including Viacom, Disney, Turner, NBC Universal, and Fox. Together, they delve into her rich background in television market research, discussing her unique insights and experiences in the entertainment industry.

Benoit's Early Career (06:01)
Growing up in Houston, Texas, Benoit developed a love for television and aspired to be in charge of Saturday morning cartoons. She attended Howard University and began her career in research at King World, eventually moving to Cartoon Network and Comedy Central.

The Role of Research in Television (09:55)
Benoit explains the three main functions of research within media institutions: keeping the lights on, taking requests, and anticipating stakeholders' needs. She emphasizes the importance of research teams contributing to meetings even when there isn't a direct need for research.

Analyzing Successful TV Shows – Seinfeld, Friends, and South Park (20:08)
Benoit discusses the testing and success of shows like Seinfeld (20:08), Friends (23:57), and South Park (40:26). She highlights the importance of understanding how audiences learn to watch and relate to characters in television shows.

The Changing Landscape of Media (27:47)
The pair discuss the importance of the audience and the challenges of targeted advertising and the need for a more nuanced approach to understanding audiences.

Reframing Audience Measurement (29:20)
Goetz and Benoit discuss a new way of looking at marketing to consumers, focusing on shared attitudes, behaviors, and values rather than solely relying on demographic information. They emphasize the importance of reaching diverse audiences and the need for the advertising industry to adapt to this new way of thinking.

Melva Benoit's insights into the world of television market research shed light on the complex relationship between content creators, audiences, and advertisers. By advocating for a more nuanced understanding of entertainment consumers and embracing the changing media landscape, Benoit and Goetz offer a unique vision for the future of the industry. This engaging conversation highlights the importance of adaptability, creativity, and audience-centric thinking in the changing media landscape. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review or connect on social media. We look forward to bringing you more revelations from behind the scenes next time on Don't Kill the Messenger!

Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Melva Benoit
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, and Kari Campano

For more information about Melva Benoit:
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/melvabenoit/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MelvagBenoit
The Marian Dupree Group, Inc. https://linkedin.com/company/the-marian-dupree-group-llc/

For more information about Kevin Goetz:
Website: www.KevinGoetz360.com
Audienceology Book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Audience-ology/Kevin-Goetz/9781982186678
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @KevinGoetz360
Linked In @Kevin Goetz
Screen Engine/ASI Website: www.ScreenEngineASI.com

Show Notes Transcript

Send Kevin a Text Message

In this episode of "Don't Kill the Messenger," host Kevin Goetz sits down with Melva Benoit, founder and president of the Marian Dupree Group. A trailblazer in research and consumer insights, Benoit has held senior executive positions in major media companies including Viacom, Disney, Turner, NBC Universal, and Fox. Together, they delve into her rich background in television market research, discussing her unique insights and experiences in the entertainment industry.

Benoit's Early Career (06:01)
Growing up in Houston, Texas, Benoit developed a love for television and aspired to be in charge of Saturday morning cartoons. She attended Howard University and began her career in research at King World, eventually moving to Cartoon Network and Comedy Central.

The Role of Research in Television (09:55)
Benoit explains the three main functions of research within media institutions: keeping the lights on, taking requests, and anticipating stakeholders' needs. She emphasizes the importance of research teams contributing to meetings even when there isn't a direct need for research.

Analyzing Successful TV Shows – Seinfeld, Friends, and South Park (20:08)
Benoit discusses the testing and success of shows like Seinfeld (20:08), Friends (23:57), and South Park (40:26). She highlights the importance of understanding how audiences learn to watch and relate to characters in television shows.

The Changing Landscape of Media (27:47)
The pair discuss the importance of the audience and the challenges of targeted advertising and the need for a more nuanced approach to understanding audiences.

Reframing Audience Measurement (29:20)
Goetz and Benoit discuss a new way of looking at marketing to consumers, focusing on shared attitudes, behaviors, and values rather than solely relying on demographic information. They emphasize the importance of reaching diverse audiences and the need for the advertising industry to adapt to this new way of thinking.

Melva Benoit's insights into the world of television market research shed light on the complex relationship between content creators, audiences, and advertisers. By advocating for a more nuanced understanding of entertainment consumers and embracing the changing media landscape, Benoit and Goetz offer a unique vision for the future of the industry. This engaging conversation highlights the importance of adaptability, creativity, and audience-centric thinking in the changing media landscape. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review or connect on social media. We look forward to bringing you more revelations from behind the scenes next time on Don't Kill the Messenger!

Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Melva Benoit
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, and Kari Campano

For more information about Melva Benoit:
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/melvabenoit/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MelvagBenoit
The Marian Dupree Group, Inc. https://linkedin.com/company/the-marian-dupree-group-llc/

For more information about Kevin Goetz:
Website: www.KevinGoetz360.com
Audienceology Book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Audience-ology/Kevin-Goetz/9781982186678
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @KevinGoetz360
Linked In @Kevin Goetz
Screen Engine/ASI Website: www.ScreenEngineASI.com

Podcast: Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz 
Guest:  Market Research Trailblazer, Melva Benoit
Interview Transcript:

Announcer (00:02):

There's a little-known part of Hollywood that most people are not aware of known as the audience test preview. The recently released book, Audienceology, reveals this for the first time. Our podcast series, Don't Kill the Messenger, brings this book to life, taking a peek behind the curtain. And now, join author and entertainment research expert, Kevin Goetz.

Kevin Goetz (00:24):

In 2016, my company Screen Engine partnered with my guest today to initiate a change in the way that entertainment audiences are tracked, reached, and marketed to by emphasizing their interests, beliefs, values, and behaviors, rather than simply by their age, gender, race, and ethnicity demographic information. This is one of the wheelhouses of Melva Benoit, a trailblazer in research and consumer insights and president of the Marion Dupree Group. Her rich background includes leadership roles with major companies like Disney, NBC, and Fox. Melva, I'm really happy to have you here today.

Melva Benoit (01:11):

I'm excited to be here.

Kevin Goetz (01:13):

Before we get into a lot of stuff, you are one of my first mostly television-centric guests, as you pointed out before the interview today. And I think it's important for people to know that Don't Kill the Messenger not only applies to people in the movie business but certainly also in television. You've had to deliver the news on pilots, tracking information, promo information, and ad sales throughout your career. Would you concur that that is a very apt title? Don't Kill the Messenger <laugh>?

Melva Benoit (01:51):

It is. Being a pure television market researcher for probably the first 20 years of my career, the nickname was Show Killer. Oh, the Show Killer's coming in and it's like, I'm not the show killer. It's like, I need your show to work just like you need your show to work 'cause I have kids to feed, so let's sort of figure it out together.

Kevin Goetz (02:11):

I know, I don't understand why they would think that you have some pleasure in, or a schadenfreude or something that you want them to not succeed. If you had everything succeeding, your life would be so easy.

Melva Benoit (02:24):

<laugh>. Exactly. Well, my beginning was in basic cable and so specifically though it was kids. And so when you are testing content with kids, kids are brutal. They're very clear on what they like and what they don't like.

Kevin Goetz (02:39):

Did you actually moderate groups yourself or have a hands-on approach?

Melva Benoit (02:43):

My very first time moderating was actually a brief stint while doing kids. I took a gig at Comedy Central and so the groups I moderated were for a small show. You may have heard about, it's my first time moderating called South Park.

Kevin Goetz (02:57):

Ah, yeah, I heard that little show. Yeah. Oh God. So that wasn't a kid show.

Melva Benoit (03:03):

No, no, no. Comedy Central. So I've been very lucky in that, starting in basic cable with brands, I got to build a brand. I was employee number 14 out of 19 for Cartoon Network. So we were the little engine that could when Nickelodeon was the dominant player. And so they were everything from a brand with regard to kids. So, I started in market research and television in a space where there weren't a lot of people. So I wouldn't get pushback if I was doing something new. So I could, I had the freedom to learn, to innovate, to do, to change 'cause we were the second brand. I can remember sitting at a meeting in New York for the kids upfront.

Kevin Goetz (03:43):

Explain what the upfronts are.

Melva Benoit (03:44):

So every year before the new season, all of the networks would get together in New York and they'd have parties and introduce the schedule for the fall.

Kevin Goetz (03:53):

They'd be pretty lavish shows, right? 

Melva Benoit (03:55):

Correct. Historically it was built around, that's when the new cars were being brought out onto the assembly line. Oh, so television.

Kevin Goetz (04:03):

That's how the cadence about time.

Melva Benoit (04:04):

It's about advertising at the end of the day. It's not about the shows, it's about advertising. And so that was built around the new cars are coming out in the fall and auto was the largest category. That was the most amount of money spent across advertising.

Kevin Goetz (04:19):

Put a pin in that for a second. And then movies became one of the largest. Correct. If not the largest. Which prompted you when you were at NBC to begin?

Melva Benoit (04:29):

Must See TV. Yeah.

Kevin Goetz (04:30):

Must See TV on Thursday was because movies opened on Friday. Correct. And Thursday was a huge advertising final push for weekend movies. It was. And there was a fortune spent on linear television at that point, right?

Melva Benoit (04:41):

Yeah, it was. It was, it was enormous because it was the beginning of the weekend. NBC's Must See TV. That's actually Preston Beckman, my mentor’s creation. They had two comedy nights. Tuesday they called it The Twin Towers, Tuesday and Thursday. But Thursday was Cosby. It was Seinfeld at one period of time. It was all of this when Cosby was on the air. So we go all the way back to the eighties.

Kevin Goetz (05:07):

You were there then?

Melva Benoit (05:08):

No. Oh, college. So there was no digital, we're not into cell phones yet there, if you think about it, the way ratings work, 90% of households, if they were on in America, were tuned to Cosby basically.

Kevin Goetz (05:19):

Wait, talk. What was the share basic?

Melva Benoit (05:20):

They were doing like a 70 share. 

Kevin Goetz (05:23):

So it was, it was, listeners, listen to this Melva, what does a Super Bowl do today?

Melva Benoit (05:27):

It's not what it used to be.

Kevin Goetz (05:29):

Ish.

Melva Benoit (05:31):

Ish. Maybe a 10 rating if they can get there.

Kevin Goetz (05:33):

And Cosby was a what?

Melva Benoit (05:36):

Cosby was double or triple that at some point.

Kevin Goetz (05:39):

It's just beyond staggering to think that there were three networks. Fox didn't exist yet. 

Melva Benoit (05:44):

No. I wrote a paper about Fox actually in college and then ended up working there 'cause they were there.

Kevin Goetz (05:48):

Working there. You ran the entire research and strategy group.

Melva Benoit (05:51):

They announced themselves as I was coming out of college, and it was this sort of interesting exercise that they're going to do.

Kevin Goetz (05:57):

Okay. There's so many things I wanna ask you. So first of all, where'd you grow up?

Melva Benoit (06:01):

So I grew up in Houston, Texas.

Kevin Goetz (06:03):

Okay. Born and raised and loved television as a kid.

Melva Benoit (06:06):

Loved television as a kid. And my desire was to be in charge of Saturday morning cartoons. I loved cartoons.

Kevin Goetz (06:14):

Favorite cartoon?

Melva Benoit (06:16):

Favorite cartoon is The Jetsons. Loved animation, loved cartoons. So I grew up in a household, two-parent household. My mother was a schoolteacher. She loved the arts. So many weekends spent in museums with art, going to the theater. And I took ballet from eight to 18 and my ballet teacher, who was black, was one of the first prima ballerinas at the Sorbonne, black woman. So that's sort of my history growing up and my tie to art and storytelling.

Kevin Goetz (06:44):

You know, I've known you for how many years?

Melva Benoit (06:46):

I've never. And you didn't know that. There's so much that goes into my children would complain. It's like, look, you have to take every lesson that I had to take. You only know I'm from Texas if I have enough bourbon. And it's like, oh…

Kevin Goetz (06:57):

Yeah. Oh, and what does mine come through with me? My Brooklyn.

Melva Benoit (06:59):

Exactly.

Kevin Goetz (07:00):

So suddenly I'm like, yeah, what was that soft, was that, was that a big dog or what exactly?

Melva Benoit (07:05):

<laugh>. So my mother decided I was gonna go to Howard when I was, I don't know, eight or nine. We went to Washington DC for the weekend. My dad worked for an airline Braniff. So we flew quite a bit. My dad wanted me to be an engineer and so I spent summers in engineering camps. And I…

Kevin Goetz (07:23):

Isn't that funny? They wanna push you into like…

Melva Benoit (07:26):

My mother wanted me to be an actress and so I took a lot of voice. My acting classes were at Theater Under the Stars. So I'm in the only nearly all white production of The Wiz called Dorothy is Alive and Well.

Kevin Goetz (07:39):

Oh no, they did not do that.

Melva Benoit (07:40):

Yes. Dorothy is alive and well and living in Oz.

Kevin Goetz (07:42):

When I think of home, I think of a place where, where love overflowing <laugh>.

Melva Benoit (07:50):

Yes. So I was in charge of the poppy field and we did four productions. God, I remember this. I did standup in New York for a brief moment.

Kevin Goetz (07:59):

So interesting. And it's good for our listeners to know. Melva is so respected in the, probably you have one of the longest reigns of any television executive in research and strategy. And to have this background just absolutely exemplifies and highlights what I call finding your and, your A N D, which is of course your superpower. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Which you have, which is innately what you are and who you are. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. But that throughout your life you bring these different ands into play to form the woman or the man that you become. Yes.

Melva Benoit (08:36):

Yes. Completely.

Kevin Goetz (08:36):

Incredible.

Melva Benoit (08:37):

My journey into research wasn't specific. My boss at King World just put me in research. And then that began the path. And I developed a career around understanding. Well, I couldn't necessarily create, I could have a conversation with creatives and I look at data and I see pictures.

Kevin Goetz (08:55):

Oh, au contraire. No, no. Au contraire. How could you not say that? That's why I think now it makes sense to me why I consider you one of the best that I've ever worked with. And that has to do with the fact that you are creative. And I believe in my heart that the best marketing people, the best market research people are in fact creative beings. Mm. So they can be empathetic, not just give scorecards and be called dream killers or whatever the hell we are called. Right. But rather really contributing to the process. Right. I mean, you have worked with people who found you invaluable. You've worked with people who also thought you were probably a pain in the ass like I get as well. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. But the truth is, is you are contributing the impact of the audience, the viewpoint of the audience, and being that advocate for a voice that's never heard. Right. And that takes great creativity.

Melva Benoit (09:55):

Oh, thank you. I never really thought about it that way. You know, when research inside of a media institution works really well, I tell people we do three things. Because some people look at the research department as a utility, it's a cost center, it's not driving revenue. And it's like, yeah, but if you do this right, you're having an impact against revenue. And you tell those stories. Right? So the first thing that we do is we do the things that have to be done no matter what. It's keeping the lights on. So I describe it, if we were a diner every day we get up and we make mixes for pancakes and for other things 'cause we know people are gonna come in and they're gonna want those sort of standard things. So we capture ratings, we put out reports, we do those things.

Melva Benoit (10:38):

The next thing we do, we take requests. You come in to the diner, you want a burger, you get a burger made. People come and they ask us questions and we create things and figure out how to answer their questions. And then the last thing that we do that I think puts us over the top is as we begin to build a rapport with our stakeholders and we begin to understand what delights them, what keeps them up at night, share their burdens with them, then there are those moments that they come in. And I, I'll take you back to the diner where you, you go into this diner every day. You always ask for breakfast. You get to know the people behind what's going on. And you're complaining this morning that I'm not gonna get lunch on Friday. It's gonna be a long day, blah, blah, blah. I can't wait till it comes, whatever. And when you come in that Friday, the guy hands you something extra that you didn't ask for. You're like, what's this? Just take it. And it's in that moment where lunchtime, your stomach’s grumbling. You're like, wait a minute. And it's your favorite sandwich. So the last thing that we do when we do it really well is we answer questions that aren't necessarily asked directly. And so it was always…

Kevin Goetz (11:48):

You're anticipating, aren't you?

Melva Benoit (11:50):

We're anticipating, but we're also participating. What I, I would tell my teams is look, whether there's a direct need for research or not in a meeting, we always want our stakeholders to feel the people that we serve and the company to feel like, wait a minute, where's somebody from research 'cause they make the meeting better? It's like we just want them into here. And sometimes when we're having our discussions, it's like, what was going on? What's everybody worried about? They're worried about X. It's like, let's add a tidbit of analysis. Or I've created things where I can remember Kevin Reilly complaining to the team about something and just saying, research puts out this really great report that does da da da da da.

Kevin Goetz (12:32):

Suddenly you're getting calls from every other area like in Fox saying.

Melva Benoit (12:35):

I'm like, right. Like, yeah. And he's like, where, where did that come from? It's like, well, you were in a meeting complaining. And we sat down and sort of figured out how do we meet this need that you didn't put out? And he was just sort of silent after that. But it's like, if we're doing our job, that's what we do. Yes. You know.

Kevin Goetz (12:52):

And you had a very good working relationship with Kevin Reilly and also Peter Leggore and Gail Berman.

Melva Benoit (12:58):

Gail hired me at Fox. So.

Kevin Goetz (13:00):

She's a very special woman. 

Melva Benoit (13:02):

She is one of the best storytellers that I've ever met. And then watching her go through the process with creatives and development is actually pretty…

Kevin Goetz (13:13):

Well because she started in the theater. Yeah. It's pretty producing a Broadway show. I think Joseph and the Amazing Technical Dream Coat at like 21 years old or something.

Melva Benoit (13:20):

It is amazing to watch her sort of see, understand a story and then sort of play it out. And so for us being inside, because you know, when I was at Disney Channel, we would make 15 movies a year. So that was a quick test. It was a quick test because the movies are formulaic. Right. But when you make a show, it's like, it's like 20 movies, but it's all sort of one subject. And so what you are trying to figure out is how to give someone enough information to understand that the ride that they're going on or the how they wanna lay out their stories, where the audience matters and where it doesn't. Gail was the first executive that I could actually observe, sort of be able to think through 20 episodes or a season the arcs 'cause when you're talking about a movie, it's one and done. It's arcs across an hour. Absolutely. When you're talking about a series, you may be talking about an arc across 22 episodes.

Kevin Goetz (14:18):

I'm learning that now with the streamers, for example. When you look at a movie on streaming in a movie, in a theater, you have to capture the audience in a different way. You have to grab them right away. And you can't have the same cold opening necessarily. Or if you don't have the same cold opening, you may lose the audience because they're so distracted by doing other things. Television always had that problem, if you will, is holding the audience until those commercial breaks and then gaining them back right afterwards.

Melva Benoit (14:48):

So yes and no.

Kevin Goetz (14:49):

Tell me.

Melva Benoit (14:52):

The acts were built and we played fast and loose with the acts to make more money. So four act drama series became five acts 'cause you just made more money. Broadcast always had less commercial breaks than cable, which people don't realize. So when you actually, you know, I don't know if people were looking at suits, which I think is on Netflix right now, there's not that many minutes inside of those hour dramas. There are literally seven, like there are multiple breaks because they ran so many more commercials than they did in broadcast television. You just had fewer breaks. That's the rub if you will.

Kevin Goetz (15:24):

So like Lifetime has seven acts. Yeah.

Melva Benoit (15:26):

Yeah.

Kevin Goetz (15:26):

That's crazy. Broadcast only always had five.

Melva Benoit (15:29):

Yes.

Kevin Goetz (15:30):

What about now?

Melva Benoit (15:32):

They haven't increased. They tried to go to six. It's difficult because writers writing in those breaks, it's a very difficult process because you're, you're, you're thinking about it. Um, what you think about and you're teaching a writer to write in those breaks is, is you're thinking about, you think about it as a rollercoaster, right? You wanna take somebody up and right at that moment you basically leave and give them…

Kevin Goetz (16:00):

And need to tease them.

Melva Benoit (16:00):

And you give them time to catch their breath. Right. Right. And they're waiting 'cause it's a cliffhanger. I'll never forget talking to a colleague because 24 we would play, it's like we're gonna run commercial free. 24 is a very difficult show to do that with because we literally did that. If you watch 24, it goes like that. It takes you all the way up. And I remember a colleague calling me, it's like, why the fuck did you take the breaks out? I kept waiting. My heart was going and going. 'cause remember it's a roller coaster. We're just building up, building up, building up.

Kevin Goetz (16:31):

So they, they said, why did you take the breaks out?

Melva Benoit (16:32):

Because I, I, you know, it was too much. I needed to breathe.

Kevin Goetz (16:37):

Oh wow.

Melva Benoit (16:38):

In the storytelling. So, so you have to look at it sort of that way. Movies don't have that problem at all because there are no breaks. Yes. You do take people up and down.

Kevin Goetz (16:46):

Well, you have an act one, and act two, act three structure, typically.

Melva Benoit (16:48):

But you do take people up and down because of whatever the narrative is. But in, in this 60 minutes, which if it's broadcast, it's 44. If cable's 42, think about that. 

Kevin Goetz (17:01):

42 minutes. And now streaming could be anything. It's usually around 50.

Melva Benoit (17:04):

Streaming it, it's random with random to streaming because you don't have normal breaks. If you did any breaks, it would help you, it would help you with structure.

Kevin Goetz (17:13):

You don't have any breaks often.

Melva Benoit (17:14):

Depending on who's who you're selling.

Kevin Goetz (17:16):

So there's many movies in a way then, right.

Melva Benoit (17:17):

Unless you're Hulu because you do have breaks. Right, right. So understanding that break structure is a part of it with regard to how you tell a story. But then also what I would tell people all the time, it's like movies have stars. You know, the actor in a movie, you know that Kiefer Sutherland is in whatever movie it is. But when you're talking about television, you're talking about characters. These are very personal to people. People say to you, you know what, Jack Bauer and I have a date tonight. Ah. And you know exactly who they're talking about because it's the, uh, it's personal. You have to remember that. Whether it's the character that they're investing, whether you're talking about streaming or it doesn't, that's, it's just a screen. It's a medium. If you're talking about television content, it's at home. It's personal. I'm watching it like Al Bundy with my, you know, these are my friends.

Kevin Goetz (18:08):

You're absolutely right.

Melva Benoit (18:09):

Movies are story first, character second. And television is character first, story second, because I'm only gonna watch if I care. And so it's one of five things. Oh that's me. Oh that's someone I know. Oh that's someone I wanna be. Oh that's just like my brother. Right? That guy reminds me of my neighbor.

Kevin Goetz (18:31):

It's a relatability.

Melva Benoit (18:32):

It has to be. Wow. Or else you're not in it. So it doesn't matter with regard to story, it's like you only care if you're gonna invest in this person to stay with them for five episodes 'cause you like them. You wanna hang out with them.

Kevin Goetz (18:44):

Speaking of likability, there is a historic show that you were involved with that probably is an example of the best casting maybe ever in television. A show called Friends.

Melva Benoit (18:58):

<laugh>.

Kevin Goetz (18:58):

And you were at NBC at the time. And the rumor is, is that Friends never tested well, which I don't think is actually true, but it didn't test spectacularly well. A lot of the creators now like to say, oh it was almost killed by the audiences. Can you talk about that experience?

Melva Benoit (19:14):

When we talk about show testing on the broadcast television side, which is very different than happened in cable. Those deals were made. And when you're talking about the audience, usually you're testing two or three shows to figure out a whole host of things. How do we sell this? What are we doing with this? 'Cause you've made the decision to move forward. It's not a pilot test. 

Kevin Goetz (19:33):

So that's on cable?

Melva Benoit (19:33):

So that's on cable. The pilot test, what would happen is the networks would make 20 some odd shows and they're only going to pick up four or five. So the pilot test is about figuring out if there's some there, there, can I move forward? So you make a set of norms, you do a quantitative test. So Friends was at norm. And getting people to understand when something's at norm, that's just average.

Kevin Goetz (20:01):

Let me just tell listeners, how many shows have we seen in our careers that have been average and they make it on the air.

Melva Benoit (20:08):

So the best story is Seinfeld. When I got to NBC, I was given the pilot test for Seinfeld, for Miami Vice and for something else. And I looked at all of the pilots. The Miami Vice Pilot was like, oh my God, I can't believe they tested this 'cause it's dark. And I understood why the test read that it did.

Kevin Goetz (20:31):

It didn't go well.

Melva Benoit (20:32):

It was average. Ah, it was average. None of these things tested poorly. If they tested poorly, they are not picked up. Right. And, and I'll define poorly because there are shows that have gone on to be wildly successful. That tested average, what was that show? The Office had a 50% rejection rate, but of the people that loved it or the top box and the people that tested it that loved the show, it was broad. And so that was an indicator, like it was in the top percentile in terms of they were incredibly passionate about it. And it wasn't a narrow group of people. That's huge. If I said, oh, the top percentile of people that love the show is only one demographic, one sector of the audience, it wouldn't have been enough. But there's this passionate group of people that's a broad swath. And so when you look at the scores, Carrell and all of that, then it was just a matter of, okay, we've seen this before.

Melva Benoit (21:30):

Seinfeld is the example. You have to learn how to watch the show. So here's the thing that people forget when Seinfeld premiered on air, Home Improvement used to kick its ass on the regular. Louis Dreyfuss was not in the pilot. It was three guys. Right? She wasn't in the pilot. No. So Seinfeld was friends, family, if you will. So remember there's a finite number of stories that we tell, right? And so whether it's redemption or whatever, Seinfeld was just a buddy comedy, but it was a buddy comedy among three about nothing. What would happen in Seinfeld? Because if you look at Three's Company, it's the same thing. The problem would be presented and then the entire episode is all the calamities until you get down to the end and it's like, let's solve this. If you look at the last season of Seinfeld in the very last episode, because they're all unlikeable.

Melva Benoit (22:15):

And that was the, the thing that made it remarkable. It's very rare that you can have four unlikable people 'cause the audience who do you at like four unlikable people. And in the last episode, which is why most people didn't get it, the last episode, they were, they went to jail. They were punished for being not nice people, but there was four unlikeable people. Wow. Think about the people. It's crazy, right? That you think about it, you know, as as friends, the people you don't like, you wanna spend a limited amount of time with them, a very limited amount of time. It's like, I have no reason to cheer for you. Think about it, television is personal. And so Home Improvement on the other, on the other side was just easier to digest. It's like half the time you didn't know what they were talking about.

Melva Benoit (23:00):

So let's think about how long they left it on the air. They left it on the air to get enough episodes to go into syndication and it went into prime access. So across the country, Seinfeld is now on prime access and you're watching it five days a week at dinner waiting. The country now is learning how to watch the show. And that's what you meant about learning how to watch the show. And so then they begin to understand, oh Kramer reminds me, oh now some, oh yeah, I can identify people. Did you know that you got that early on? What happened is because it's just such an, it's such an astute observation. So when we would talk to kids about shows, we did a shorts project, we called our shorts what a cartoon. And so I travel around the country because whenever I do focus groups, it's away and focus groups with children. Children were quite honest. So we're gonna show the Powerpuff Girls. And Craig McCracken who created, it was 19 at the time. And I had a huge fight with Fred Siber. It's like he cannot come to the focus groups. It's like, dude, kids are brutal. We're going to put the show on anyway. But we just need to understand…

Kevin Goetz (24:05):

How to position it or how

Melva Benoit (24:07):

To, how to talk about it,

Kevin Goetz (24:08):

How to socialize it. 

Melva Benoit (24:11):

Correct. So Craig is in Arizona with me and the kids are like, oh my God, they're second graders. They have no hands and just awful, right? <laugh>, he's in the fetal position.

Kevin Goetz (24:23):

Oh.

Melva Benoit (24:24):

I have to get him drunk in this amazing bar, in this amazing hotel that we're staying in. I'm like, dude, we're going to do your show. We just need to understand how to deal with kids.

Kevin Goetz (24:34):

Right? You can't tell a creator that, you just can't.

Melva Benoit (24:38):

But it began to help me understand how to interpret how people were responding to things. And so the kids were picking it apart because they didn't have a, they didn't have anything grounding it. It looked very different. They just didn't know what to make of it. It was hugely successful, but we had to explain it.

Kevin Goetz (24:57):

We have to understand how the audience is actually gonna consume it. When we come back. I want to talk about Friends because we never got there because we got sidetracked with Seinfeld and Home Improvement. We'll be back in a moment.

Announcer (25:13):

Get a glimpse into a secret part of Hollywood that few are aware of and that filmmakers rarely talk about in the new book Audienceology by Kevin Goetz. Each chapter is filled with never-before-revealed inside stories and interviews from famous studio chiefs, directors, producers, and movie stars, bringing the art and science of audienceology into focus. Audienceology, How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, from Tiller Press at Simon and Schuster. Available now.

Kevin Goetz (25:46):

We're back with Melva Benoit, a terrific executive strategist, marketing genius in my opinion, and research phenom. So, Mel, I want to talk about Friends again. What happened with the testing of that? At first, it tested averagely, you said.

Melva Benoit (26:04):

It tested average. And it was the same thing in terms of friends as family. It was how it was communicated. 

Kevin Goetz (26:12):

What does that mean? Friends as family.

Melva Benoit (26:15):

So it was basically a family comedy. It wasn't a buddy comedy, which was very different. Seinfeld was more like a buddy comedy. I see. But Friends was more like a family comedy in terms of you had six people that related to each other, almost like siblings. And so if you think about how family comedies work, it really played much more so like a family comedy. And so we call that friends as family, right? So friends as family buddy, comedies are very different. Buddy comedies are these two people oftentimes are opposites. These guys were really like six siblings and all of their shenanigans that happened. All of the characters popped except one. And I'm not gonna tell you which one you could probably guess so…

Kevin Goetz (26:56):

I would say Phoebe. Yeah.

Melva Benoit (26:58):

I don't necessarily know why you could even see it in the ratings 'cause they moved the stories around in terms of who had the…

Kevin Goetz (27:06):

And then she was ultimately so embraced, right?

Melva Benoit (27:09):

I think sort of like Joey, she was more of a spice.

Kevin Goetz (27:14):

More of a foil.

Melva Benoit (27:14):

Correct. And Joey sort of the same way. In the last year, Kevin came over and Kevin really wanted to do the Joey show. You know, that was the spinoff of friends and Frazier came out of Cheers. And it's like, yes, but Frazier is a completely different show. You want Joey to still be Joey without the friends and Joey doesn't work without the friends. Yeah. It was really difficult to sort of figure that out.

Kevin Goetz (27:42):

You saw it in the pilot or yes, you started audiences,

Melva Benoit (27:45):

But they were gonna do it. They're gonna do it no matter what.

Kevin Goetz (27:47):

Let's talk about the audience for a second a little bit. Because you and I have a great reverence for audiences. We have made our livings listening and advocating to and for them. Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. And I guess my question is, you made a good comment before about like no, there's a point at which no low low testing pilot ever makes it on air. I completely agree with that. We have a lot of data to support that. And whenever something might have gone on air, it would be for a business or political decision made outside of the audience's approval, if you will. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> right. Or support or ours. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. It was above our pay grades. Right. Then you look at medium testing pilots, which are, I would probably say are half of them if not more. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> that are. And then you have really strong testing pilots that not necessarily make it on air, but if they do, don't necessarily succeed. So can you speak of an example that tested extremely highly that either really worked or really didn't?

Melva Benoit (28:52):

Yeah, I can give both. I mean basically television is about 80% failure. You know, it's a portfolio strategy. Yeah. Everything can't be a home run. There'll be a home run. And then you wanna get supporting players because you're building a schedule if you will. You're building a, a playlist if you will. If you're a streamer, you're building a playlist. I need the one show to drag everybody here and then I'm gonna use the algorithm to force them into other things. Because if I'm a streamer, the strategy is I gotta keep them paying.

Kevin Goetz (29:20):

Let's go back full circle now. Yep. I introduced you as a terrific marketing executive, but what I said is in 2016, Screen Engine partnered with you, Melva, to initiate a way to stop looking at US census as the primary, it's not unimportant, definition of a consumer of entertainment. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And I think it was born out of the fact that you and I, I don't know if we were at dinner or lunch or drinks or whatever the hell we were. I'm a Caucasian gay male. You are an African American straight woman. We share so many of the same program likes. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And yet we would not be marketed to each other's.

Melva Benoit (30:08):

We would respond to the same messaging.

Kevin Goetz (30:10):

We could come together because of our sensibility. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> Because of our human values, our behavior, our background, our education. Yes. Our income levels. No, I mean seriously, all these things make us who we are and most of it is lost because of this archaic way of looking and classifying people. And I think the fact that you are classifying people in buckets is a really dangerous thing. Rather than creating and exploiting all of those great ways that the streamers are actually finding people now through their likes and their sensibilities. I find that absolutely fascinating. And I would almost go so far as to say a way that has to happen in order to survive the next wave of advertising. Talk to me about that. That's so important to people to hear and understand.

Melva Benoit (31:10):

So the belief with data and, and I'm gonna go in two ways. The belief with data was that targeted advertising would get better. The reality is targeted advertising hasn't gotten better. And part of that is for the reason that you talked about.

Kevin Goetz (31:23):

Well it has in…

Melva Benoit (31:25):

No, it actually hasn't. No, that's what I said I missed oftentimes for content that.

Kevin Goetz (31:30):

But it's gotten better is what I mean.

Melva Benoit (31:31):

No, the promise of targeted advertising was that we would use the data and really go, the problem is because the first way you begin to sort of think about targeting is exactly as you said, age, ethnicity, like all of those things. And so then you miss some nuance in other data and it, part of it has to do with models being built by people that are all in a single group, if you will, that actually don't think sort of much more broadly about things. The example that I give sometimes my daughter is a very eclectic and broad taste. The 16-year-old, she found The Bear because it showed up in her feed on social and then she said, mom, I have a show for us to watch. And we sat down in Hulu and that's how we watched The Bear the first season. But the Bear, which is a perfect show for me, has never shown up.

Melva Benoit (32:20):

And I watched the Bear, I've watched both seasons has not shown up in anything that comes to me on my phone. None of my social, nothing. And I am the perfect candidate 'cause I'm already watching it. Right. So you can actually see that because my name is on Hulu, but they don't find me in targeting. I don't know why I don't show up in the algorithm, which is fascinating to me 'cause it's like, wait a minute, am I completely out of the demo that I don't get anything coming at me 'cause I'm watching this stuff, they know I'm watching this stuff.

Kevin Goetz (32:47):

What a missed opportunity.

Melva Benoit (32:49):

But that's where the old thinking around who, where, and what. And I'm sure I probably get screened out because of age, because of where I'm living. You know, things are normal as even opposed to, as opposed to, wait a minute, she likes this kind of, 'cause you know, you have that information on me.

Kevin Goetz (33:09):

We did a, last night we did a screening of a documentary. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And the filmmaker said something like, well I sat with a New York Times ex-New York Times critic and we were looking at the people who were Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Uh, and they, they were not people who watched those documentaries.

Melva Benoit (33:24):

Wow. <laugh>.

Kevin Goetz (33:25):

And you know what that means? People don't understand what our brief was called was the new majority brief. Yep. And that this country is turning in the 2040s to the entire country becoming more minorities current, what we deem as minority groups. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>

Melva Benoit (33:43):

Country's getting browner. Right.

Kevin Goetz (33:44):

Exactly. And we are not representative of that so often. I'm trying to reframe that conversation. I'm asking you, do you think there's a way to change the ad industry to come around to our way of thinking? Because it really requires almost the US census to not have the US census as the principle measurement, but rather a segmentation of Americans so that we can use that as the basis for buying data and for buying advertising. Because that's really what it comes down to is a dollars and cents issue, does it not? 

Melva Benoit (34:24):

Yeah, no, I completely agree. I've thought about this for a little while. So going back historically with the census and this small example. Growing up in Texas, in Houston, when I became school aged, we weren't segregated. We were integrated. When my mother was coming up in Houston, it was all segregated and desegregation happened because she was a part of that in 1967, the year my brother was born. One of the things that they would do in looking at census information to basically how the money moved was they would count Hispanics as white. So understand what I'm saying. The way demographers have sort of evolved those things is sort of what drives those numbers, which don't necessarily reflect what the country looks like. But we know for a fact that the country is getting browner. We know for a fact that a number of mixed race people, that number has grown. We've known for a fact because births were going down in particular, that there were just more coming through.

Kevin Goetz (35:27):

I have studio executives that have walked into movie screenings and said this is not, this is not representative of the audience. So, and they said, well it's representative of Los Angeles, let me tell you that. Correct. African American in Los Angeles is probably close to US census, but it's only 6% in the state. Right. So I'm saying this is exactly who do you think is showing up? Correct. You know, and they wanna sea of white people, I'm sorry to say. And it's like, and but no movie. Almost no movie with the exception of certain art house films have 60 or 70% Caucasian makeup. Most general wide release movies, the Caucasian numbers are in the 40% below the US census. Again signifying that we must reach people through their shared attitudes and behaviors.

Melva Benoit (36:19):

The bubble that is Los Angeles was always sort of funny to me and Fox was not exactly a county. So it would always be funny to me when we would show people watching and executives are kind of move around 'cause it's like they're not seeing a reflection of themselves because they believe that they represent the US. It's like not dude, we're like a C and D county network. What is wrong with you?

Kevin Goetz (36:46):

I remember you asking me to take video of people that were interviewed. Yes. Remember we did those because you wanted to prove to your executives that this is what it looks like in St. Louis and it's very diverse.

Melva Benoit (37:00):

So Legoria would like to punish them, he would take them to some awful place and say, this is our audience FX and there would be some po-dunk town that they indexed really high. But for me, I would have to remind people, look, we're not even on seven days a week, three hours a night. We, we have less programming than everyone. So we don't have daytime, we don't have all of those things. So we have to rely on whatever is in the market. And when they heard people say no one says Fox, they would say Fox 11, Fox 26. And they would talk about.

Kevin Goetz (37:35):

Then you created, you created more than any other network, a brand. Well I would say you and it's followed by CBS.

Melva Benoit (37:42):

So let's go through the brands. So I started at King World. I went to Cartoon Network three months after they launched. And so that was building a brand. I can remember in our first attitude and use study building, which I had four-year-olds to like 60-year-olds taking a survey in a mall with a computer. So babysitting on their mom's lap with a track ball, answering questions that were spoken to them with smiley faces. So that's my very first major quantitative study.

Kevin Goetz (38:10):

We basically do that now with emojis.

Melva Benoit (38:11):

Exactly. <laugh>. So think about that. That's, that's, so I'm going back to 1994. That's my very first. You think everything old is new again? Yeah, it's my first study. So remember talking to some kids and it's like, oh, Cartoon Network is just, it's the stuff in between the shows is better than shows. It's all old. And so we made, what's the brand? What are we? And what we decided was Cartoon Network was gonna be a destination. And what we wanted kids to believe that every cartoon, whether it was on Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers, every cartoon came from Cartoon Network. And that was, that was the job for a year until kids came, finally came back. And it's like, no Cartoon Network is responsible for every cartoon. Every single one. Wow. That's, it's like, well what, what would happen if we took it off the air?

Melva Benoit (38:54):

And I remember a kid saying, well I call the president. So that was amazing <laugh>. So, so jump there to Comedy Central where it's like, okay, what do we want Comedy Central to be? So we're gonna basically turn a brand around and, and we were doing this work so funny, we're doing this work, you know, projection techniques. And so we're asking people, okay, if Comedy Central is a person, describe them. And so they're all like, oh, Comedy Central is a man, it's a comedian. He's kind of old. He's got shades on. And he's like the old guy in the club. And we're like, we have to figure this out because we don't wanna be the old guy in the club. So we created a show, which people see now called The Daily Show. I think Craig Kilborn was the host at the time. What I had to do to get the creators in the room.

Melva Benoit (39:36):

They're like, so we have this offsite and they, Melva's gonna take you through the research. This is what's gonna happen. And I'm like, look guys, collaborative process. She's like, wait, Melva, before you start, look we're all really smart, funny people. Why do we need to talk to the audience? Okay, you can go now <laugh>. I'm like, oh no. Okay. I'm prepping them for research. I had to bring a masseuse, allow her to smoke cigarettes. There was caviar with creme fraiche. And as the masseuse is working on the knot, I said, look, here's the thing. And this is the magic and the beauty of focus groups. Oftentimes you're thinking about changes of the show or how people are responding and you have questions and you think you know the answer. Let's hear the audience confirm what you're already thinking. Because maybe you'll hear one thing that'll be an aha moment.

Melva Benoit (40:26):

But for the majority of it, it'll just make you feel better 'cause you were already thinking these things. So we knew some of the changes that we wanted to make. But as the focus groups got going and I saw the producer sort of sit up and it's like everything from, it's like, why doesn't the host laugh to all of the confirmation came through them, you gotta train them, came through, you train them. But all of the confirmation came through that. It was suddenly like focus groups are the greatest thing ever. When can we do them again? And then jump forward to now I'm gonna moderate focus groups and I've stacked the deck and I have nobody over 25, for South Park, they're all animation lovers. We've been working on the show for nine months. We think it's the funniest thing ever. And they all watch it and then, okay, pencils down. It's like, okay, the pads are passed out. It's like, okay, on a scale of one to 10, 10 means you loved it, one means you hated it. And then write down two things you liked about it and two things you hate. Okay, pencils down, let's go around the room. And here we go. One, minus 7, 2, 3, minus 20. And the color's draining from my face. 'cause it's like, okay,

Kevin Goetz (41:39):

But it's a terribly testing show. How did it get on air?

Melva Benoit (41:42):

It's so then, then, then it's like, what's your favorite thing about it? That it ended. And we go through it and in the focus groups I could see they're just picking it apart. Like there's nothing I could say to get something constructive. Sure. And then I take a plane ride I to get on the red eye to go back to New York and it's like what just happened? And as I'm sitting there trying to understand what they were saying, it's like they don't know how to watch this. We've been sitting with the show for nine months. It's everything that we tell people when they've made a show. It's like you know everything about it. There was no preamble. They're seeing it for the first time. It's something I remember telling Jeff Zucker, it's like when I meet you for the first time and you tell me a dirty joke, probably not gonna see you again <laugh>. But if you and I are friends and we've gotten to know each other and you tell me the same joke, oh my God, it's the funniest thing ever.

Kevin Goetz (42:33):

Oh, that's genius.

Melva Benoit (42:34):

And so there was a moment in the pilot episode where Cartman is taken up by the aliens and Kyle does one of his first speeches and then he curses for like, and we run a beep for like, I don't know, like a full 20 seconds. And you're just so turned off. And we are like, this is the funniest thing ever. And they're just like, the fuck is this <laugh>? And so we realized it's like we have to tell people how to watch this. It's like peanuts on acid. We cannot give any of this to anybody cold. So think about this, this is 1997, 96, 97. So we released the Jesus versus Santa Claus, which is what this is based off. We release it on the, would be called the internet.

Kevin Goetz (43:15):

The web, the worldwide web.

Melva Benoit (43:18):

Back then the intranet <laugh>, which means it goes to the internet. The internet, which means it goes to every college campus, right. If you think about how it works. Sure. So that's the first viral video. When that show showed up, it changed the fortunes of the network. It took us from being barely breaking even to it was the biggest thing ever.

Kevin Goetz (43:39):

Oh my God. Well, Melva Benoit, what can I say? You're just brilliant and insightful and curious and talented and I have loved working with you over these last over two decades and so happy to call you a friend. Thanks for coming on today.

Melva Benoit (43:56):

Oh, thank you for having me. It's wonderful. And more to come.

Kevin Goetz (44:00):

To our listeners, I hope you enjoyed the interview today. For more stories like this, I invite you to check out my book Audienceology at Amazon or through my website at KevinGoetz360.com. You can also follow me on my social media @KevinGoetz360. Next time on Don't Kill the Messenger, I'll welcome the accomplished veteran producer, executive, educator, and author of the book, Creative Producing, Carol Baum. Until then, I'm Kevin Goetz. And to you, our listeners, I appreciate you being part of the movie-making process. Your opinions matter.

 

Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Melva Benoit
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, and Kari Campano