Nielsen selection was no prize

I must admit, when I received notice in the mail from the Nielsen TV ratings service people, I was pretty excited. For one glorious week, my wife and I would not just be watching mindless television. Oh, no. We'd be TV royalty - choosing which pr...

I must admit, when I received notice in the mail from the Nielsen TV ratings service people, I was pretty excited. For one glorious week, my wife and I would not just be watching mindless television. Oh, no. We'd be TV royalty - choosing which programs were worthy of our support and which we'd purposely shun. For once, we held the power.

After all, helplessly standing by as TV executives canceled some of our favorite shows - "Arrested Development" and "Freaks and Geeks" are two that spring to mind - was gut wrenching. Now we were going to be the ones to represent John Q. and Jane Public.

When the TV diary arrived, it all seemed slightly less glamorous. In order to track what shows are being watched and which ones aren't, Nielsen provides families with logs that need to be completed for every television show you watch. Every ... single ... one.

For each program you view, you need to log the channel number, the call letters, the name of the program, who was watching it, and which TV in the house you watched it on. That sounds easy enough, but it was no fun.

The first morning started with turning on the TV while I got ready for work. I put on CNBC to see what the stock market was going to be doing that day. Easy enough, I thought. I logged the time, the TV, the watcher (me), channel 37, CNBC.


"Program name?" was the next column. Hmmmm. It's, uh, CNBC. I don't know what they call the program, because it all kind of blends together.

"They'll figure it out," I assumed. I imagined Nielsen had a big room full of bean counters or supercomputers to fill in the blank for me.

I switched it over to CNN to catch the morning news.

"Program name?" the log asked again, rather impatiently, I might add.

"News?" I wrote, figuring the question mark would alert the bean counters to put in the right program name for me.

Off to a rocky start, I left for work. When I came home for lunch in the afternoon, I resolved to check the TV Guide channel and fill in the actual program titles. I was going to be the most conscientious Nielsen logger ever.

I sat down in front of the TV with pen and log in hand during my lunch hour. I turned on CNBC again, logged it, and went to the TV Guide channel to figure out the program name. Something like "Money Watch" or "Stocks Today," I'm sure.

It took me five minutes for the scroll to come around and tell me the program's name. But then it occurred to me I had to log the time I spent watching the TV Guide channel trying to get the first program name figured out. Now I needed to log that. And what's the name for the program for TV Guide?


A nice row of question marks would again have to suffice. The bean counters weren't going to be happy with me, but I had to get back to work.

That evening, I spent about an hour watching TV. I think I watched portions of at least 17 programs during that time. I maybe logged two of them. This was getting to be a pain.

Then I remembered why this all seemed familiar. When I ran a radio station, we occasionally had to log similar diaries for ASCAP and BMI, two associations that make sure the money we paid for royalties was distributed properly to the artists and composers we played on the radio.

That was torture. Having to log the singer and name of every song we played was hard enough. First, you only have about three minutes per song, but what people listening to the radio don't understand is the announcer isn't just sitting there in the studio, tapping his toes during the song. He's pulling weather reports off the wire, checking for news, preparing ads to play during the breaks, pre-reading copy, recording a local hog report, and cueing up the next song. When you have to spend half of the time for each song writing down that you're playing it, it gets a little hectic. To make matters worse, you also have to log who wrote the song - not just who is singing it. That's not often clear, so you have to go digging into the album notes to find the composer(s).

As if that wasn't bad enough, all of the "bumper music" - short snippets of songs played into and out of programs and breaks - also had to be logged. And 10 seconds of bumper music wasn't enough time to log the entry, so you were always running behind.

This Nielsen thing had turned into BMI and ASCAP logging all over again, and I wanted no part of it. Luckily, the week my wife and I were chosen to participate in the ratings logging happened to be our anniversary, and we went out of town for the weekend. I found a technicality to have an excuse not to bring the log with us. When we returned, I spent a lot of time working and my wife was at her mother's house a lot. I found another technicality so we wouldn't have to include that time.

"This logging is only for TVs located in our home," I proudly announced to my wife.

All in all, we barely watched five hours of TV that week, which is probably a record low for us. Thank goodness, that log had started to be far more trouble than it was worth.


So if a show called "News?" or simply "???????" shows up as number one in the television ratings this week, you'll know why.

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