I was doing some cable TV duty last night and had the bad luck to follow a segment about a focus group of voters being dial tested during the debate. Dial groups are bad enough, but actually putting this madness on television as a verdict of some kind is reckless. I said as much at the beginning of my segment. First, the sample from one group is far too small to mean much. Second, turning this voodoo into a television spectacular completely distorts whatever limited research value a group might provide. Research technique is supposed to leave respondents alone and unmolested, not plopped down in front of live TV cameras. No wonder the respondents in these groups are really thinking about their key lighting and asking how you get an agent. Their minds are on anything but what they really think about the candidates.
Dial groups do far more harm than just dumbing down political news coverage. They’re also a favorite weapon wielded by television networks and Hollywood studios in their never ending war against creativity. Ken Levine, a great TV comedy writer, has a wonderful piece up on his blog about the horror of dial groups in both politics and Hollywood.