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In an effort to convince sponsors that they're not throwing away millions of TV advertising dollars on commercials that demographically desirable viewers can render harmless with a press of a DVR button, desperately innovative fourth-place network NBC has contracted a research firm to wire up some guinea pigs helpful volunteers to prove that their promotional messages can still penetrate the human brain even through the muted blur of the fast-forward function. Reports the NY Times:

Media executives have long discussed the potential of using physical reactions and brain scanning to track their messages, and advances in medical research in the past few years have made this more practical. NBC is working with Innerscope Research, a small company in Boston that uses wearable sensors to translate physical responses into what the company calls "emotional engagement."

Panelists wear black-netted vests with tubes running out of them. Sensors on fingers measure sweat or "skin conductance," as the researchers like to say. A monitor picks up on heartbeats, and an accelerometer tracks movement when panelists wiggle in their seats or chuckle. A respiratory band can tell if the abdomen and chest stop moving — noticing when someone holds their breath, for example, in a scene of suspense.

Innerscope has developed its own scale for engagement that combines the biometric factors that it tracks. On a scale of 1 to 100, a 50 is neutral, and above 60 is engaged. In Innerscope's test for NBC, viewers of the first 20 seconds of live advertisements clocked in with a 66 engagement score and those fast-forwarding scored 68.

"People don't turn off their emotional responses while they're fast-forwarding," said Carl Marci, the chief science officer of Innerscope. "People are obviously getting the information." [...]

Mr. Wurtzel of NBC acknowledged it was early in the research process. But over time he hopes to expand bio-testing of commercials to the facilities NBC has used to test potential television programs in front of an audience. General Electric, the parent of NBC, has worked on security technology that can track people's facial expressions and follow eye movements. He said he may also put that to use.

It's especially welcome news that this incredible technology might be applied to the maddeningly imprecise pilot-selection process; in this brave new world, networks like NBC can choose their Fall winners by measuring brain activity and galvanic skin response, abandoning outdated, but blindly trusted, methods like observing a test audience's reaction to, say, their new Bionic Woman series while their captive viewers are submerged in a tank of water or made to stand in bare feet upon a metal grate that intermittently delivers a painful electric shock. And once the network's competitors follow suit, we may never see another Cavemen greenlit again.

[Photo: NYT]