Confessions of a Nielsen viewer

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
SUBSCRIBE
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor
By By Mary Beth Ellis

The American Dream doesn’t consist of a three-bedroom house, two cars in the garage, and a pitcher of lemonade on the front porch swing.

The American Dream is the ability to tell Michael Eisner where to stick it.

And Jeff Zucker.  And Les Moonves.  And every other network head who dumps“Freaks and Geeks” in favor of the magnificent “Bob Patterson.”  Who wouldn’t want the power of forever removing “The Bachelor” from our lives?  Of protesting the earthly existence of Donald Trump? 

We have but one recourse:  Nielsen Media Research.  TV shows cling to life, become renewed, and die by their Nielsen ratings.  To produce them, Nielsen tracks the viewing habits of a cross-section of America:  yuppies, low-income families, grandfathers, and single moms. And, apparently, cappuccino-addicted freelance writers with a tendency to get lost in large to medium bathroom stalls.

Nielsen randomly selected me as a ratings diarist for February sweeps.  I was asked to physically track each show I watched for more than five minutes a day.  After 29 years of sitting through blown-dry weathercasters bearing personal responsibility for sunshine, Kelly Ripa, and the preemption of “Punky Brewster” for the NBA, I was at last in control. One moment, I was throwing objects at Dr. Phil in vain.  The next, I was representing the television routines of 137 households.  I tapped my fingertips together, smirking; eeeeexxxcelent.  The evil ones who had stopped the hearts of “Arrested Development” and “Mystery Science Theater 3000” would now bow low before me.

No automatic, wired-in zaps of revenge; I would have to work to express my furor over the fact that anything involving Paris Hilton is broadcast to the cosmos. Nielsen sent me two paper booklets, one for each television in my apartment. Also, because I am, apparently, a dirty, dirty whore, somebody shoved $15 in cash into the envelope.  Sweet!  That’s almost two whole milliliters of gasoline!

I swore that I would conquer the network execs with honor.  I would be a scrupulous diarist, forthright and true, faithfully documenting each channel change in 15-minute increments.  It was my duty.

And then the lying began

This would have gone much better had I not developed a habit of interacting with other human beings.  For I was not only asked to note what I watched, but what my guests tuned into as well.  Suddenly the diary booklets were tyrannical grids of vox populi.

Two friends spent the night and I awoke to find them cheerfully eating doughnuts and casting the votes of 137 households for “Top 20 Video Countdown.”  I sent them back to their city of origin, furiously paging through the “TV Guide” to find something, anything, that could intellectually offset Ashlee Simpson.  I wound up with an hour of “Hogan Knows Best.”

Then there was The Boyfriend Who Watched NASCAR.  He was heading home after a date when I noticed he had made a journal entry while I finished my makeup.

“’Pinks’?”  I screeched at him.  “’Pinks’?  What kind of filthy disgusting—”

“It’s about drag racing,” he explained.

“Even worse!  Why don’t you just write the WWE in there!”

“I did, yesterday.”

And then?  The lying began.

For instance, my diary week coincided with the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.  Flippin’ sweet!  The Olympics!  An entire person’s existence bent towards on one goal only to see it disintegrate before a worldwide audience in a span of two and a half minutes: Now that’s entertainment.  And four hours of television on a Friday night, four hours normally otherwise devoted to a DVD or an evening of bad live music and nickel pitchers.  I heated a bowl of the Official Microwave Instant Mashed Potatoes of the XX Winter Olympiad and settled in at eight in the evening, as instructed by NBC promos that began running at approximately the same time the ancient Greeks were wrapping up the original version.  

What th — I had been promised marching athletes and stupid hats and incomprehensible Italian pageantry and instead here was this… this… filler?  The network was broadcasting training runs and athlete feel-good stories.  I swore into my potatoes:  Here it was 8:20, and the broadcast hadn’t even attained Bob Costas status yet.  The righteous anger crowded out the melted butter.  For this, ye shall suffer, NBC.

Although the actual ceremony broadcast didn’t start until 9 p.m., I watched for the entire hour, hypnotized by Bode Miller flailing past course markers and half-pipers blinking slowly into camera lights. 

But into the ratings booklet?  Telemundo.

Watching TV during sweeps months shifts our TV habits, changes the equation.  It’s a fraudulent way to gauge the nation’s attention span.  Things happen during sweeps that would never go down in, say, October:  A generation of babies comes into world in stuck elevators, weddings are cancelled at the altar, the two sitcom leads who have been aggressively flirting for five years finally Do It.  We lose ourselves.

‘Meet the Press’ or bull riding?

As the week wore on, chronicling what amused me, admitting a secret weakness for exercise equipment infomercials to total strangers, forced me to examine who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I was inviting into my bedroom at two in the morning. If my visual and audio input was constant trash, what did that say about my dark and twisted innards? 

WHAT I WROTE THAT I WATCHED:  Senate debate on CSPAN2

WHAT I ACTUALLY WATCHED:  “Crocodile Hunter”

WHAT I WROTE THAT I WATCHED:  “Meet the Press”

WHAT I ACTUALLY WATCHED:  Bull riding

WHAT I WROTE THAT I WATCHED:  “American Masters” 

WHAT I ACTUALLY WATCHED: Half an hour of two women demonstrating an electronic set of scrapbook stamps on a shop-at-home channel.  “No more hiding all those bags of ink pads from your husband!” one of the hostesses announced.

WHAT I WROTE THAT I WATCHED:  “Father Corapi and the Catechism of the Catholic Church”

WHAT I ACTUALLY WATCHED: “True Hollywood Stories:  Saved By the Bell”

This is, perhaps, why I am not allowed to visit with my baby nephew unattended.

Nielsen was very, very concerned for me and the welfare of my two diaries.  I received at least four phone calls with friendly reminders to fill in my diary and anxious questions about how the grid and I were getting along.  These check-ins, combined with the rampant falsifications, shoved me into places I never thought I’d go.

FRIENDLY NIELSEN PERSON:  Do you have any questions about your booklet?

ME:  Yes.  How do I get mashed potatoes out of the binding?

FRIENDLY NIELSEN PERSON:  Um.

ME:  You sound more suspicious than the last time you called.

FRIENDLY NIELSEN PERSON:  There’s… no way we can match your diary to you, Miss Ellis.  The booklets are anonymous.

ME:  BUT YOU KNOW, DON’T YOU?!  YOU KNOW I WATCH “BRIDEZILLAS!”

I shoved the diaries into their pre-postage-paid envelopes at the end of the week and applied the fifteen bucks to therapy.  “Crocodile Hunter” remains safely on the air.

I cannot wait for jury duty.

Mary Beth Ellis is a freelance writer and college professor in Florida.  She also maintains www.BlondeChampagne.com.