When I was a 'Nielsen,' I was somebody


FOR ONE WEEK I felt important. For one week my taste in TV mattered. For one week, my family was a Nielsen family, one of a selected number of households in the nation whose viewing habits were being recorded.

But then this past Thursday night, the pinnacle of TV-mood measurement, the night of the last "Seinfeld" show, I was out of the picture. My time in the Nielsen limelight ended on Wednesday night. I felt like Cinderella. Once I had been the center of attention. Then, at the stroke of midnight, I was thrown into obscurity. Once I was in the ranks of America's opinion makers. Then I was back to being statistically insignificant.

Our week as a Nielsen family got started with a telephone call. It was one of those calls that come just as soon as we sit down to eat supper. I always tell the kids not to answer these calls. They always answer them. The 17-year-old fielded this call and a few minutes later announced that he had agreed to let Nielsen Media Research send us diaries to record what we watched on TV. He said he had agreed for two reasons. First, the caller told him it was very important. Second, there was some mention of money.

The money involved turned out to be one buck. It showed up in the mail, along along with three diaries, one for each TV set in the house. The 17-year-old quickly pocketed the dollar, over the objections of his 13-year-old brother, who declared that life and TV research were unfair.

I carried one diary to "my" TV set, the one I watch in the basement when I am trying to fix things, or trying to hide from my family. I read the instructions in the diary. These Nielsen people asked a lot of questions. They wanted to know the ages of everybody in the family. They wanted to know how many hours a week my wife and I worked. They wanted to know if we worked at a television station. They wanted to know the name, call letters and number of every channel my TV set pulled in. They wanted me to write down exactly when I turned the television on, when I turned it off, and which shows I watched. Each hour of day was broken down into 15-minute segments.

So Sunday afternoon when I was working in the basement, I switched on the Knicks-Pacers basketball game. The kids wandered down, watched the game a while, then left. When I stopped watching the game, I pulled out the diary and noted that the set went on at 1: 15 p.m. and stayed on until 3: 15 p.m. but that only me, the oldest male in the household, had stayed in the room all that time. The younger males, I noted, had made shorter, 15- to 30-minute, appearances. I felt like a dollar-a-day detective.

I soon lost enthusiasm for filling out the log book. The kids were reluctant to write down any entry. They suggested that devices should have been hooked up to the TV that would have recorded all this information. Actually, Nielsen has such devices, called set meters and people meters.

A set meter records what is being watched but does not record demographic information. A people meter tallies the number of people in the household watching the show. These devices are only placed in the homes of people who have been chosen as representative samples of a larger viewing audience.

People meters go in 5,000 homes throughout the United States. There are about 400 to 500 set meters in each of the nation's top 38 markets. The diaries, however, are mailed to some 450,000 homes, picked at random. In other words, while we scribblers might like to see ourselves as the nation's chosen TV tastemakers, we are not as carefully chosen as the folks who get their sets wired. (I found out about this hierarchy of Nielsen respondents by reading newspaper stories about the business. When I called the Nieslen offices in Florida and New York, nobody wanted to talk to a reporter. For an outfit that asks a lot of questions, Nielsen sure doesn't want to answer any.)

Anyway, from Thursday, May 7, to Wednesday, May 13, we were Nielsen diarists. My wife -- whose career in academia has imbued her with a belief that clean survey data is a treasure -- supervised the diary-keeping. She wasn't thrilled that we had agreed to gather data on our TV-viewing habits. But since we had agreed, she was going to make sure the data was correctly collected. As soon as a set went off, she made sure an entry was made. On Thursday morning, she gathered up the diaries, checked them over and mailed them off to the Nielsen data crunchers in Nokomis, Fla.

My recollection of the diaries is that they showed we watched a lot of reruns of "The Simpsons," a lot of local news, and that we liked to tape shows -- "Homicide" and "Witness to the Mob," to name two -- where lots of people get shot.

We did watch the last episode of "Seinfeld." But since that show, and our tenure as a Nielsen family is over, who cares?

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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