overthinking the idiot box

June 13, 2005

A chronicle of that most co-dependent of relationships: a girl and her TiVo

Bride of TiVo
The Bus-Bride's Holiday

by Liz Shannon Miller

When I arrived in Las Vegas last week for two days of debauchery, I wasn't thinking about TV at all — I was thinking about Frank Sinatra and George Clooney, blackjack and free drinks. I'd never been to Sin City before, so I was excited for the chance to bask in the warm sun and sip margaritas pool-side, while my friend Emily attended her conference and I took advantage of her business-expense hospitality. Back home, my TiVo was prepared properly: all essential programs secured, all excess recordings of The Daily Show deleted (it airs six times a day, people — SIX TIMES). I was ready to relax, free of the boob tube's evil influence for 48 hours.

And then, within fifteen minutes of arriving at the MGM Grand, Emily was slipping two tickets into my hand. "They were passing them out downstairs. I don't have time, but maybe you'll want to check it out tomorrow, while I'm busy."

The tickets offered me a FREE chance to go preview TV shows at the Television City attraction within the Studio Walk pseudo-mall. Free is an awfully tempting word for me — it was what had brought me to Vegas, after all. But I wasn't quite sure...

...Until I realized what Television City was, exactly: a major focus group outpost for the CBS/Viacom family. It's a brilliant plan, really. People from all over the country arrive to get caught up in the glamour of Vegas, meaning an extremely varied sample group for the collection of data, and Television City promises these khaki-shorts-clad folk sneak peeks at TV's newest programming. What these people don't realize is that normally focus groups get paid for their opinions — Television City patrons aren't quite so lucky. But I'm skipping ahead.

After my first late night of penny slots and vodka tonics, I woke up fairly early and fairly clear-headed, ready to take my act outside. But on my way to the pool, I passed by Television City, where at least three different people outside rushed up to offer me, that's right, FREE passes, with the same enthusiasm the folks on the strip reserved for the porn postcards they were passing out.

Then I noticed that the massive monitors were running ads for Veronica Mars. I knew that the new season wouldn't be in production yet, but heck, maybe a cool pilot or two would be available for preview. So, pass in hand, I walked up to the reservation counter. Just to see what was going on.

Some careful lying about my hometown (I told them where I went to high school, figuring that Los Angeles residents were of little demographic interest) and occupation ("No, I am not currently an employee of the entertainment industry" — totally true at the moment) and I was booked for a session within five minutes. It was exciting stuff. The program I was going to watch was TV-14. I knew what that meant — total raunchy fun.

Unless you're a close personal friend and your dream involved murder, hookers, and at least two other mutual friends, I probably don't want to hear about it. In fact, the only thing I find more boring than dream analysis is real estate. That's important. Remember that.
The room they led us into was full of computers and frigid with A/C. The only other participants in this survey (an older couple from Boston) took much longer than I did on the computer pre-survey, so I was already impatient when the show began: a syndicated program called Dream Decoders. I'd actually heard about this show before: a year prior, I'd been accosted by a street team seeking interview subjects. They'd wanted to know if I remembered my dreams, and I'd said no — not because I don't remember my dreams, but because I find dream analysis to be extremely boring. Unless you're a close personal friend and your dream involved murder, hookers, and at least two other mutual friends, I probably don't want to hear about it. In fact, the only thing I find more boring than dream analysis is real estate. That's important. Remember that.

But even for the unbiased viewer, I suspect Dream Decoders would be exceedingly dull, especially when it succumbs to cheap Oprah-style tactics like "guess what? your husband is in the studio!" and "here — a free cruise will solve your problems!" By the halfway mark, I was checking my watch pretty regularly, and when it was over I rushed through the end survey, desperate for caffeine, warmth, and freedom from symbology and simplistic answers. They asked questions about whether I thought the host was phony, whether I thought the dream analyst in the blue sweater was convincing, whether I thought the male dream analyst was ugly. I answered with the equivalent of a shrug.

Afterwards, they gave me an envelope full of coupons, some of which were pretty good. Three dollars off tickets to the Star Trek Experience, buy one sundae and get one free at Haagen-Dazs. When I met Emily for lunch, I even unearthed a coupon for the sandwich place at which we were eating — or, rather, where I was eating and Emily was sinking into a new level of bliss, inspired by the chocolate cupcake she was devouring.

"This is so good," she murmured. "I want to buy like two dozen more and bring them back with me. I want to buy in bulk."

I was trying not to watch her eat; it was bordering on obscene. "I should get you another coupon, so that you can get fifteen percent off. That's like a free cupcake, right there."

"Oh my god, you totally should! I mean, you're not doing anything this afternoon. And you've got another ticket, right?"

Admittedly, securing another coupon for cupcakes was only half the reason I went back. Maybe, I told myself, I'd get to see something that was actually good. I'd be able to know for sure how bad Threshold, the Carla Gugino alien artifact drama, actually is. Maybe some bad sitcom would demo a few episodes, and my responses to the survey would lead it back to the path of the righteous and true. The penny slots from the night before had already taught me the dangerous lure of testing one's luck, but now I was gambling my time, not my money, in hopes that this visit, I'd be able to see something awesome.

So, six hours later, I was back in the ice box, logged into the computer and prepared to log my responses to...

...a reality show about real estate. No. I'm not kidding. The Million Dollar Agents pilot, coming soon to TLC, covered the volatile personalities found in the high-stakes world of Miami real estate deals. The houses were pretty, sure, but most of the conflict seemed to rest on typos in contracts and women who couldn't turn their cell phones off during dinner. Oddly, it made for slightly better television than Dream Decoders. But I still couldn't believe my luck.

That night, I lost $20 at blackjack, which didn't come as a surprise. Movies had told me that, in Vegas, the house always wins. What they didn't tell me was how they'd make you look forward to it.

Email the author.

Return to Vol. 1, Episode 6.