The list of things that will never in a bajillion years happen to any human being is long. It includes:
- Winning the lottery
- Getting a shout-out from the president during the State of the Union speech
- Being chosen as a Neilsen TV ratings family.
Much as I would prefer the 1st 2 options, my name came up for #3.
The Nielsen Company people were far more excited than I was. First came a card in the mail announcing my selection. Then came a follow-up phone call.
The process was explained several times, as if I were a somewhat slow child — you will receive a TV Viewing Diary, and should fill it in each day for a week, even if you don’t watch TV that particular day — and the perky Neilsen person stressed often that this was a Very Important Task. I got the impression I would basically be setting television ad rates for, like, the entire country, for the next year or so.
As perkily promised, the diary arrived. This was not leather-bound, as I imagined, or even plastic. It was a few pieces of paper, stapled in the middle like a middle school concert program. The typeface and paper stock were straight out of the 1970s. I was tempted to write “Sanford and Son” for my 1st show.
But I didn’t, because my 1st task was answering a series of questions. “How many TV sets are in my house?” Nielsen wanted to know.
This is harder to answer than it seems. I can’t remember the last time I heard the phrase “TV set.” In 2011 Americans watch TV shows on computer monitors, laptops and smartphones. But I guessed Nielsen doesn’t know this, or really care, so I put down “1.”
Question 2 asked: “How many of these are in working order.”
I plowed through some more preliminary questions, then came to the part about “the household member…living here who owns, is buying or rents this home.”
“Is this person Spanish, Hispanic or Latino?” Nielsen wondered.
Next, I had to write in “the channel or station name, number and city for all the channels this set now receives.” This might have been something any Joe could have done back in the “Sanford and Son” days — but unfortunately Gerald Ford is no longer president. I have the lowest-level (“Titanium”) Cablevision plan, and even so I get 2,495 channels.
Luckily I found a Cablevision card from 2006, so I started filling in the data. “2, WCBS, New York. 3, WFSB, Hartford….” I was barely out of single digits before I was writing stations from “Riverhead” and “Linden.”
Whoa! I said to myself. Not only have I never watched these channels — and not only did I not know I got them — but I’ve lived my whole life here, and I have no clue where or what “Linden” is.
But I was a Nielsen TV Viewing Family, so I continued my laborious task. Spike. The Black Entertainment Network. The Channel Guide (hey, it was listed on the card).
I thought of putting in a fake name or two to see if they’d notice — The Dan Woog Network maybe, or Congressional Sex Scandal TV — but then I figured such channels probably already exist. Besides, I was learning a lot as I went on. I get the Speed Network! Awesome!
Soon, it was on to the Diary. (Nielsen always capitalizes this. The same way we refer to the Pope.)
Nielsen would find out My Viewing Habits. Ad rates would shift dramatically. The economy would go into overdrive. That is so cool.
There was only one problem.
I don’t watch TV.
Okay, that’s stretching the truth. I do watch. Every 4 years, I am a huge fan of the presidential election returns.
If I’m sitting in the Toyota service department waiting room I watch whatever I’m forced to, which usually consists of a white guy, a white woman, a black guy and a Hispanic woman (or vice versa) bantering fake-jovially. It doesn’t matter if it’s the news, a talk show or ESPN; a federal law says all TV shows must now have these people on it.
And yes, there are 2 shows I watch whenever I can. They are “60 Minutes” and — I swear on Sarah Palin’s bible, this is true — “Cops.”
But I missed “60 Minutes” during my viewing week. So — again this is true, may god and Nielsen strike me dead — my Diary consisted of all “X”s in the “TV Set Off” column, except for 1 hour of “Cops.”
I filled in my Diary exactly that way. I was scrupulously honest, as I’d promised to be. Besides, they gave me a crisp $1 bill for my troubles, so if I lied I’d probably be committing some sort of television felony.
That was it. My week as a TV Viewing Diary Family was over. I was proud to do my part for Nielsen, my country, and most of all, the advertising industry.
Sorry if I screwed up your ad rates, though. My bad.