The United States has roughly 102.4 million televisions, with roughly half of them located in my home alone.
Nonetheless, we had no idea when we answered the telephone on a recent Tuesday evening that we were about to be recruited into one of America’s most secret societies, as hush-hush as the CIA or the federal witness-protection program.
Yes, my friends, it is with pride and just a touch of patriotism that I tell you (and in doing so break the code of silence): ours is a Nielsen household.
For those not in the know, the Nielsen ratings system of determining who’s watching what on television has become one of the most important aspects of the television business.
The ax. For the past 50 years, Nielsen ratings have played a part in determining what advertisers pay for commercials, what shows are going to be kept on the air, and what shows are about to be axed the very second your Uncle Ernie switches over to re-runs of Murder She Wrote.
Let’s say your favorite program, the only bright light of depth and humor in an otherwise bleak and inane television lineup, is canceled while some six dozen reality programs revolving around dating losers are renewed?
You can bet some hapless Nielsen family is behind it.
No one seems to know why programs that everyone in the nation claims are stupid and steadfastly maintain they do not watch, continue in perpetuity for years.
You can thank me later.
Chosen few. An important caveat of indoctrination into the Nielsen family (no relation to the Manson family they assure me) is no one is supposed to know we’re among the elite few chosen to represent the viewing habits of everyone else on the planet. Or the United States, which, after all, comprises the portion of the planet advertisers really care about anyway.
If some tribe located in a far-flung point of Iceland doesn’t care for Everyone Loves Raymond, I doubt CBS really gives a fig.
Process. Most U.S. Nielsen families are offered metal or plastic boxes the size of kitchen sponges attached to televisions, satellite receivers, VCRs, and DVD players.
The electronic eavesdroppers are then connected to a computer that dials a toll-free number in Florida at night while homeowners sleep and delivers information about familial viewing habits.
It’s Big Brother watching you watching.
Rural system. However, our home being more – ahem – rural, led the Nielsen people to woo us with a more low-tech option.
They would simply mail me one separate paper booklet (referred to as diaries) for each television set in my home, which we would then fill out hour by hour with a sharpened No. 2 pencil.
Apparently, there was some concern down at Nielsen headquarters that my cow might knock over my lantern and cause a meter malfunction.
Duly anointed, we’ve been taking our responsibility very seriously. We know our choices may affect the television programming watched by our friends, families, and people who routinely like to make fun of how stupid Americans are for watching bad television.
We have a moral obligation to make sure that quality programming gets a fighting chance.
That, and I’ll take any opportunity to strike a blow against The Bachelor.
Resort to lying. I completed my first four days of Nielsen viewing virtuously, then like any normal human being, I resorted to lying.
I reward the virtuous (PBS), punish the wicked (reality television), and log any channel where a friend works (CNN).
I also lost one diary altogether and had to resort to sending them a post-it note with my commitment to such learned programming as Face the Nation scribbled upon it instead.
So, what’s the verdict on life as a Nielsen family? In some ways it has been eerily like being in a real family primarily because they sent us 10 $1 bills in the mail as a token of their appreciation.
Seriously. Who sends cash in the mail anymore? Elderly aunts, that’s who! I anticipate receiving my afghan crocheted into the shape of the TV guide logo any day now.
The obvious lure of the glamour and easy money of 10 smackeroos in cold hard cash coming through the U.S. mail aside, you get to watch TV on the job.
Downside: You must write down the name of every program you were watching every 15 minutes, including the call letters and station identification for each.
Ditto for your spouse, kids, and any guests who have the misfortune to wander in while you are pondering if the 15 minutes of your life that just slipped irretrievably away while you were momentarily sucked into Jerry Springer (like a train wreck!) must be recorded to your everlasting embarrassment?
I don’t care what those Nielsen people say, $10 or no $10, I’m not taking the rap for Springer.
(Kymberly Foster Seabolt really does watch PBS, mainly for the cartoons. She welcomes comments c/o firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)