My Life as a Nielsen Family

       Today I am not watching TV more than I’ve ever not watched before, because today I am a Nielsen Family. For one magical week, my not watching counts for something. For the first time in my life, I feel enfranchised. When I compare my choice of lackluster TV shows to the meager selection of lackluster candidates I was offered in the last national election, I feel like a tiny little emerging democracy. I’ve moved from illusory choices to real, if sickening, choices.
       Nielsen Media Research conducts surveys to provide television ratings. Some households receive electronic boxes that record when the TV is on and what channel it’s set to. I am one of the larger group given a TV Viewing Diary in which to log my selections. A Nielsen operative told me that their computer generates random phone numbers; mine came up. I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Not the big $50 million power ball lottery, but maybe like $5 and a free ticket.
       The first section of the diary requests demographic information. “Your answers ensure that all people are represented in this survey.”

  • Races to which I may belong (“please check one box”): White, Black, American Indian, Aleut, Eskimo, Asian, Pacific Islander, Other.
  • Genders to which I may belong: M (male) F (female). (A quaint set of choices. Apparently the Nielsens are unimpressed with current ideas in Queer Studies.)
  • “Is this person [i.e., me] of Spanish or Hispanic Origin?” Yes No
  • Is this person a Jew or of decent Aryan stock? OK. Not really.

        The next section establishes technical parameters.
       “How many TV sets are in your home? How many are in working order?” Nielsen is not interested in the shows I’m not watching on the TV that’s not working. Rather capricious.
       The diary itself is a grid to be filled in by me, head of household, listing the shows I watch. There are separate columns for other members of the household and our visitors, whose ages and genders are to be noted, along with how many hours a week they work. There is also a column to indicate: “TV on but no one Watching/Listening.” Much like a night light, or fireplace, or the New York State Democratic Party.
       The grid runs around the clock, but I am to log only shows “being watched for five minutes or more.” Channel surfing is out. I have spent many a happy hour flitting from show to show, but that simply doesn’t count. Those Nielsen prigs don’t want to hear about my flings; they only want to know if I watch a show long enough for it to be a real relationship.
       They do ask if I work for a TV station or network, cable TV network or system. It is hard to imagine someone whose fierce loyalty to their local cable company distorts their viewing choices, but social science is a harsh mistress.
       Nielsen does not forbid me to write about my diary, but I can’t take the chance of having my ballot discarded. I must remain anonymous, for if this exercise is to have any meaning, it must be real. On Monday, a report on my first viewing choices.